Re-posted from the San Francisco Chronicle: More than 70 residents of Richmond public housing unleashed years of frustration at a public meeting over squalid living conditions and what they called unhelpful and disrespectful Housing Authority staffers.
Janae Fletcher, 30, told five members of Richmond's City Council who gathered Wednesday night at the Hacienda complex that she lived with rampant bedbugs and flooding in her apartment. When she went to the Housing Authority staff to get help, she was told the bedbugs were her fault, she said.
"I was scratching so hard that I had holes in my skin," Fletcher said. "And housing told me, 'Maybe it's the company you keep.' It made me feel like I was nothing. I didn't want to call maintenance because nobody's going to show up, and they're just going to make you feel like you're trash that comes from off the streets."
For almost two hours, scores of residents sounded off about mold problems, roof leaks, lax security and staff disrespect. Councilmen Nat Bates and Corky Boozé, who organized the meeting, said residents needed to be able to speak up about their problems without the fear of retaliation.
"It's been absolutely horrible to live here," resident Valerie Griffith said. "The mold, the mildew, the infestations of rodents - it's horrible. Not one single human being should be living here. This is an uninhabitable building."
City officials pledged immediate action, saying residents needed to be moved out of the building as soon as possible.
"This building should be bulldozed," Councilman Jael Myrick said to loud cheers from tenants. "We can't wait. The stories we're hearing are absolutely inexcusable and unacceptable. It should not have been allowed to persist for this long."
The meeting at Hacienda followed weeks of upheaval at City Hall after the Center for Investigative Reporting reported on conditions at Housing Authority developments as well as the agency's chronic mismanagement and mounting debt.
Listed among worst
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has classified Richmond's housing agency as one of the worst in the country since 2009. Numerous audits, both from HUD and the agency's independent auditors, have identified breakdowns in how the Housing Authority tracks its money, keeps its books and manages its staff.
HUD has labeled the agency's executive director as ineffective, questioned the credentials of the finance manager, and criticized the City Council as ill-informed.
Still, Richmond leaders said this week that they need an additional perspective on the agency. On Tuesday, the council voted to hire an independent investigator to audit the Housing Authority.
"We know we have problems, and we want to ensure that everything possible is done," said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. "Our residents deserve more than outreach."
City Manager Bill Lindsay added: "I don't like to say this, but within the staff we have a credibility problem."
Jackie Thompson, a public housing resident who sits on the Housing Authority's tenant advisory commission, said another audit isn't the answer.
"The problem is directing staff to be efficient and effective in what they do," Thompson said. "You're wasting money that can be used to fix the roaches."
Last month, the city hired a private contractor to inspect all of Richmond's public housing units and survey tenants about their needs. The Housing Authority's executive director, Tim Jones, declared Hacienda, the city's largest housing complex, "uninhabitable" and is weighing whether to move residents out of the six-story building near downtown. Meanwhile, residents continue to live there.
Jones also sent a note to his staff telling them to be courteous to residents.
Bates said the real problem is leadership at the Housing Authority. Much of the anger during the meeting was pointed at Jones and the asset operations manager, Kathleen Jones, who are not related.
"We need new management," Bates said. "I want a vote of no confidence for Tim Jones. And Mrs. Kathleen Jones ought to go, too. You cut off the heads of those two snakes, and you're going to find a lot of the employees coming forward and telling you what's going on."
Execs not present
Kathleen Jones deals day-to-day with tenant issues, including lease enforcement and rent collection. She did not respond to requests for comment and was not at Wednesday's meeting.
Tim Jones, who has blamed the problems on HUD for slashing public housing budgets, also did not attend.
This story was produced by the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the country's largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.cironline.org. E-mail: [email protected]
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Photo by Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle