Over my eight years as a Housing Commissioner in this city, I have attended countless meetings of the Richmond Housing Authority. I have seen how the organization operates, and I know that there are deep problems with how the different levels communicate with each other. More often than not, they don't communicate, and when that happens the residents get forgotten, and they suffer from it.
Having grown up in public housing in San Francisco and eventually working for the San Francisco Housing Authority, I know what it takes to make public housing work for its tenants. There needs to be a community around the residencies, and there needs to be trust and openness about what is happening at a day to day level. When residents know their building managers, and the building managers understand the problems that affect their tenants, an open dialogue grows from that and people are treated fairly and their problems are solved.
When I moved into the Richmond's public housing I saw that this was lacking. Many residents either didn't have building managers or didn't feel like they could trust the ones they had. I had neighbors that were afraid to voice their concerns because they thought they would get in trouble, and I took it upon myself to help my new community. I wanted to bring the knowledge I gained working at the San Francisco Housing Authority to Richmond.
In any housing authority, there are particular protocols in place for how a tenant's complaint gets handled in order to resolve their problem. Commissioners are supposed to take note of the problem and pass it on to the Executive Staff person or the Commission Liaison, who will then take action on the issue. At the RHA, however, I have seen that when tenants have complaints their designated housing commissioner will take note. The designated Housing Commissioner will submit it in his/her written monthly report(s) or advise the resident to file a Grievance Complaint. Most Grievance Complaints usually get lost or they are not followed-up on in a timely fashion or it gets lost among the hundreds of other documents that the RHA receives on a daily basis. A formalized and enforced structure of how to communicate within the organization is needed.
This can start in the monthly staff meeting between the Richmond Housing Authority and the City Manager. I believe that in those meetings RHA Executive Director Tim Jones should give a report to the City Manager of all of the Commissioners' reports submitted in that month. As things are now, Commissioner reports are not shared in City Staff meetings with the City Manager. Having reports presented at the monthly meeting will ensure that they are not only received by Jones but that they are acknowledged and acted upon. Right now, people aren't communicating across different levels and the reports are not receiving the needed follow-up.
I don't like to put blame on any one individual, but mistakes have been made in the RHA, and they have been made at every level. However, when you sit as the head of department, and you allocate responsibilities to others, it goes back to the head of the department to follow up and make sure that these responsibilities are being taken care of. That hasn't happened. People have had too much leeway in their supervisory roles. Many just did what they wanted to and forgot about the residents of the buildings they are responsible for. They forgot about the people who are their clients. They forgot about the people who need them the most.
The ball was dropped, but I don't think it was dropped intentionally. Many of the people who are working for the RHA don't know the basic rules that they are supposed to be following. There is a complete lack of knowledge on many fronts, and people perish from a lack of knowledge.
It's going to take some work at all levels of the RHA to fix these problems. Commissioners need to connect more with their residents and help them with their problems, supervisors need to make sure that they are receiving reports, and the leadership of the Housing Authority needs to follow up on each step of the process until the problems are dealt with.
Every day I go out to the different residencies. I talk with people. I get to know them, and I learn how I can help. I have built relationships with these residents, so they come to me to talk about how things are going with them. Simply talking with residents begins to build a connection with them and that's when problems are solved -- when people care. Different parts of the RHA are so separated right now that they're not communicating, and the tenants are being left out of any conversations that do happen. Only by building connections and a means to express ourselves within the organization will the RHA truly be able to communicate.
By: Jackie Thompson, Richmond Housing Authority resident and Housing Commissioner