TOM BUTT E-FORUM: Dying of Thirst in a Richmond News Desert

blogimage.jpgRe-posted from Tom Butt E-Forum: A “food desert” is a trendy term for an area that might have lots of grocery stores, typically corner markets, but have a serious lack of nutritious food offerings. Instead they may offer junk food, soda, liquor and tobacco products.  What we have in Richmond is a “news desert.”  New news sources, such as Chevron’s Richmond Standard, are popping up daily like spring flowers, but it seems the more we have, the drier the landscape becomes. The surface may even look wet, but it is a mirage, and below the surface, it is dry as a bone.

Coverage of the Richmond Housing Authority is my case in point. Recent coverage focuses on the sensational and on unverified allegations while neglecting the nutritious and healthy heavy lifting of actually digging into the causes and the solutions.

Covering a story like this is like free beer to journalists, who have emptied their quivers of pejorative words while gorging on critical quotes like starving dogs.

Here are some examples:

  • “most trouble public housing complex”
  • “substandard conditions”
  • “disrespect and neglect”
  • “pest infestations”
  • “most troubled in the nation”
  • “ineffective”
  • “screaming”
  • “berated”
  • “insects and vermin”
  • “frustration”
  • “squalid conditions”
  • “unhelpful and disrespectful”
  • “uninhabitable building”
  • “two weeks of upheaval”
  • “two snakes”
  • “emotions boiled over”

There is little dispute about most of the conditions at Hacienda. The roof not only leaks, it is largely useless. The building suffers from years and millions of dollars of deferred maintenance. The Housing Authority is typically delayed by days or weeks in addressing tenant complaints. Under California law and HUD regulations, the landlord, in this case the Richmond Housing Authority has an obligation to maintain the facility in a habitable condition, which means controlling mold, roaches, bedbugs, mice and rats. On the  other hand, residents have an obligation to maintain their units in accordance with Housing Authority standards, as described in “Your Friendly Guide to Public Housing” that is provided to every tenant and describes policies regarding cleanliness, pets, housekeeping, maintenance, energy and water conservation and much more.

What the press has avoided like prickly pear is any serious examination of why these conditions exist and what solutions are available. City Council members suffer from the same evasion syndrome.

In investigative reporting, conventional wisdom says, “follow the money.” The only money the press has followed are some alleged improper expenditures for meals and how much the executive director’s compensation is, neither of which would pay for even a fraction of the maintenance and operation shortfall that plagues the Housing Authority.

Without a clue of how it could be done, City Councilmembers are promising quick fixes that even include bulldozing Hacienda. Have they lost their minds? How are they going to pay for it? Where will the residents go? Have they forgotten that the embodied energy in a building would take 65 years of the greenest new building to save? Are buildings inherently bad, like career criminals with no hope for rehabilitation?

Here are some facts that go to the heart of this matter that the press continues pass up like a hitchhiker on a desert highway:

  • HUD has continued to drastically reduce funding for public housing, particularly capital funding needed to address deferred maintenance. Why the City of Richmond, including the Richmond Housing Authority and the City Council are being held solely responsible for this by the press is beyond my comprehension.
  • No journalist covering this story and no City Council member has suggested where the money would come from to upgrade the Hacienda building, relocate tenants or demolish the building.
  • The much ballyhooed low HUD score for the Richmond Housing Authority is largely due to a zero rating in the financial category because the City of Richmond loaned the Housing Authority $7 million from the general fund to make up for HUD funding shortfalls. In the ultimate Catch 22, the City is disparaged by HUD for trying to shore up a deficit caused by HUD.

Finally, you have to look at the veracity of some of the impassioned claims made about conditions and lack of Housing Authority responsiveness. The truth is, at best elusive.

Here is an example.

At the March 5 meeting at Hacienda, the Chronicle posted a photo of a tearing Lydia McGill. Later, McGill’s cousin, Rodney Alamo Brown elaborated with a Facebook post:

Rodney Alamo Brown This is from my cousin not cuz..Ok Rodney Brown, what he's talking about is the council meeting at the Hacienda where I live our was because I went home two nights ago, I ran some bath water and as I stood on the side of my beside started feeling things flying all over me! I haven't been back since! First thing the next morning I went to Timothy Jones office at the City of Richmond head manager for housing. He wasn't in there I left a message he never called back so I called again at 1:00 pm he answered I told him what had happened he said he's gonna have someone go over and"assess" the apartment after not hearing anything else from him first I called HUD in San Francisco they gave me the Mayors office and the City council phone number the ladies there at both the offices did everything they could to help me then I was advised to be at the meeting. I left the hair salon ran over there and spoke to the mayor of Richmond, and Mr. Booze was also there along with a few others that I don't know. After speaking I asked them where am I suppose to sleep until they move me and what about my things in the house I still didn't get an offer for a hotel room, an invite to their house or anything for the night! A lady that says she works or use to work for the Mayors office followed me out and gave me money for a room! There was also a lady by the name of Jovanka Beckles vice mayor and Child and family team facilitator for CC health services offered to help me find somewhere to sleep for the night! I have been a loyal patient tenant for 4 years at that raggedy housing place being promised from day one"if your a good tenant next test you'll get a Section 8 voucher" which was bull shit excuse me but right now I am very pissed with the city of Richmond, Mayors office the whole 9 yards! That Butt ass hole don't need to run for anything! Obviously he's a NAAASTY something that loves to live in filth! I've never had to live in nastyness and I'm not about to start now! I feel sorry for people like him and all we can do is pray for a man like him! This just shows you how when voting we never know about those people till they get in office and show their true colors of who they truly are!

I found out that an RPA member subsequently gave McGill money to spend the night in a hotel.  I asked the Housing Authority to respond, and this is their version:

Tim -

Ms. McGill's unit was NOT inspected by Sterling.

Ms. McGill's unit was scheduled for roach treatment on January 14, 2014 when the entire building was notified.  Ms. McGill failed to do the necessary prep work needed to properly treat her unit, therefore it was not treated.

Ms. McGill was offered unit #217 on November 26, 2013 - Maria phoned her and offered her the unit and Ms. McGill said "I already told Debra no, I am not moving".

On December 5, 2013 Maria phoned Ms. McGill and offered her unit #405, she refused.

Today, when Ms. McGill notified Maria of gnats in her unit stating she could not stay there, Maria then again asked if she was ready to move to unit #226 and her response was "I want to move out of this building!" and hung up the phone.

Ms. McGill's unit had previously been treated for roaches on 8/8/13, 9/23/13 and 11/8/13.  No other request for roach treatment has been received even though Ms. McGill has reported other items which have been taken care of.

Debra Holter

LIPH Asset Specialist

It turns out that McGill’s unit was, after all, inspected by Sterling (The inspector recently retained by the City to do comprehensive inspections of all public housing units). Sterling reported the following:

  • Living room window hard to open and close.
  • Kitchen doors off track.
  • Black discoloration on ceiling in Kitchen.
  • Signs of water damage on Kitchen ceiling.
  • Signs of water damage on bathroom walls.
  • Toilet seat loose.
  • Mesh on front door screen damaged.

Apparently, none of the items listed above was reported by McGill in a maintenance request. The inspection report did not mention any “flying things,” and no one has explained or even questioned why Ms. McGill did not take up the Housing Authority’s offer to move her to another apartment several months ago and twice since.

Getting to the bottom of all this is difficult, and the press is certainly no help.

Re-posted from the Tom Butt E-Forum

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