North Richmond housing projects’ days may be numbered

alvin lee stands in las deltas projects, north richmond

Resident Alvin Lee, standing in the Las Deltas Housing Project's main courtyard. (Photos by Robert Rogers)

It doesn’t take a spreadsheet full of budget numbers to know that Las Deltas is in substandard condition.

The aging 224-unit public housing project in North Richmond is the picture of poor health, with sloughing exteriors, overgrown vegetation, and dwellings shuttered with reinforced metal.

Built in the 1950s to provide low-cost housing to the city’s then-rapidly growing African American community, county leaders and its top housing authority official say chronic underfunding and an outdated approach to public housing mean that Las Deltas’ days are numbered.

“Long term, ideally, we’ll tear Las Deltas down and replace the units with mixed income housing,” said Joseph Villarreal, executive director of the Contra Costa Housing Authority.

But Villarreal’s ideal may be a long time coming. Demolition and rebuilding of capacity with a higher quality, mixed-income housing project on the same site or elsewhere will require millions in funding and incentives from cash-strapped local, state and federal governments.

workers at las deltas housing projects

Some residents were angered when the company that won a $2.3 million work contract for refurbishing hired just two locals.

Most of Las Deltas was built in 1952. Today, 71 of the 224-units, or about 30 percent of the housing capacity, sit vacant, Villarreal said. Forty of the units are so severely damaged by former tenants and vagrants and stripped of metal infrastructure that they will likely never be re-occupied.

“They were totally gutted, essentially,” Villarreal said.

The other 31 need various levels of repair, but mostly remain vacant due to a lack of willing, qualified tenants.

“We have problems getting people interested in moving into Las Deltas,” Villarreal said. “People don’t want to live in North Richmond.”

County Supervisor John Gioia, the de facto political representative of the unincorporated area and a member of the county housing authority’s board of commissioners, said the Las Deltas is in a holding pattern.

“The only plan is to maintain it, to keep it in the best shape possible until we can come up with a long-term plan to replace it,” Gioia said.

But merely maintaining the aging, obsolete facility is a task that Villarreal admits has been beyond his agency’s ability, at least at current funding levels. The housing project consistently runs an operating deficit.

Villarreal said he expects the project to lose $600,000 this year, about the same as last year. Villarreal said the complex’s operating losses result mostly from vacancies, low-reimbursement and rental rates, and rising maintenance costs.

boarded up las deltas units

About one-third of the Las Deltas housing units sit unused, secured with metal barricades.

In the last few years, new funding has been pumped into the notoriously high-crime housing project. First, annual mitigation funds provided by the nearby county waste dump subsidized additional sheriff’s patrols in the area. Second, the federal stimulus dollars that came to county housing included about $2.3 million for maintenance and upgrades of the projects, most of which went to exterior improvements and beautification, Villarreal said.

“We opted to use the money we received to catch up on maintenance,” Villarreal said, “mostly exterior modernization.”

But still, he said, “We don’t have nearly enough to keep up” with repair needs. He added that Las Deltas is part of a system of “public housing around the country where there is a shortfall of $25-35 billion in deferred maintenance on more than one millions units.”

As in North Richmond, the bulk of the nation’s public housing was built in the 1940s and 1950s and is now in poor condition. Federal funds consistently fall short of what is required to maintain the system, so some counties are simply tearing down older units, often replacing the capacity with housing vouchers.

Over the last 15 years, the nation’s public housing units have been downsized by more than 150,000 units, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Residents of Las Deltas say service is poor. Longtime resident Janet Polk points to the kitchen ceiling of her unit. The paint is peeled and flaking and some boards are exposed. The damage is caused by small leaks in the pipes of an upstairs bathroom.

Mold has taken root there and under her kitchen sink, Polk said.

“They don’t do nothing, nothing,” Polk said of the housing authority. “I call and complain all the time, and they only come out if there is an emergency, like a plumbing clog, and even then it takes them weeks.”

The problems are likely to continue. According to a 296-page assessment report produced in January by EMG Corp., a consulting firm hired by the housing authority, Las Deltas requires about $3.5 million in immediate repairs, ranging from fixing faulty smoke detectors to trimming overgrown trees and rectifying unreadable signage.

When EMG officials were inspecting the site in July 2010, work was already underway on a $2.3 million exterior modernization project, paid for by the one-time infusion of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The housing authority contracted with Bayview Painting and Construction, a Burlingame-based construction company, to beautify the outside of the buildings and do some interior rehabilitation, Villarreal said.

But that project stirred up its own controversy among residents, because it only employed two North Richmond residents.

“This was stimulus money, and it is local officials job to ensure that the money is used in a way that benefits the residence of the communities where the money is used,” said Saleem Bey, a local organizer and community activist in North Richmond . “This is simple construction work that local residents could have done with a few skilled support staff. Instead, they gave millions of dollars to people who don’t live here.”

Villarreal acknowledged that not many local workers were hired, but noted that in the competitive bidding process, the contractor was under no legal obligation to use local labor.

“We encouraged [local hires],” Villarreal said. “They are better than most, they tried with an open [application] process. We’re happy with them.”

Still, despite the recent work, the complex remains drab, underutilized and unsustainable.

Gioia, like Villarreal, said Las Deltas is destined to be replaced, not restored.

“The future of Las Deltas is that its days are numbered,” Gioia said. “It’s a question of coming up with a financing plan to basically demolish and replace it with something that will add benefits and higher quality housing to the community.”

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