When he was hired on to work as a gardener for the “Lots of Crops” urban agriculture program in December 2010, Ervin Coley III was living with his mom and baby brother.
They stayed in a public housing unit on the first floor of the Las Deltas Housing Projects, a cluster of 224-public housing units notorious for crime and saddled with chronically insufficient funding, scant security and a months-long backlog on maintenance.
“This place is garbage, you know, but people up here got to deal with what they be given,” said Coley’s mother, Mariecelle Lowery, pacing the living room of her unit. An impassive technician from Comcast worked to fix her cable connection as Lowery spoke. About a dozen people, mostly young men, milled around on the concrete slab just outside Lowery’s front door. They talked in low voices. The mood was solemn. It was early April. Just days before, Coley was shot to death in the street after walking out this same front door.
Lowery’s eyes looked glassy. She rubbed them hard.
“We make do, cause that’s what we got to do,” she said.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the growth of public housing projects swept across urban America. North Richmond was no exception, and construction on the sprawling Las Deltas Public Housing Projects began in the late 1940s. When it was completed in the 1950s, the cinderblock structures occupied several North Richmond blocks and comprised 224-low cost housing units, almost all of which went to black residents.
By the 1980s, the projects, like the community surrounding it, had become rife with crime, poverty and blight. News clips from the period portray North Richmond as a violent, crumbling community of crime and neglect. The mid-century theories about urban housing had been thoroughly disproved. Large, dense and quality structures that provided solid amenities while reducing costs through economies of scale wound up concentrating and perpetuating poverty and crime rather than alleviating it. The reality played out across the nation.
“After the war, there was an influx of government-funded housing projects for poor people, and Richmond seemed to be a magnet for that kind of housing,” said Shirley Moore, a Cal State Sacramento professor and expert on Richmond’s history. “That kind of housing proliferated in North Richmond, and it has outlived its usefulness.”
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 them with housing vouchers for private dwellings.
During the last 15 years, the nation’s public housing stock has been downsized by more than 150,000 units, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In North Richmond, about one-third of Las Deltas’ units are shuttered.
The remaining residents of Las Deltas say maintenance service is poor.
On a cool January morning, longtime resident Janet Polk, who is in her 50s, 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 in the walls 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.”
Walking the courtyard outside, a visitor sees residents peer from the windows of their upstairs units, eager to yell out and criticize the county’s housing authority.
The dissatisfaction is 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 stimulus package, known officially as 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, said Joseph Villarreal, the executive director of the county Housing Authority.
But that project stirred up its own controversy among residents, because it employed only 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, under-occupied and forbidding. Given current funding, and the unlikelihood that Congress will soon seek to restore public housing across the nation, Las Deltas’ future is in doubt.
Like Villareal, County Supervisor John Gioia believes that Las Deltas is likely 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.”
“Housing authority doesn’t have the funding to improve the properties, and the reality is that is very unlikely to change,” Gioia said.
The hundreds of people – mostly women and children – who still call Las Deltas home must grapple with that reality daily.
Back at her unit, Mariecelle Lowery is rummaging through boxes, looking for old pictures of her son. He had lived with her in more cheap houses and apartments in North Richmond than she could remember. Now he was dead, and she needed to scrounge up some images of him for a slideshow to be shown at his funeral.
Lowery is what you could call a prominent citizen in North Richmond. Her family was part of the wave of immigrants from the South who came in during the war, and she has dozens, maybe hundreds, of cousins scattered through the projects and surrounding housing stock.
A tiny wisp of woman, she moves like a humming bird, and lets fly with stream-of-consciousness harangues that break only for breaths.
“This is home. We always have been ready to live here and live it to the fullest but we’ve always known that the system and the conditions from the powers that be are infecting us with something that’s at work out here,” Lowery said. “Where we going to go? This is all we know, so we best make it right here.”
Another woman, a childhood friend, looked on from the a black couch a few feet away, smoking a long menthol cigarette, humming a reassuring “uh huh.
“Don’t you see? We aren’t powerful, we have nothing,” Lowery said, raising her voice. “If Ervin was white and dressed like a stockbroker and he got chased down and shot down in the street, we would have the National Guard up in here!”