Forty-eight-year-old Tonia Davis couldn’t breathe. She started having an asthma attack as she was visiting her elderly mother at Richmond’s Nevin Plaza housing development last week. Then she went into cardiac arrest.
Family members ran down the hallway, screaming for help. Then they dialed 911.
But when paramedics reached the seven-story affordable housing development, they found its elevators malfunctioning yet again.
In fact, the elevators at this federally funded housing development had not been working for one week, residents say, and they often break down. The building houses some of the city’s most vulnerable residents — low-income seniors and people with disabilities.
As Davis struggled to breathe, paramedics were forced to run up the stairs to the fifth floor to reach her. Then they had to carry her back down the stairwell to the ambulance that rushed her to the hospital.
There, after two days on life support, Tonia Davis died.
It isn’t clear that the paramedics would have reached Davis sooner had the elevators been working.
But to the housing development’s frail and disabled residents, her fatal asthma attack on a high floor inaccessible by elevator represents the culmination of their worst fears. Many need wheelchairs to move around. They call so often for emergency help that ambulances are a fixture outside the building — paramedics have responded to nearly 400 calls for help at the building during the past three years, according to the Richmond Fire Department.
Carlotta Davis believes her daughter Tonia would not have died if the elevators in the building had been working.
“It happened so fast,” she said, crying as she sat in a wheelchair outside her building. “I couldn’t do nothing for her.”
Steve Hill, the public information officer for Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, cautioned against a rush to judgment on the effect of the broken elevators. He said paramedics are trained to respond to emergencies in buildings without elevators and they routinely do.
Lack of elevator access typically does not impede the emergency response, Hill said, although he declined to comment on specific incidents because of patient privacy laws.
But what is clear is that residents of Nevin Plaza have for years complained to the Richmond City Council about the 142-unit building. According to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Nevin Plaza has long been plagued by insect infestation, plumbing issues, and maintenance breakdowns.
On the Tuesday after Tonia Davis died, residents spoke out yet again during public comment at the city council meeting. They complained of broken elevators, flooded apartments, and unresponsive management.
“This ain’t no health hazard,” resident Phylicia Bailey said in an interview back at the development. “This is a death hazard.”
Ed Cabrera, regional public affairs manager in San Francisco for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said its primary role was to provide funding. Local housing authorities and their boards of commission “are responsible for day-to-day operations,” he said.
But he added: “No public housing resident deserves to live in substandard conditions or unsanitary conditions.”
The Richmond Housing Authority, which is in charge of managing the housing development, along with four others in the city, did not respond to requests for comment. The authority has previously come under fire for financial mismanagement.
Richmond is currently operating its public housing without a permanent housing authority director. Vice Mayor Melvin Willis said the city has had to take on additional responsibilities to maintain public housing operations.
“I didn’t know the issues got that bad,” said Willis. “Personally, I thought it was being taken care of.”
Willis says he plans to hold Richmond’s housing staff accountable for fixing the problems at Nevin Plaza and “supporting residents so they’re not in those terrible conditions.”
Immediately after Tuesday’s council meeting, Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard walked across the street to Nevin Plaza, a half block down from city hall.
After touring the property, Sheppard said he was disturbed by the building’s “lack of maintenance, lack of attention, and lack of care.”
By Thursday, Sheppard said the city had worked to address some of the problems: one elevator was working and hot water was once again running.
But many residents wondered why the changes hadn’t happened sooner.
“It took for a woman to die,” said Larian Thomas.
Many residents of Nevin Plaza said they live in constant fear of what might happen if they get stuck in an elevator during a health emergency. The elevators break down so frequently that some people have come to avoid using them at all.
Princess Crockett, who suffers from asthma and is recovering from a recent heart attack, said she was forced to use the stairs during the elevator’s latest breakdown. Climbing the stairs scared her because she constantly ran out of breath.
“Get it fixed, or find me another place to stay,” Crockett said in an interview.
Many of the housing project’s residents live with chronic health problems and struggle to get around.
Thomas, who needs regular dialysis treatments to survive, says he has missed five appointments because of the broken elevators.
Another resident, MaryAnn McCullough, says she recently got stuck in the elevator while being transported to the hospital for chronic respiratory problems. She’s taken the ambulance to the hospital at least seven times this year.
When we visited the building Wednesday, one elevator was still not working at all and the other was operating slowly and intermittently. This meant many frail residents were camped outside the on-again-off-again elevator, uncertain whether it was going to arrive.
“I got to do my laundry,” said Rochelle Willis, who has a bad back and weakness on her left side, as she reclined on a metal chair facing the elevator, waiting.
For residents like Willis, the elevators are the only way to leave their floors to run errands, socialize in the community room and get some fresh air.
When the doors finally opened, she found the elevator was occupied by a paramedic clutching the handlebars of an empty stretcher. He was looking for a resident who had called for medical attention.
“Wrong floor, huh?” he asked, describing the elevators in the building as “notoriously slow.”
Without functioning elevators, many here are frequently confined to their rooms.
When Carlotta Davis does leave her room, she carries her medications with her at all times because she doesn’t know when she’ll have trouble getting back upstairs.
As she sat in her wheelchair outside Nevin Plaza a few days after her daughter’s death, Davis watched as paramedics carried another resident on a stretcher into an ambulance. Her phone rang again and again with calls from family members who were trying to arrange for her to leave the apartment building until repairs were made.
“They really need to get this building together,” she said.
Then Bailey, a resident who was pushing Davis’ wheelchair, interjected.
“They don’t need to get it together,” she said. “They need to shut it down.”