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The Hacienda housing project was declared uninhabitable. Why are tenants still living there?

on October 5, 2014

The troubles at the Hacienda housing project were made public in February. The Richmond Housing Authority promised a tenant relocation in April. The initial application was sent in May. It’s now October—and mice still crawl at residents’ feet and cracks still spider up the walls.

“I thought this place was coming down on my head during that Napa quake,” said Clarence Malbrough, a 16-year resident of the notorious Iron Triangle apartment complex on Roosevelt Ave.

Residents and city council have grown more than impatient. “The quality of life in Hacienda is despicable,” council member Corky Booze said in a meeting with Tim Jones, Executive Director of the Richmond Housing Authority (RHA), two weeks ago. Jones gave the council an update without a specified timetable.

“It’s been almost a year now that they have been living in such conditions,” continued Booze. “When are people going to be moved?”

(According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, it’s been exactly 227 days and counting since the six-floor housing project, with more than 100 residents still in it, was declared “uninhabitable” by Jones himself.)

“I don’t have that date for you,” he answered.

In-Depth Look:

Hacienda’s Funding Delay


For a ‘Demolition/Disposition Application’ to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the redevelopment costs of the building must exceed 62.5 percent of the original development cost.

This is the “obsolescence threshold” set by HUD that requires any public housing building be deemed in “a sufficiently high state of disrepair” in order for any federally-funded renovation or demolition to take place.

“When the rehab costs have to be 62% of the total development costs, do you know what that place has to look like?” Jones said.

“It’s going to look pretty bad. And we’ve got to occupy this, and run it like it’s a regular piece of property? That’s not fair.”

Jones initially set the estimated cost of rehabilitation (to bring the development to “current new construction standards”) at a little above $19.5 million, which would amount to 63.53 percent of the total original cost of the building, successfully clearing the threshold.

This figure is for “meat and potatoes” fixes according to Jones—necessities like double-paned windows for proper insulation, structural pilings, flooring, carpentry and security systems. “We’re not asking for a pool and Jacuzzi.”

Hacienda is relying on federally funded renovation because Richmond doesn’t have enough of its own money to get the place into shape. “This is a small city with large urban concerns, without large urban dollars,” Jones said.

Currently RHA’s consultants and HUD’s engineers are engaged in a back-and-forth to agree upon the accurate reparations figure. When Jones submitted the original estimate of $19.5 million, HUD affirmed only $11.1 million, calling into question a further $8.4 million chunk needed to clear the threshold.

Quotes for $1.5 million in site prep and demolition and $3.5 million for vertical structures bounced back, amongst others, with HUD’s notes in the margins: “explain this item” and “need expert authorization” were some.

Jones sent back further explanation and justification for this $8.4 million last week, and HUD engineers are currently reviewing the new figures. Until HUD agrees with RHA’s assessment of the reparations needed on the building, no application to renovate the project can be submitted, and the residents cannot be given the vouchers necessary to relocate.

What’s the hold up? 

Hacienda’s neglect became publicly known after a series of reports by the CIR. The powder keg erupted last winter with the initial reports, and the debris has yet to be cleared.

Known as “Haci-hellhole” or “Bedbug city,” according to the reports, the infamous housing complex has been historically riddled with rodent and bug infestations, dangerous structural damage, neglected maintenance, and crime.

In order to renovate or demolish Hacienda, RHA must submit an application to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). This application was first drafted and sent for review on May 16 of this year.

If and when HUD gives the green light to repair the property, it’s unclear whether the building will be simply refurbished, or demolished and completely rebuilt. The council will decide when the time comes.

However, Jones believes the building’s proximity to train tracks won’t allow extensive redevelopment. “[The council is] going to be hard-pressed to demolish it,” he said. “Current code today isn’t going to let them build back 150 residential [units] that close to train tracks.”

But that conversation isn’t here yet.

The application RHA is reaching for is called a ‘Demolition/Disposition Application,’ and it can only be made if the housing authority shows the federal government that the building in question fulfills certain criteria.

One requirement is that the building suffers from a sufficiently high state of disrepair, so much so that HUD is justified in funding its renovation (or demolition): something called the “obsolescence threshold.”

RHA must prove to the federal government that Hacienda, a 50-year-old relic of low-income housing, literally cracking at the seams, needs to be emptied.

Since the initial draft, it’s been a tetherball match between RHA and HUD, which kicked back the first version with several questions over cost estimates. (See the sidebar panel for more information on the back-and-forth between Richmond and Washington.) But Jones is hopeful that the most recent volley with HUD will come back with the go-ahead.

“Obsolescence is a key hurdle to clear, it’s the biggest test with most housing authorities,” said Jones. “We think the second rendition of our rehab estimates are going to get cleared.”

Residents skeptical, resigned

The residents—mostly elderly and disabled young persons—don’t share Jones’ confidence of a resolution.

“He’s a great talker,” resident Malbrough said. “He told us back in April they were going to tear it down, keep the land, and build a new place that we’d have first dibs on.”

“They discussed a better future for us,” he said, giving a shake to a balcony rail. The initial promises seem to be falling through the ever-present cracks. “I think they should do what they said and get us out of here.”

Lyn Moore, not a Hacienda resident, had just visited her 87-year-old, sick father. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” she said of the bureaucratic foot-dragging. “I just want to get my daddy out of here.”

Because so many residents, like Moore’s father, can’t afford to move themselves, they require ‘Tenant Protection Vouchers’ (TPVs). Almost 90 percent of residents pay between $200 and $500 a month in rent, and the vouchers guarantee comparable rates in alternative low-income, affordable housing. Those TPVs require funding, and currently Richmond doesn’t have any dollars to spare.

If HUD approves the application to renovate, then extra HUD-funded TPVs will come with the approval. Then and only then can RHA help the residents find new housing—in a 90-day re-housing period.

Ninety days or 9,000 days, the residents have all but resigned to the project’s failure: they don’t think they’re ever leaving.

“It’s the same bull-crap month after month, year after year,” Malbrough said. “Nothing changes.”

When a housing complex gets into an uninhabitable condition as bad as   Hacienda, clearly a swift resolution is desired – but Jones assures us that it’s not as simple as just bulldozing the place.

“You don’t get to say, ‘That property’s no good. Let’s stop it,’” he said. “We don’t store widgets. We house people.”

J.W. Tillis is in his eighth year at Hacienda. “I keep my place clean and as long as they spray the roaches once in a while, I’m alright,” he said. “I got nowhere else to go.”

At a community meeting last Monday, residents expressed their frustration to councilmen Booze and Nat Bates, who seemed to share their doubts.

“They said [the relocation] doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” Malbrough recalled. It’s the first thing he’s believed in a while. 

Bureaucratic gridlock

Hacienda and its residents are also intimidated by criminal activity like drug dealing and violence. Many crimes go unreported, said RPD officers Brandon Ruffin and Jennifer Cortez during a night patrol around the building’s exterior. “We don’t get nearly as many calls as we should.”

They said many of the elderly residents’ grandsons take advantage by hosting several people in crammed apartments for days. Cortez and Ruffin pointed to lack of oversight and inattentive or indifferent management.  

But now it’s the entire city’s problem. Jones has been criticized by HUD in the past for “ineffectiveness” and RHA has been on HUD’s list of most “troubled” housing agencies.

Neither Jones nor Gene Gibson, HUD’s regional public affairs officer in California, could offer a timeframe for tenant relocation: “We can’t say what a timeline would look like, as that would depend on how long the engineer takes to review and what he determines,” Gibson said in an email. “So, there are no definite dates.”

As uncertainty persists, frustration mounted in members of both the council and the audience two weeks ago. Councilman Booze again grilled Jones about the human costs of bureaucratic gridlock.

“If your daughter lived in Hacienda, what would you do?” asked Booze.

“I would proceed in the same way we are with the city council,” Jones answered. “I think we’re proceeding well.”

“Why do I not believe that, Mr. Jones?” came the reply.

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