Rodents, Roaches and Broken Elevators: Why it took nearly a decade for Richmond to fix public housing
on November 3, 2018
By Betty Marquez Rosales and Ravleen Kaur
The elevators inside a Richmond public housing building had been broken for about a week before city officials moved to have them fixed — an unusually rapid response for a building plagued by maintenance issues for years, where residents regularly endure long waits to have them repaired.
This time, the fix was triggered not just by the usual residential complaints. This time, it took the outrage of residents who believe a death might have been prevented if the elevators were working — that of Tonia Davis, who died after complications from a severe asthma attack on the building’s fifth floor in September. The paramedics who ran up the stairs had to carry her back down the stairs to get her to the hospital.
In response to community outrage, officials quickly formed a task force of leaders and experts from city departments to repair the broken elevators and address the building’s other chronic maintenance problems.
But the sudden rush to action by city officials these past two months belies the reality that residents of the seven-story, 142-unit Nevin Plaza have been complaining about similar problems to the Richmond City Council for nearly a decade.
In fact, Richmond Confidential’s review of council meeting minutes and city and federal government records, in addition to interviews with residents, activists and city officials, shows a pattern of negligence by the city and the Richmond Housing Authority of a building opened with great fanfare 32 years ago.
“They make us feel, because we’re in low-income housing, that we’re not worthy,” said Bridget Gaines, a resident of Nevin Plaza who was moved from Hacienda, another public housing development in Richmond, after it was deemed uninhabitable.
One third of over 3,000 work order requests made by Nevin Plaza residents over the past five years have not been marked as completed, according to records obtained by Richmond Confidential in October. Residents alerted management to problems ranging from mold, leaking pipes and faulty appliances to roaches, rodents, and bed bugs infestations.
City officials say they are now committed to remedying the problems, citing the formation of the task force. They say many work orders that appear incomplete in the records have actually been finished, but the paperwork doesn’t accurately reflect the job was done. Staff have been going door-to-door asking residents whether their work orders have been fulfilled and finding many have been completed, said Tim Higares, director of the city’s Department of Infrastructure and Maintenance Operations.
“We’re putting measures in place with the current staff that I now oversee to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Higares said.
Since residents spoke out at a city council meeting in September, the task force has replaced the building’s aging boilers and is working to improve the security system, address daily maintenance needs and secure a contract to modernize the elevators, Higares said.
But residents wonder: what took the city so long?
Years of neglect
Nevin Plaza, a federal public housing complex, was unveiled in 1986. It was called a “beautiful new building” by John Ziesenhenne, then a city council member, and was dedicated to serving low-income seniors. It later would also serve people with disabilities.
The mayor at the time, George Livingston, commended the housing authority for its support of the housing development.
But decades after the grand opening that a city councilman called a “fantastic affair,” the people who call Nevin Plaza home would hardly describe life in the building as “beautiful.”
As early as 2010, things began to take a turn for the worse, city council records show. According to city council meeting minutes, a resident named Jacklynn McElare shared during open forum that the elevators in the building needed to be repaired — an issue that continues to plague the building eight years later.
Longtime residents interviewed by Richmond Confidential confirmed elevators in the building have been malfunctioning for nearly a decade.
In the four years after McElare spoke to the city council, conditions continued to worsen.
At a February 2014 meeting, the city council listened as residents spoke of roach and rodent infestations, security problems, faulty plumbing and black spots on tile that appeared to be mold.
Three sitting members of the current Richmond City Council were present for that meeting: Mayor Tom Butt, Jovanka Beckles and Jael Myrick.
Butt said he didn’t believe the city council should micromanage the business of the housing authority, which has a separate management structure.
In fact, he said he believes the problems in public housing are so dire that the city should get out of the business entirely. Butt is currently running for reelection as mayor.
Beckles, who is campaigning for a state assembly seat, said she was unaware of the compounding issues back then.
“Sometimes, unfortunately, things get missed,” she said.
Myrick said he remembers residents bringing forth a range of concerns over the years, although he does not remember complaints earlier this year about broken elevators.
“It’s a fair critique to say we could have been more aware,” he said. “It should have been acted on sooner.”
Nat Bates, who is running for city council, was also present at the 2014 meeting as a then-council member. He said he tried to pass a vote of no confidence against the director of the housing authority at the time, Tim Jones. But Bates says the residents’ concerns “went on dead ears of the city, the mayor, and everyone else.”
Butt, Myrick, Beckles and Bates also served on the housing authority’s board of commissioners at the time — a role that all city council members continue to serve.
Also in February 2014, the housing authority came under fire after the publication of a scathing report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Emeryville.
The CIR investigation detailed deteriorating conditions at both Nevin Plaza and the Hacienda public housing complex, located just 1.5 miles away.
The same investigation also described lavish meals paid on the housing authority’s credit card and a history of misspent service contracts.
Jones, the director of the housing authority at the time, was quoted saying the Hacienda housing complex was uninhabitable.
The city responded by slowly removing all residents, including Gaines, who now lives in Nevin Plaza, from Hacienda.
In 2015, a group of former Hacienda residents filed a lawsuit against the city and the housing authority. According to California law, landlords are responsible for maintaining habitable living conditions for tenants. The lawsuit claims the “city of Richmond and the housing authority failed to do that,” said Mister Phillips, the attorney representing the residents in the pending lawsuit.
Phillips said the city is avoiding taking responsibility.
Conditions at Hacienda were “not suitable for human beings,” Phillips said in an interview.
A trial date is set for January 2019.
“They don’t want people to realize they’re owed,” said Phillips, a fourth generation Richmond resident. “If they have to pay people at Hacienda for what they did to them, what does that mean for Nevin?”
In May of 2015, a Contra Costa County grand jury found the housing authority at fault for neglecting maintenance at its public housing developments.
The report said staff supervision was “inadequate, quality control is lacking, customer service to tenants is unsympathetic and staff relations are poor.”
Jones, then the director of the housing authority, responded to the report, saying the housing authority agreed with a number of the grand jury’s findings, including the charges that, “work orders are not consistently addressed within 24 hours,” that the authority does not provide “ongoing training in record keeping” and that the authority fails to perform annual staff evaluations.
In 2016, a federal audit alleged financial mismanagement of the housing authority.
In March of 2017, Jones resigned as housing authority director, a job he had held since 2005. There has been no permanent director of the housing authority since he resigned. Richmond Confidential was unable to reach Jones for comment.
Residents and caregivers at Nevin Plaza continue to file complaints with the city council.
This March, Ylan Hunt, a social worker who visits clients at Nevin Plaza, addressed the city council.
“There’s building maintenance issues, there’s two elevators but only one works,” Hunt said at the meeting. “And that has been the case each and every time I go to the property.”
With only one elevator working in a building with 142 units, those who depend on walkers or wheelchairs have trouble getting outside or to the lounge located on a lower floor, residents said.
Early this year the city entered into a recovery plan with the federal government to decide how to shore up the beleaguered housing authority by the end of 2018.
In April of this year, then-city manager Bill Lindsay wrote a memo containing plans to quickly respond to work order requests from residents, address reports of bed bugs and mold, and determine “the extent of repairs required” at Nevin Plaza.
That same month, the city decided to take over the maintenance services of the public housing developments, which until then had been handled by the housing authority. The housing authority is required to reimburse the city for these services.
It became clear the housing authority lacked the management structure to effectively address the many problems in public housing, said Higares, director of the city’s maintenance operations.
When the city took over maintenance services, his department embarked on three goals: fix the elevators, the boilers and the water heaters.
The city team was able to secure contracts for new boilers and water heaters but for months has struggled to find a company willing to take on the task of replacing the building’s aging elevators.
“We were just hitting a dead end,” Higares said.
This August, Lindsay retired from his position as city manager. Before leaving, Lindsay did not submit a plan to the federal government for how to restructure the housing authority.Meanwhile, the problems at Nevin Plaza continued to escalate.
In an inspection that same month, the federal government gave Nevin Plaza a failing Real Estate Assessment Center score of 35c out of 100, said Ed Cabrera, public information officer for the regional U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office in San Francisco.
A passing score is 60.
The federal housing department reported finding 17 life-threatening health and safety deficiencies during the routine physical inspection, including open electrical boxes, exposed wires, cracked cement and a lack of smoke alarms in units, according to Cabrera. This far exceeds the agency’s threshold for alarm — only one immediate hazard needs to be found at a building for a “c” to added on its score.
Then on Sept. 9, 48-year-old Davis died after suffering an asthma attack at Nevin Plaza. Emergency workers had to run up the stairs to the fifth floor to carry her down because the elevators weren’t working.
For residents of Nevin Plaza, Davis’s death underscored how dangerous living there had become.
Days later, they showed up at the city council meeting to describe her death and raise the same concerns they had brought up for years: broken elevators and poor security.
The newly-formed task force, the idea of Shasa Curl, the former acting city manager, has been meeting several times a week to figure out a way forward.
The city has made progress. Boilers are working, hot water has returned, and both elevators are, thus far, operational.
With the help of a consultant hired after residents spoke up, the city is closer to securing a contract to completely replace and modernize the elevators.
The city has appointed Gabino Arredondo, who had been serving as a management analyst in the city manager’s office, as the city’s latest acting housing authority director — filling a seat left vacant by Jones’ resignation in March 2017.
Several city officials attributed the inadequate maintenance at Nevin Plaza to insufficient funding from HUD.
This year, the federal government authorized $2.4 million in capital and operating funding for the city’s housing authority, which is 20 percent less than the $3 million it received in 2014, Cabrera said. The operating subsidy has been falling steadily over the past three years.
“The housing authority is basically in deep trouble,” said Butt, Richmond’s mayor.
Butt believes public housing in the city is a lost cause. Last year, he drew up a proposal calling on the city to dissolve the housing authority.
Although the proposal did not win approval from the city council, Butt is adamant the current model is not viable.
“I think the bottom line is we really wanna get out of this business. It’s a no-win business,” said Butt. “There’s not enough money.”
Cabrera, the public information officer for the federal housing department in San Francisco, has acknowledged housing authorities are significantly underfunded.
As a result of lack of resources, Cabrera said, “there is a national backlog of repairs.”
But what is specific to Richmond, Cabrera said, is the diminished managing capacity of the housing authority. He pointed to vacancies in key leadership positions and a history of “financial mismanagement” at the city‘s housing authority.
It’s hard for communities like Richmond to argue for more resources, “when they aren’t using the resources they have to the best extent possible,” he said.
A number of city officials agreed part of the problem is the housing authority is short-staffed.
It lacks the capacity to respond to all of the problems, including deteriorating vacant units, a constant influx of work orders, security concerns, and faulty elevators, said Higares, Richmond’s director of infrastructure and maintenance.
But he and other city officials argued the recent problems begin with vacancies at the highest levels of management.
The housing authority was left with a management vacuum, said Higares. Jones resigned in early 2017 after heading the housing authority for 12 years.
“So, all we had was rank-and-file staff that were doing the best that they could do. There was no real structure there,” Higares said.
Lindsay, who was Richmond’s city manager when Jones resigned, served as acting director of the housing authority for the next year until himself retiring this August.
The housing authority job was not permanently filled because the city was uncertain about the future of the housing authority itself, according to a former city official familiar with the housing authority’s operations. The official declined to be named since they are no longer authorized to speak for Richmond.
“It wasn’t a good time to recruit someone,” the official said.
The city is now weighing three options for the future of the housing authority. The authority could remain a legal entity of the city, become part of the county’s housing authority, or become autonomous from both the city and the county. Each option, according to Arredondo, requires further assessment and deliberation.
Some Nevin Plaza residents want to believe this time the city will finally restore their building to working order.
“I believe it in my heart,” said Barbara Doss, who uses a walker because of hip problems exacerbated by having to take the stairs every time the elevators stop working.
“Somebody is gonna have to step up. Step up or we’re gonna keep talking,” she said.
But many are skeptical.
“It’s the same thing at all the meetings we go to—they say the same things over and over and over,” said Elizabeth Woods, a Nevin Plaza resident. “All they do is talk.”
If a physical needs assessment identifies major structural issues at Nevin Plaza that would require renovation or demolishment, residents might have to move out of the building.
Former acting city manager Curl stressed that in such a scenario, residents would receive relocation assistance and would be given a seat at the table to decide the best way forward.
Gaines, the Nevin Plaza resident who is a plaintiff in the pending lawsuit against the housing authority, worries about having to move again.
She moved years ago from a domestic violence shelter into the Hacienda housing complex, where she soon became sick from the black mold that grew in the pantry and along the walls, she said.
When Hacienda was shuttered and residents were displaced, she was moved to the seventh floor of the Nevin Plaza housing complex.
Last year, an elevator at Nevin Plaza suddenly dropped two floors when she was inside, she said. Gaines, who has stage three kidney failure and disc herniation from a bus accident decades ago, said she could have been paralyzed.
Now she wonders whether she’ll have to find another place to live.
“They’ve known about this problem for the three years I’ve been here,” said Gaines. “It is abuse, mentally and emotionally.”
Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.