Inside Richmond's Hacienda low income housing complex. Conditions there were so bad, the building was vacated in 2015. (Larry Zhou/Richmond Confidential)
Nearly a year has passed since stories broke in February 2014 about disturbing living conditions in the Hacienda public housing complex. Now residents will finally see the beginning of the end of their days at Hacienda.
Hacienda became infamous thanks to a series of stories by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in the East Bay. According to their report, the housing complex is infested with bugs, mice and mold. At resident meetings, people have complained about others urinating and spitting on the elevator buttons. Strangers and drug dealers walk in and out freely.
Now the building complex will be renovated completely, a process that is estimated to take 18 to 24 months, and the current residents will have to move out. Many of the 101 remaining households consist of disabled or elderly people. Almost 90 percent of the residents pay between $200 and $500 a month in rent. They can’t afford to move out on their own.
On Friday afternoon, Richmond’s newly elected mayor, Tom Butt, along with Rep. Mark DeSaulnier and Richmond Housing Authority (RHA) executive director Tim Jones, announced at a press conference that Section 8 vouchers for Hacienda residents have been approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A voucher is a federal subsidy that holders can use to help pay rent at their next apartment. Residents are expected to relocate in the next six months.
Assisted by a voucher, “the family will pay 30 percent of their adjusted monthly income towards their share of the rent,” Jones said in an earlier phone interview, “and the housing authority through the voucher program will pay the balance of the contract to the landlord.”
HUD provides funding for the vouchers as well as a $1 million grant to cover moving costs. The voucher money is already in the bank and the city could begin cashing out the money on Friday afternoon if necessary, according to Butt.
According to Jones, they had thought the vouchers would arrive in mid- to late February. “I did not anticipate we are going to receive these vouchers so fast,” he said. Jones said he expects to finish the relocation within six months, moving 40 percent of the units out in the first three months.
Hacienda resident Yolanda (Yoyo) Millard said she’s thankful that she can finally move out. Since she moved into Hacienda, she said, she’s been to the hospital back and forth because of asthma. “I went to Kaiser across the street eight times in one month,” Millard said. She believes something about the apartment complex is irritating her respiratory system. “It’s something coming through the vents and the heater,” she said.
Millard already has housing in place, but she is not sure if she wants to use a Section 8 voucher. She worries that private landlords can kick tenants out on a whim. “If the landlord says he doesn’t want to take Section 8 no more, then we’re left in the cold,” Millard said. “We’ve got to find a place. It may be hard for us to find a place. And then you get so much time to find a place, then it expires.”
Constancy Gary, president of the Hacienda Tenants Association, said that there are so many disabled people in Hacienda that new apartments need to be wheelchair accessible. A hospital needs to be within reach for her as well, she said, because she has some serious conditions. If she cannot find a good fit in Richmond, she wants to move to Pittsburg or Antioch, because that’s where her family and friends are. “Tim [Jones] said that they’ve got already secured properties in San Francisco, Berkeley, here in Richmond, Pittsburg and Antioch,” where Hacienda residents can move in, Gary said.
But some people will miss Hacienda. LaRita Hall and Vincent Hall live on the third floor. The couple were married in their apartment at Hacienda. They don’t really want to move because the place has memories for them. For the relocation, the Halls are looking for another senior apartment building, because they like to be around the elderly and they want to live in Richmond, where their church is.
City officials expect that residents will be successful in finding a new home that will accept the HUD voucher. “The voucher is good in all 50 states of United States of America, including Puerto Rico, Guam and Virgin Islands,” Jones said in an earlier phone interview. He also said that he has never had a problem with getting landlords to accept vouchers because “a voucher holder can run into financial adversity, and the landlords know they will still get the lion’s share of rent from the voucher program.”
When all the residents are relocated, the housing complex will be renovated by Mercy Housing, a nonprofit private sector developer. The renovated housing complex will be owned by the private developer, but be used for affordable housing.
It has taken nearly a year to start relocating Hacienda residents. “The process itself is very, very long,” Jones said. “Just to get the federal officials to agree with our position that this building is ready for renovation is a step-by-step process that you have to undergo.”
The major holdup has been the RHA’s demolition/disposition application to HUD for Hacienda. Only when the application was approved could the RHA start applying for vouchers. The application was submitted in May 2014. Then it went back and forth between the two agencies. HUD approved the final application in January 2015.
It could have taken another four months to review the voucher application, according to mayor office’s media release, but the mayor and DeSaulnier worked together to expedite the issuance.
DeSaulnier won the election in November 2014, to represent California’s 11th congressional district, which includes Richmond, Concord, Pittsburg and other cities. He has been in Congress for only 30 days. “As soon as he hit the hill there on Washington, we were all talking to each other, communicating on a daily basis,” Butt said.
DeSaulnier said he contacted HUD about how important it was to get the vouchers as quickly as possible, and the local officials in Richmond were very assertive about fixing the issue. “When federal or state officials hear their electives working with locals, usually that’s much more effective in getting bureaucracies to move quickly,” DeSaulnier said.
Butt doesn’t think the city of Richmond should take all the blame for what happened at Hacienda. “It’s not a city project, it’s a housing authority project, and all the money comes from HUD,” Butt said. “They have not provided the resources needed to maintain a building like this in a good condition. So year after year, it just keeps going further downhill.”
Butt doesn’t think RHA mismanaged Hacienda either, but rather that the agency is understaffed. “I don’t think it is mismanagement,” Butt said. “Just three years ago or so, [Jones] had staff of something like 40 people, and they were able to do a fair job of maintaining these buildings. Now its staff is down to like 10, something like that. There are just not enough resources to maintain these buildings any more.”
Now Butt says the RHA will take responsibility for the transition. “My office is pretty much done with this,” Butt said. “Now Tim is going to take over. You heard him say he’s already brought in a relocation expert. They are going to have an office here in the building, and they will start working with people to do the relocations."