Our investigation into public housing in Richmond, Calif., rolled out in a series of written stories, scores of photographs, multimedia, television, radio and even a spoken word poem.

That’s a lot of stuff. Let’s simplify. Here’s a quick look at six problems the Richmond Housing Authority faces.

1. People are scared.

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At Nevin Plaza, Cypress Private Security guard Matthew Babino tells Bridgette Monique Rollins that he will call police if she doesn’t leave. Rollins was evicted for not paying rent, but she argues that the management is keeping her mail.Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s not just the residents of Richmond’s two largest housing projects. One paid security guard told us that she’s scared to do her patrols, too.

A security gate was broken for months. Security guards haven’t been checking in guests like they’re supposed to do, allowing anyone – including drug dealers – to walk in and out with impunity while the guards regularly stay glued to their cellphone screens.

2. Basic problems are taking a long time to get fixed – or aren’t being fixed at all.

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For months, Geneva Eaton woke to handfuls of half-dead mice wriggling in her glue traps.Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

Authority records show problem after problem being resolved in no time. But residents tell a different story on the ground.

One had raw sewage falling on him for a month from a leaky ceiling in his bathroom. Another says his heater has been broken for more than a year, forcing him to use his oven to stay warm in the cold winter months. One woman who lost her legs waited more than nine months for a simple safety bar so that she could use her bathtub. Residents said their repeated complaints went ignored.

3. The housing authority’s largest complex is uninhabitable, according to its own executive director.

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Because of major leaks in the roof, chemical adhesive and paint drip from the ceiling of the sixth floor of the Hacienda housing complex. The Richmond Housing Authority has hired contractors to stop the roof from leaking since 2006, but it hasn’t gotten fixed.Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

But a long-term plan for Hacienda’s future is still months away. For now, residents continue to live in the poor conditions, though they say the housing agency is finally fixing their problems.

The elevators still are breaking down, leaving many seniors trapped on the top floors. Hacienda’s roof continues to leak, causing mold and stalactites to drip from the sixth-floor ceiling. Contractors have been hired to fix the roof since at least 2006 but haven’t been able to stop it from leaking. Cracks reveal themselves between the walkways and foundation. Nearly one-fifth of the units were infested with insects, according to the most recent inspection.

Executive Director Tim Jones at a City Council hearing last week conceded that the building should be torn down. He said he’ll meet with federal officials soon to ask permission to demolish or shut down the building.

4. The resident rights group is dysfunctional.

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Richmond Housing Authority Executive Director Tim Jones hands out copies of notes from a previous meeting to residential council leaders from the city’s public housing properties. Jones blames years of federal funding cuts for the problems plaguing the authority.Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

Residents are supposed to be represented by a seven-member housing advisory commission. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has said the group doesn’t know enough about housing policy and isn’t getting good info from the housing authority’s executive director.

After some commissioners talked with us about problems at the housing authority, four other members abruptly resigned. The chairman said he resigned because CIR went to a public meeting without notifying him or the executive director. Now, the commission meetings have been canceled altogether because there aren’t enough commissioners to hold a legal meeting.

5. The housing authority is facing a management crisis that has made it one of the most troubled housing agencies in the country.

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Tim Jones (center), executive director of the Richmond Housing Authority, looks over a housing report with Jackie Thompson, president of the Friendship Manor residents council, before the Richmond City Council meeting Oct. 17, 2013. Friendship Manor is one five public housing complexes owned by the housing authority.Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

HUD funds and oversees public housing agencies across the country. Its auditors have found mismanagement and financial abuses at the Richmond agency. Key staff have been found to be ineffective or unqualified. The executive director and financial manager got caught abusing the agency credit cards.

6. The housing authority’s financial problems also have put it in trouble.

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Hacienda tenant Anna Threadgill, right, shows a jar of bedbugs to Richmond Housing Authority management analyst Leticia Niles as Sterling Co.’s Michael Petragallo inspects the stove.Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

The agency has run up a nearly $7 million debt. It’s paying another $2.2 million in fines for conflicts of interest and other contracting problems.

The management and financial problems have left the agency on the verge of being taken over by the federal government. It’s been on the short list of troubled agencies since 2009. Leaders such as the executive director and financial manager, who’d been the focus of HUD criticism, remain at the agency as it attempts to turn itself around. HUD says Richmond so far has met its deadlines for improvement, but key milestones are ahead in 2014.


The stories have begun to cause some change. Residents filled the City Council chambers last week to air their complaints, and they’re now working with a law firm to bring their complaints to the federal government.

The city this week began inspecting hundreds of public housing units for problems. It canceled its contract with the private security company in charge of its two largest complexes. 

And the executive director sent an email to his staff urging them to treat residents well.

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Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.