Almost 30 squatters have overrun Richmond, California’s notorious Hacienda public housing project, a squalid building that used to house dozens of poor seniors and disabled people.

After the city declared the building uninhabitable and evacuated the last of the residents three months ago, homeless people broke into the empty apartments – and stayed.

Tahira Mitchell was among the first to move in. She was living on the streets when a friend suggested she could crash at Hacienda, she said. Armed with a screwdriver, Mitchell, 42, slipped through the front gate and pried her way into an apartment on the fourth floor.

She found everything she needed: a futon, functioning appliances, electricity and running water.

“You can’t blame us for coming here,” Mitchell said. “For the most part, Richmond don’t have nothing for the homeless. I just needed a place to stay.”

Some of the squatters trashed the Hacienda complex in Richmond, California, after they moved in, leaving mounds of garbage around the building. Credit: Amy Julia Harris/Reveal Credit: Amy Julia Harris/Reveal

In recent months, dozens more have joined Mitchell in using Hacienda as a homeless hotel. Some have trashed the already run-down building, breaking through the iron gates, picking the locks and ripping copper piping from the walls. The midrise building is now overflowing with trash and flooded with stagnant water.

“Obviously, this is an out of control situation,” Daryl Henline, who lives across the street, wrote in an email to the city last month. “It’s dangerous, it’s a nuisance, a threat and it’s blight.”

The Richmond Housing Authority’s attempts to secure the building have failed so far. The agency had welded shut the gates around Hacienda, assigned private security guards to police the building, and put up “No trespassing” signs. But even the guards have admitted defeat, calling their efforts “totally ineffective.”

“At least 20 plus units are currently occupied by squatters,” one guard from A1 Protective Services wrote in an April 14 email to the housing agency. “One squatter told us over 30 units were being occupied. The current situation is a serious risk and liability … and could potentially lead to bigger problems at any given time.”

Exasperated locals blame the Richmond Housing Authority, the agency in charge of the building, for failing to head off an avoidable crisis.

“Due to the history of the Housing Authority’s lack of oversight at the Hacienda facility, residents of the neighborhood have come to expect a lack of performance from City leadership,” Henline wrote.

Marcus Moore, the Richmond Housing Authority’s former resident manager, is still living at the Hacienda complex. He said the housing authority treated him unfairly and owes him money, which is why he refuses to move out. Credit: Courtesy of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Credit: courtesy of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office

City officials say one person is thwarting their efforts: Marcus Moore.

Moore is a Richmond Housing Authority employee who lived in Hacienda rent-free as part of his maintenance job there. When the housing authority finally moved out all the residents in February, Moore, 45, refused to leave.

That has created a situation that Lt. Eric Smith with the Richmond Police Department describes as a disaster. Having Moore there is “impacting the housing authority’s ability to secure the building,” Smith said. “Obviously, it’s a challenge and a problem.”

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has written extensively about the chronic mismanagement that plagued Hacienda and the housing authority. Our investigation in 2014 exposed squalid conditions at the 150-unit building that had gone largely ignored by the agency, which for years was considered one of the worst in the country. Building inspections indicated that half of Hacienda’s apartments were infested with roaches. Almost a fifth of them had mold. Hacienda’s sixth floor sat vacant for years due to roof leaks so severe that stalactites grew from the overhead walkway.

Residents begged the housing authority to move them from what some had nicknamed the “Haci-hellhole.”

The head of the housing authority admitted the building was uninhabitable in 2014, but it took almost two years to find new homes for the 100 elderly and disabled residents. The agency finally moved out the last of the tenants on Feb. 2.

All, that is, except Moore.

Moore, a former Major League Baseball pitcher, began working as a resident manager at the housing authority in August 2014. He was responsible for cleaning Hacienda’s hallways, helping residents fix broken lightbulbs and letting them back into their apartments if they locked themselves out.

In the nearly year and a half that Moore was at the housing authority, he was paid more than $56,000 and got to live rent-free in a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor.

“I did a lot of work for the residents to clean and give them a decent living,” Moore said today.

Moore said the housing authority treated him unfairly and still owes him money, which is why he refuses to move out.

“They need a fall guy to blame for their mistakes,” he said. “This is on the housing authority.”

But some former residents called Moore “mean and nasty” and are baffled about why he has stayed in the run-down building.

“Why would he stay there?” asked Dolores Johnson, who used to live on Hacienda’s fourth floor. “He’s taking Hacienda hostage.”

Moore’s employment at the housing authority was terminated on Feb. 15, according to court records. The city gave him 30 days to move out. The Richmond Housing Authority now is in the final stages of evicting him. Police say they posted an eviction notice on his door on Thursday – the final step in an unlawful detainer lawsuit the housing authority filed against Moore in March.  It says he has several days to comply, or a sheriff will forcibly remove him.

Until he is evicted, the Richmond Housing Authority is legally required to provide power and utilities to Moore’s unit, according to the police. But because the building is old, the whole complex receives power in the process.

Word on the street about open rooms with free utilities spread quickly.

A 50-year-old homeless woman who identified herself only as Yvette said she first came to Hacienda in March, desperate to put a roof over her head. Local shelters were all full, she said, and the streets were dangerous.

Tahira Mitchell, a 42 year-old homeless woman, was one of the first to move into the Hacienda complex once the residents left. She has been living on the fourth floor for three months.Credit: Amy Julia Harris/Reveal Credit: Amy Julia Harris/Reveal

To get to her apartment on Hacienda’s third floor, she slips through a hole in the iron gate in front – right next to a “No trespassing” sign. She walks past half a dozen flooded apartments and through the trash-strewn courtyard, then wades through a carpet of trash to step onto a bucket to hoist herself through a missing bar in the welded-shut iron gate surrounding the stairwell.

“I know it’s trespassing,” Yvette said, “but it’s safer than being on the streets.”

The Richmond Housing Authority assigned security guards with A1 Protective Services to Hacienda after neighbors complained of growing traffic, noise and trash at the complex. But in emails obtained by Reveal, the guards say they are overwhelmed by the squatters.

“A guard who conducted a walk thru of the property recently has ran off at least 15 squatters out of the building,” an employee with A1 wrote in an April 13 email to the housing authority. One guard, the employee wrote, found “many more squatters who were EXTREMELY HOSTILE, and even somewhat threatening.  It seems this situation is rather dangerous and needs to be approached with caution.”

A1 Protective Services declined to comment. Tim Jones, head of the housing authority, did not respond to multiple calls or emails for comment.

Police make daily sweeps of the building to remove the homeless, Lt. Smith said, adding, “We’re not there just to smash and get out.” He said the officers usually don’t arrest the homeless, instead giving them information packets about city services and shelters. But police have arrested at least eight people at Hacienda for trespassing, drug violations and outstanding warrants, he said.

Smith said the situation at Hacienda won’t improve until Moore moves out. Once that happens, the housing authority can cut utilities to the building and have security guards provide around-the-clock surveillance.

Neighbors like Henline are growing increasingly frustrated with the squatters – and the city’s lack of a response.

“It’s inexcusable that the city is letting this happen,” he said.

The housing authority will be responsible for Hacienda at least until the end of the summer. That’s when the agency plans to turn it over to Mercy Housing, a nonprofit developer that plans to completely revitalize the building over the next two years.

The rehab will include at least $19 million in upgrades to the six-story building, financed by a mix of low-income housing tax credits and project-based Section 8 assistance. The building will continue to provide affordable housing when the renovations are complete.

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.