Richmond meeting 3-5-2014 photo

Lydia McGill cries as she tells her story at a meeting with City Council members at the Hacienda public housing complex in Richmond, Calif. Public housing residents spoke about squalid conditions and blatant disrespect from city housing authority staff.Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

The residents of public housing in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond had nearly given up.

They used to speak up when things got bad. But they’d long ago stopped believing anyone would listen. They resigned themselves to sharing their bedrooms with cockroaches and bedbugs and enduring the neglect of the staff that was paid to help them.

Deep down, the frustration simmered.

It finally came spilling out with fury over the past month after The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Amy Julia Harris exposed the poor conditions in Richmond’s two largest public housing complexes, giving those residents the voice they’d lost.

Harris has spent nine months on the story. First, she looked nationwide at public housing data to determine that Richmond’s housing agency was among the worst run in the country. Then she dug in deeper to find out why.

She reviewed regulatory documents and audits that previously had not been written about or talked about publicly. Then she turned to finding out how the problems were impacting residents.

Harris made more than 25 trips to the housing complexes to interview residents and housing officials. To put that in perspective, several Richmond City Council members admitted after the series had run that they had not set foot inside any of the public housing units they oversee.

During her on-the-ground reporting, Harris uncovered numerous new problems – including that Richmond housing officials were marking maintenance issues as fixed when they were not. In one example, Harris talked to a resident who suffered the indignity of raw sewage leaking from the unit above him. It was still dripping long after Richmond officials signed off on work orders saying it had been handled.

The day after the first Subsidized Squalor story ran, residents crowded into City Council meetings to tell their stories of humiliation and infestation, and they haven’t stopped since.

Now, this revived community is being heard.

On March 12, the City Council decided that it needed to evacuate its largest housing complex, Hacienda, which is primarily for the elderly and disabled. Preparations are being made now.

The Richmond Housing Authority’s No. 2 official, Kathleen Jones, is on leave. Harris had been told by residents again and again that Jones treated them poorly. And her nephew, who worked under her, more than doubled his salary in overtime and extra pay last year.

An independent contractor immediately hired to inspect individual apartments confirmed what Harris had found: cockroach infestations and mold and contractors who weren’t fixing residents’ problems.

The private security company that was allowing drug dealers and squatters into Hacienda with impunity is being replaced.

And residents are working with a law firm to file a complaint with the federal government for any property loss or health problems caused by the complex’s poor conditions.

Harris, whose aggressive reporting and soulful writing have captured the problems in Richmond, is exploring several new angles. If you have a tip for her, she can be reached at

Beyond our tenacious investigative reporting, CIR will continue to find ways to reach new audiences with this important local story. We collaborated with Tides Theatre to create “This Is Home,” a play written and performed by Richmond artists.

We’re going to stay on this story and watch developments closely to make sure those responsible are held accountable.

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Andy Donohue was the executive editor for projects for Reveal. He edited Reveal’s investigations into the treatment of migrant children in government care, Amazon’s labor practices, rehab work camps and sexual abuse in the janitorial industry. He was on teams that have twice been Pulitzer Prize finalists and won Investigative Reporters and Editors, Edward R. Murrow, Online News Association, Third Coast International Audio Festival, Gerald Loeb, Sidney Hillman Foundation and Emmy awards. He previously helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, served on the IRE board for eight years and is an alumnus of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.