It’s a day that Hacienda residents never thought would come. After years of languishing in squalid conditions, the elderly and disabled residents of Richmond, California’s worst public housing complex will finally be moved out.

This week, the federal government approved the estimated $1 million needed to relocate the hundred-or-so residents of Hacienda while a nonprofit developer revitalizes the dilapidated high-rise. Residents, many elderly and disabled, can begin moving out immediately – nearly a year after city officials declared the building uninhabitable and vowed to evacuate them. They have the option of returning once the renovation is complete.

“Officials came together from coast to coast to make this happen,” said newly elected Richmond Mayor Tom Butt. “We knew this was a top priority and we all rolled up our sleeves to make sure the application and funding would be fast-tracked.”

The news comes after The Center for Investigative Reporting last February exposed that Hacienda’s tenants long had been struggling with mice, mold, roof leaks and crime – with a chronic lack of action by the Richmond Housing Authority, which oversees the federally funded complex.

Inspections stretching back years showed that the building, nicknamed the “Haci-hellhole” by residents, was falling apart before the housing authority’s eyes. The most recent inspection revealed that half of the apartments were infested with roaches. Almost a fifth of them had mold. Faulty elevators trapped handicapped residents in them on a regular basis. Hacienda’s sixth floor sat vacant for two years due to roof leaks so severe that stalactites grew from the overhead walkway.

While city officials congratulated themselves today on how quickly they had organized the relocation funds, residents found little cause for celebration.

“People have died, gotten sick and lived in filth waiting for this to happen,” said longtime resident Connie Gary. “It’s sad it’s taken so long.”


For years, residents have been complaining about conditions at Hacienda, only to be met with promises of change but little action. In 2009, the housing authority said it was considering plans to move out residents. Then in 2011, the housing authority again tried to get federal funding to move residents, saying they needed more than $19 million to renovate the building. But that application failed, as Richmond fell just shy of proving that Hacienda’s problems were serious enough to declare the building beyond repair.

But this time, getting residents out of Hacienda became a political issue, though not one all Richmond politicians were happy about. After CIR’s stories, residents stormed Richmond City Council meetings week after week demanding improved living conditions, bringing the often-overlooked issue of public housing front and center. Residents said there were slight improvements with the publicity, but the maintenance problems and infestations continued despite the pledges for change.

Butt, who is now leading the charge on the relocation, initially dismissed the problems at Hacienda after CIR’s stories, publicly saying last March on his email forum: “It seems that once people get into public housing, they think they are in a hotel with maid service.”

But most of the City Council agreed that the problems at Hacienda were serious, acknowledging that the city had failed its public housing residents. The council voted in March to evacuate the residents, but backed off of an immediate move after realizing it would cost about $700,000 the city didn’t have. Instead, Richmond decided to submit a two-step application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to finance the relocation.

The application process, which took more than seven months, wasn’t the speedy evacuation the city had hoped for. But HUD approved the first step of the process in January and agreed to finance the estimated $1 million relocation cost this week.

“The residents of Hacienda were in dire need of safe and improved living conditions,” said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, in a written statement. “I am pleased to have assisted the City of Richmond in expediting the issuance of vouchers which will allow individuals and families to immediately begin finding and settling into a better housing situation.”

The housing authority will be helping residents in the upcoming weeks with finding a new place to live and paying for packing and moving costs, according to Tim Jones, executive director of the Richmond Housing Authority. Residents can choose between moving into one of Richmond’s available public housing sites or finding an apartment on the private market with a Section 8 voucher.

“We’ll be here to help make sure the transition is successful for our residents,” Jones said.

Hacienda will be leased to Mercy Housing, a nonprofit developer that will revitalize the entire building once residents have moved out. The building still will provide affordable housing once the $19 million in estimated renovations is complete, according to a HUD document approving the move. The redevelopment will be paid for with a mix of low-incoming housing tax credits and project-based Section 8 assistance.

Three-year Hacienda resident Everett Dennis Lewis, 62, hopes to be back, but in the meantime, he’s anxious about finding another home.

“I just really dread moving,” Lewis said. “But I think they’ll probably fix this place up real nice and then I’ll be back. We deserve it after all the hell we’ve been through.”

Gary said she’d be happy to move back in once Hacienda is renovated, but for now, she’s eager to put the building she has called home for more than a decade behind her.

“It was a dreaded place to live,” Gary said. “I associate it with sadness, neglect and a feeling that the people here didn’t amount to anything.”

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.