RICHMOND, Calif. – Residents of Richmond’s dilapidated Hacienda public housing complex have been waiting for years to move out of a building that many of them called the “Haci-hellhole.”

But with move-out dates looming, they are discovering that finding a new place in a tight rental market is its own kind of hell.

“The housing authority made it sound like they were going to help us,” said Larry Demery, a longtime Hacienda resident. “But what we found out is we’re on our own to find a new home. It’s just us.”

In February, the Richmond Housing Authority announced that it had received $1 million in federal funding to relocate about 100 elderly and disabled residents from the city’s largest and most run-down public housing complex while a nonprofit developer renovates the building.

Tim Jones, the agency’s executive director, announced that residents would be given vouchers to find housing on the private rental market and that the housing agency “would do everything it could to assist residents.”

Residents say that is not what’s happening. Jones did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment.

On March 25, the Richmond Housing Authority passed out the first round of Section 8 vouchers to Demery and about 10 other residents. Today, seven more residents received vouchers from the agency. Every week for the upcoming months, another group of about 10 more residents will receive their vouchers.

The moment that residents have their Section 8 voucher in hand, they are given two months to find a new home with a landlord who will accept the vouchers. They can apply for up to two 30-day extensions after proving that they have actively tried to find landlords to accept them.

William Bounthon, the assisted housing manager of the Richmond Housing Authority, was candid about the challenge in a closed-door meeting he had today with Hacienda residents. A Reveal reporter was asked to leave the meeting but heard Bounthon’s comments from outside.

“There’s a lot of competition out there,” he told residents who received vouchers today. “Rentals are limited.”

Residents at the meeting were given a map of Richmond and the surrounding area, a printout of 17 local Section 8 rental listings from an online listing, and another page of nine landlords and properties that accept Section 8 in Richmond but may or may not have openings.

The list is not meant to be exhaustive, Bounthon said. He suggested that residents search the Yellow Pages and contact housing management companies.

For Demery, the list of landlords – many of whom don’t have any vacancies – was a far cry from the agency’s promise to do everything to assist with the move. Many of the Hacienda residents are elderly and disabled and don’t have ready access to public transportation.

“Some of the listings the housing authority provided are from 2012,” he said, pointing to a July 18, 2012, listing on 25th Street in Richmond that was on the printout of potential new homes compiled by the housing authority. “Seriously? I’ve been calling all these places for two weeks and can’t find a vacancy.”

The housing authority voted to hire Autotemp Inc., an Oakland relocation firm, back in June to assist residents with the move and the logistics of finding new housing. Autotemp’s one-year contract is for $382,695, and a major duty entails drafting a relocation plan, including an up-to-date look at the rental market in the area and a timeline for Hacienda residents. That relocation plan has not yet been completed.

Autotemp did not return calls for comment for this story.

Previously, David Richman, president of Autotemp, has said such plans typically take about two-and-a-half months to finish. He said he was hoping to have one completed several weeks ago but “this stuff sometimes takes longer than we hope.”

Reveal sat in on the preliminary meetings Autotemp had with individual residents in early March, in which they pledged to find apartment listings for residents and even drive them to rental properties.

“It’s you and me in this,” one consultant told Hacienda resident Geneva Eaton. “I can find you listings if you need. If you need a ride out to look at a place, I’m available. If you want me to negotiate with landlords, I can do that as well.”

But residents who have received vouchers since then say that assistance has not materialized either, leaving them to visit apartments and scour Internet listings on their own.

Every morning since 91-year-old Bernice Smith received her Section 8 voucher about two weeks ago, Smith and her caregiver leave the Hacienda housing complex and crisscross Richmond and El Cerrito, chasing rental listings provided by the housing authority and scouring neighborhoods in hopes of finding an available apartment that accepts Section 8 vouchers.

“We’ve been trying, but we haven’t found nothing – it’s so hard,” Smith said. “Every place has waitlists or doesn’t accept Section 8. Sixty days ain’t no time to find an apartment.”

Smith has lived at Hacienda for 15 years and praised the convenience of being close to both her doctor and her church. She doesn’t want to leave but said she hopes to find a place that is quiet and safe.

That is proving difficult. Smith says she has filed numerous applications with landlords in the area but all of them have waitlists of eight to 12 months.

“I just want to find someplace nice and convenient,” she said. “And a place with no stairs since I have a motor chair.”

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.