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Diana Stanton tells inspectors about the roach infestation at the Hacienda public housing complex.Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

RICHMOND, Calif. ­– Residents of Richmond’s worst public housing project are taking their concerns about deplorable living conditions to the federal government.

An Oakland law firm is working with residents of Hacienda, a 150-unit high-rise that is home to many seniors and people with disabilities, to file an official complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Residents say they’ve told the Richmond Housing Authority about the squalid conditions for years but received little help.

“The goal is to make sure that these various renters are treated fairly and with respect,” said Guy Bryant, a founding partner with the law firm Bryant & Brown. “It’s a pretty sad situation they’ve been living under with no real response from the housing authority.”

Bryant & Brown, which has done work for school districts and other public entities, says it was spurred to help after hearing residents’ struggles to get basic maintenance needs addressed.

In the coming weeks, the firm’s lawyers will be talking to Hacienda residents to gather stories and documentation to put in a formal complaint with HUD, which oversees public housing in the U.S. Filing a complaint is the first step in working with HUD to get the problems resolved. HUD has 180 days to respond. If the issues haven’t been addressed, the residents can then file a civil lawsuit.

Residents who have lost private property due to issues like roof leaks or have health problems as a result of living in unsafe conditions could be entitled to money, said Meredith Brown, a founding partner of the firm.

“The residents felt they needed advocacy,” she said. “They have tried on their own to get things resolved to no avail.”

Last week, The Center for Investigative Reporting exposed the problems plaguing Hacienda residents.

In the most recent inspection, nearly a fifth of the units in Hacienda were infested with insects. There are cracks in the floors and walkways. Contractors have been hired to fix the leaking roof since 2006.

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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

Residents said their pleas for help with mice, insects and basic maintenance often were ignored. The housing authority’s records say it is responding to residents’ complaints quickly, but tenants said contractors often didn’t fix their maintenance requests and the problems persisted for months.

“You get tired of beating a dead horse,” said Edward Dunlap, a paralyzed Marine Corps veteran who lives in Hacienda. “They don’t give a damn.”

Dunlap said it took the housing authority more than two months to fix his shower last year. In the meantime, he had no water and bathed in neighbors’ apartments.

Tenants pay a subsidized rent for the apartments. Almost 90 percent pay between $200 and $500 a month, according to HUD.

City officials have pledged to address the problems, and residents say they’ve begun to see changes.

At a City Council meeting last week, the housing authority’s executive director, Tim Jones, admitted that Hacienda was uninhabitable and said he was pushing to get the building torn down.

The city also has hired outside contractors to visit all of the public housing units in Richmond starting this week to find problems and ask residents about their past maintenance requests.

Jones said the housing authority had “fallen short” in providing safe and sanitary housing to residents and was committed to improving maintenance issues.

The Richmond Housing Authority is currently about $7 million in debt and has suffered from years of contracting problems, bookkeeping issues and conflicts of interest, according to federal auditors. The housing authority has landed on the federal government’s “troubled” list since 2009. Richmond is working to make improvements, but HUD has threatened to take over if the agency doesn’t turn around its management and finances.

Brown, the attorney, said pledges of change aren’t enough. She said she’s getting involved to ensure that HUD knows the problems – and to ensure that the residents’ needs are addressed for good.

“The system has failed these people in the sense that they’ve made their work orders, made their requests for years about a lack of the safe and sanitary housing and what they’re getting now is a flare up of activity,” Brown said. “We need to make sure this thing gets resolved so when the limelight goes away, we don’t go in circles again.”

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue. It was copy edited by Christine Lee.

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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.