After the last public housing tenants were moved out, squatters moved in – along with trash. Credit: Amy Julia Harris/Reveal

Thirty police officers raided Richmond, California’s abandoned Hacienda public housing complex on Wednesday, evicting the city employee who refused to leave and clearing the building of squatters exposed last week in a story by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

“It’s outrageous that it took all of this,” said Lt. Eric Smith with the Richmond Police Department. “But the eviction is complete, and we’ve secured the building.”

It took an unlawful detainer lawsuit, scores of neighbor complaints, and ultimately a court order to remove Marcus Moore, a former housing authority employee, from Hacienda. Moore was blamed for sparking a squatter crisis at the housing project that cost the city thousands of dollars in the process, based on utility records reviewed by Reveal.

At least 30 homeless people had broken into the 150-unit building in recent months, busting through the wrought-iron gates in front, ripping copper piping from the walls and leaving mounds of garbage and human waste in the already decrepit building.

After neighbors complained about the impending public health disaster, the housing authority promised to get the situation under control. But they failed in efforts to deter squatters by posting no trespassing signs and sealing the front gates. Even the security guards hired by the city acknowledged in emails that they were “totally ineffective” in stopping hordes of squatters from breaking into and trashing the building.

“The destruction that’s gone on in that complex is pretty bad,” Smith said. “This really prevents the city and the Richmond Housing Authority from providing affordable housing for people in need when it’s being illegally occupied and damaged.”

Hacienda used to provide public housing to dozens of poor, elderly and disabled residents. But maintenance problems that went largely unaddressed by the housing agency turned it into what some residents called the “Haci-hellhole.”

For years, they complained that pipes in their ceilings would drip sewage and feces and that their units were overrun with vermin. Building inspections in 2014 revealed that half of Hacienda’s units were infested with roaches and almost a fifth of them had mold. Residents pleaded with the housing authority to move them out.

The head of the housing authority admitted that Hacienda was uninhabitable in 2014, after Reveal’s stories detailed the squalid living conditions, but it took nearly two years and $1 million in federal funding for the city to relocate the nearly 100 elderly tenants. The last one packed up his belongings on Feb. 2.

But Moore, 45, refused to leave.

Moore, a former Major League Baseball pitcher for the Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds, joined the housing agency as a resident manager in August 2014. He made more than $56,000 in his year and a half as a maintenance worker and received free housing at Hacienda as a condition of his employment. He stopped working for the agency on Feb. 15, but would not leave his apartment, saying the agency owed him money.

“I don’t need that place,” Moore said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m taken care of. I was just sitting there having fun with the housing authority. I’m not going away that easy until they pay me my money.”

The agency filed a civil lawsuit to evict Moore in March. But until the courts finalized the eviction, officials said they had to provide power and utilities to Moore’s first-floor unit. In the process, they powered the whole building, providing dozens of squatters with free utilities.

In the three months that Hacienda sat vacant, the housing authority paid at least $3,400 for electricity and more than $6,300 for water, according to city utility bills.

Police hope that now that Moore is out, they can get the squatter situation under control.

The first step was to sweep the building on Wednesday, going unit by unit to kick everyone out. Smith said most of the squatters had learned in advance that the police would be coming and had packed up their belongings and left before the cops arrived. But officers did find one unit occupied by a pair of hearing-impaired homeless people. The police offered them housing in a local shelter and warned them that if they returned to the building, they would be arrested for trespassing.

“The homeless problem isn’t something we can arrest our way out of,” Smith said. “But there are going to be no more warnings related to trespassing. From now on, there will be zero tolerance.”

The Richmond Housing Authority cut the utilities and water to Hacienda on Wednesday and hired a contractor to seal all the entrances. Security guards with A1 Protective Services, the firm that previously had been leery of the squatters, will now provide around-the-clock surveillance.

The housing agency will be responsible for Hacienda until the end of the summer, when they plan to turn the building over to Mercy Housing, a nonprofit developer that plans to completely revitalize the complex over the next two years.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

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.