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Residents live in filth, fear in mismanaged Bay Area public housing

BY Amy Julia Harris, The Center for Investigative Reporting  February 21, 2014 at 2:57 PM EST

Rhonda Marshall, 58, waves to visitors outside the Hacienda public housing complex in Richmond, Calif. She’s been living on the high-rise’s first floor for years and has watched the building deteriorate. She says sees cracks in the walls running from the sixth floor to the ground and smells mold in the hallways and stairwells. Photo by Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

Rhonda Marshall, 58, waves to visitors outside the Hacienda public housing complex in Richmond, Calif. She’s been living on the high-rise’s first floor for years and has watched the building deteriorate. She says sees cracks in the walls running from the sixth floor to the ground and smells mold in the hallways and stairwells. Photo by Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

The Center for Investigative ReportingRICHMOND, Calif. — Geneva Eaton has learned to deal with life in Hacienda: the stench of mold from the stairwell in front of her door, the winter she spent huddled at her stove for heat, the broken security gate that allows drug dealers and squatters to walk past the paid security guards and urinate on her doorstep. But the mice were too much.

For eight months, the 73-year-old woke to handfuls of half-dead mice wriggling in the glue traps lining the floors and cupboard of her apartment. In the space of a few hours, she caught 12. She put her nicest family belongings into storage. She went to bed with the lights on, afraid that the vermin she heard chewing through her walls would bite her in her sleep.

Officials at the Richmond Housing Authority know the Hacienda high-rise, one of its five public housing projects, is infested with mice and roaches. Residents have filed more than 80 complaints about it in the past year, according to agency records. But maintenance workers had done little to fix the problem. So for months, Eaton lived a daily routine: She threw out food she could barely afford. She called a maintenance line for help. She bathed her walls in bleach in the hopes of scaring away the insects.

Eaton lives in one of the worst apartment buildings managed by one of the worst public housing agencies in the country. Here in Richmond, some of the poorest, oldest and most vulnerable people in the Bay Area live in squalor and fear due to the housing agency’s mismanagement and neglect, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

A resident peeks out her front door after hearing yelling in the courtyard at the Hacienda housing complex. Hacienda has paid security guards, but some have admitted that the place intimidates them. Photo by Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

A resident peeks out her front door after hearing yelling in the courtyard at the Hacienda housing complex. Hacienda has paid security guards, but some have admitted that the place intimidates them. Photo by Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

There were at least 16 life-threatening health and safety violations at the five public housing projects managed by the housing authority, according to the two most recent years of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports. Seniors and disabled residents lived amid exposed wiring and missing smoke detectors and fire alarms. Most well-kempt housing projects don’t have these major health and safety violations, HUD says.

Nearly 1 in 5 apartments in the Hacienda and Nevin Plaza complexes are infested with insects and cockroaches, inspection records show.

Read the entire investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting, produced in collaboration with the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED.