RICHMOND -- City Manager Bill Lindsay announced a plan Thursday to deal with problems plaguing the city's housing authority, and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin called for an independent investigation in the wake of revelations that the agency ranks among the most troubled in the nation.
The announcements followed investigative news reports that alleged the Richmond Housing Authority is beset with mounting debt, misuse of funds by staff members, inadequate security and living conditions at its public housing units, and improperly authorized work contracts, among other problems.
Lindsay's plan, submitted to council members Thursday, includes immediate inspections of all units; surveys of tenants to determine their needs; exploring whether to switch security providers; and assessing whether to begin moving tenants out of the most dilapidated public housing structure, the Hacienda.
Lindsay wrote that more study will be needed in the coming months to determine whether to renovate Hacienda or demolish it. Long-term, Lindsay said the housing authority will pursue significant improvements to its housing complexes and provide tenants more housing options through the federal Section 8 voucher program.
"The short-term, medium-term, and long-term steps ... are a starting point and will continue to evolve," Lindsay wrote. "We believe, however, that they will be effective in identifying and meeting short-term tenant needs, and in dealing with the most deficient property (Hacienda)."
McLaughlin issued her own statement Thursday, thanking the news media for bringing the depth of the problems to light and calling for an investigation by a neutral party that would answer directly to the City Council.
"One of the priorities of my office will be to determine exactly what led to these problems and address them," McLaughlin wrote. "We know there are some very serious conditions that need rectifying and require immediate steps. We don't know the extent of the problems nor the systemic cause."
In a telephone interview Thursday, Lindsay said the housing authority is in debt to the city to the tune of about $7 million but has adopted a balanced budget of $26.2 million for this fiscal year, most of it provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the housing authority and has alleged widespread mismanagement by the Richmond agency.
HUD spokeswoman Gene Gibson said the city's agency is working with HUD to resolve the issues.
"There were problems in years past, but now that (the Richmond Housing Authority) and HUD are in the Public Housing Authority Recovery and Sustainability (PHARS) plan, RHA has been successfully providing the required documentation," Gibson wrote in an email Thursday.
Lindsay said every residential housing unit in all five housing authority properties "will be inspected beginning immediately, with this process to conclude within approximately one week."
"The basic purpose of the inspection will be to determine whether each unit is meeting a high standard for decent, safe and sanitary housing," Lindsay wrote.
In the telephone interview, Lindsay acknowledged misuse of funds and inappropriate awarding of contracts by housing authority officials but noted that the violations were several years ago.
Richmond's housing authority has scored among the worst in the nation for years, and Executive Director Tim Jones has come under fire.
While some council members have called for Jones' ouster, Lindsay is noncommittal.
"I haven't drawn conclusions yet (on Jones' future)," Lindsay said. "Step one is gathering information."
Lindsay dismissed questions raised in Center for Investigative Journalism reports about expensive meals charged by Jones to the housing authority, saying that "to be the best of my knowledge" they were appropriate business expenses.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726.