RICHMOND -- Revelations about mismanagement and poor conditions in the city's public housing system have touched off a flurry of finger pointing, with local politicians asserting that dwindling federal funds are at the root of the Richmond Housing Authority's crisis.
But U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development records show that Richmond's housing agency -- ranked among the worst in the nation by HUD in terms of governance and financial management -- is not alone in trying to make do with less money. In fact, the Contra Costa County Housing Authority, which handles public housing for most areas of the county, has managed to remove itself from "troubled" status with HUD despite a similar decline in capital funds.
And in a blunt critique earlier this week, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, refused to blame the city's public housing problems on funding cuts by his Republican opponents in Congress, saying the fault lies squarely with local officials in the staunchly liberal city.
"For years, federal investigators have warned of deficient services, inadequate and dangerous living conditions and dysfunctional organization in Richmond. These issues existed and were apparent long before recent federal funding cuts," he said in a statement. "The mayor and other officials who oversee public housing in Richmond cannot make excuses; they must take responsibility for the need for a new, accountable approach to public housing programs."
Capital funds provided by HUD for maintenance of Richmond's public housing dropped about 21 percent -- from $957,000 to $754,000 -- from 2010 to 2013, the last year for which figures are available, according to numbers provided by HUD spokeswoman Gene Gibson. The operating funds for day-to-day management and security went from $2.14 million to $2.09 million over the same period.
By comparison, the county housing authority reports that its annual capital funding dropped from $2.09 million to $1.54 million over that period, or roughly 26 percent. The county agency's operating subsidy, which fluctuates each year based on prior-year utility costs, rents and unit occupancy, was $5.39 million in 2013, up from $5.27 million in 2010.
The backlog of needed improvements to public housing complexes has grown during the same period; nationwide, there is a $33 billion shortfall for immediate capital needs, according to a study commissioned by HUD.
"The bottom line is that the funds HUD has come from Congress," Gibson said. "Looks like the Republican Congress has reduced funding."
That has given Richmond council members a reason to point the finger at Congress and HUD for the problems besetting its Housing Authority, which came to light last month in stories by nonprofit The Center for Investigative Reporting.
"The City Council and the press, inexplicably, continue to ignore the fact that the root cause of the Housing Authority's problems is severe underfunding by HUD," Councilman Tom Butt wrote in on his website Thursday. "Instead, they want to blame Housing Authority staff, each other, racism, classism, elitism, and anyone and anything else other than the agency responsible."
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles have echoed some of the same sentiments. On her Facebook page Friday, McLaughlin blamed HUD for disrepair at the city's worst housing complex, Hacienda, and said, "HUD is supposed to cover 100 percent of the costs of public housing."
"(Butt) is correct in pointing the finger at HUD," she wrote.
But critics say challenging funding circumstances are no excuse for Richmond's shortcomings, which include mismanagement, improper procurement and poor performance by contractors hired to do basic repairs. The city has responded by conducting unit-by-unit surveys of its facilities and moving to relocate residents from Hacienda. Gibson said well-managed housing agencies look for ways to supplement federal dollars.
Some Richmond's council members, however, have placed the blame on Housing Authority staff -- and each other.
"Richmond Housing Authority is a dysfunctional organization," Councilman Nat Bates said during a public meeting. Gibson, like Miller, dismissed the notion that HUD funding is at the root of the Housing Authority's troubles.
"The problems in the Richmond Housing Authority existed before the reductions in HUD funding," Gibson said. "The reduction in HUD funding exacerbated it, but I wouldn't say it caused it."
At the Contra Costa Housing Authority, Director Joseph Villarreal said his agency has had to deal with deep cuts but has managed to improve its ranking in recent years from "troubled" to "standard," despite seeing his staff shrink from 150 to about 90.
"This is a national problem," he said. "Some (housing authorities) are able to deal with it and some aren't, because of other available resources, local conditions, age of properties, other factors."
On a recent visit to the Las Deltas complex in unincorporated North Richmond, Villarreal's most challenging, the funding shortfalls were on display. Grass rose more than a foot high, tangled with weeds. Many of the units were shuttered and vacant. But residents interviewed said they were reasonably satisfied with conditions.
"I keep my place clean; it's not so bad here," said Mariecelle Lowery, a resident since 2006.
Butt has pointed out in Web posts that some residents at Hacienda also have expressed satisfaction with their living conditions, but dozens of residents have lashed out in interviews and meetings over the past few weeks about problems there, including leaky roofs, poor service, pest infestations and inadequate bathroom and disability accommodations.
Villarreal, who makes about $137,000 per year, the same as he did in 2007, said he has more than $10 million in unmet capital needs, and gets about $1.5 million a year to fix them. "The money is not there," he said.
In Richmond, the Housing Authority has been beset by a reputation for poor customer service and documented cases of misspent funds. Housing Director Tim Jones has been labeled by HUD as "ineffective." Last week, The Center for Investigative Reporting reported that the nephew of a top official at the Richmond Housing Authority has more than doubled his pay in overtime and other perks.
In 2008 and 2009, the No. 2 official at the agency steered $61,000 in contracts to his brother, HUD's inspector general found. Another staff member used his authority credit card to rack up personal charges, a matter that Lindsay said is "not a closed issue."
Unlike Villarreal, Jones has received several raises. Jones' base salary in 2012 was $162,432, according to this newspaper's public salaries database.
While some housing authorities, such as San Francisco's, have independent oversight boards to monitor management, Richmond's council does that job, and a residents' advisory committee hasn't met in months.
While problems festered at Richmond Housing Authority, council meetings for years have been bogged down by vitriol and marathon sessions.
Gibson said HUD has long been concerned about the Richmond City Council serving as the board of commissioners because of the workload and lack of focus.
"In this particular case, (council oversight) hasn't worked," Gibson said.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.