From what's been said at recent public meetings, the living conditions at the Richmond Housing Authority's Hacienda complex must fall somewhere between a medieval prison and a Syrian refugee camp.
Among the words used to describe the situation: deplorable, intolerable and squalid. Among the complaints by residents: broken plumbing, water leaks, mold and infestation. A resident bared her belly for cameras to show off her bedbug bites.
That explains a decision by the City Council last week to offer relocation to 130 residents, along with Section 8 federal housing vouchers. But if you think this resolves the issue, think again. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions, and this one is loaded with complexities.
Begin with relocation expenses that could cost as much as $500,000, according to Councilman Tom Butt -- and that's assuming the feds approve Section 8 vouchers -- for which the city would need to dip into its general fund reserves. Then there's the matter of locating suitable rental units for all who are displaced.
"We can't just overnight move 100-and-something people," said Councilman Nat Bates, in a rare moment of agreement with Butt. "It's financially and logistically difficult."
Another fact of life is that not all residents are displeased with their accommodations.
Butt, who has visited Hacienda twice in recent weeks, said there are many units in the building with no visible problems and others with relatively small ones, such as a stove burner that doesn't work.
"I've talked to people living there now who don't want to leave," he said.
The council's call to overreaction emanates from a February news report produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, which cited a litany of shortcomings by the housing authority. The most egregious were financial and management issues.
Butt said many of the charges date to 2011 or earlier and have since been remedied, and he takes issue with the criticism of the authority for operating at a $7 million deficit. The city is criticized for this unpaid debt, even though it was the city that loaned the authority the $7 million to backfill federal funding shortfalls.
The councilman has repeatedly voiced his displeasure with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He suggests that HUD take over the housing authority if its officials think present funding is adequate.
That, of course, won't happen. "We can't be pointing fingers, blaming HUD," Bates said. "Hell, we've got to work with HUD."
Regardless of who's to blame, all parties acknowledge there's work to be done. The roof requires repair. Tests for mold are needed. Infestation can't be tolerated. Perhaps Housing Director Tim Jones should be replaced.
For now, the city is conducting inspections to determine which units are uninhabitable.
"I get the impression that those living in Hacienda assume if they want a voucher, they're going to be relocated," said Bates, sounding less certain that's guaranteed.
So what comes next?
"That's the $64,000 question. The city manager has to come back to us with some sort of analysis. How many people want to move? What's the cost? And where is the money going to come from?"
This issue will continue to command the attention of Richmond officials, but it's nowhere near resolution.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.