JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than 60 local and state officials converged at the Eureka Gardens apartments Friday morning to investigate code violations at the troubled Westside complex. Two City Council members also showed up and found living conditions so deplorable that they asked Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry to come see it for himself.
The city's code enforcement team, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, city housing and health officials, and other agencies began inspecting the federally subsidized units Friday morning.
JFRD's fire marshal found three violations in the first building he inspected: a faulty smoke detector, crumbling stairs and a leaking gas line.
He said that in the first few hours at the complex the violations recorded were "too many to count."
The property owner will be cited and required to fix the leaking gas line.
The complex passed a Department of Housing and Urban Development inspection just weeks ago, but city officials said they were surprised at the conditions in some of the units.
One assistant to a city councilman broke down in tears, telling News4Jax a dog shouldn't live like this.
Curry arrived about 10:45 a.m. After looking into one unit, he described the conditions as "heartbreaking."
"Adults should not have to live like this. There's children living under these conditions," Curry said. "Some of the mold that I saw and experienced. ... I can still feel some of it when I breathe. It's unacceptable."
Children make up more than 50 percent of residents of the complex, with a large number under 5 years old.
City officials said six teams of two were to inspect every unit, which was expected to take two days.
Tracy Grant, head of the tenants association at Eureka Gardens, had been speaking out all week about areas in her apartment and others that she said were covered in mold and were simply painted over by the apartment's repair crew.
Grant, who has been more than frustrated with the condition of her apartment, said the paint job won't shut her up.
Curry thanked Grant for bringing attention to the conditions, saying Friday's code enforcement sweep was a result of her courageous actions.
"I know that there are folks that are afraid to step forward. They have said that they are afraid of maybe how management will react to them," Curry said. "I appreciate you stepping forward. As soon as I got the letter, I put together teams (and) coordinated efforts with Duval County Public Schools, the Sheriff's Office, fire and social services and compliance (and) code enforcement."
Living conditions prompt sweep, calls for change
City Council members who saw the living conditions at Eureka Garden firsthand said they had a difficult time breathing inside some of the units.
"I had to compose myself because I just can't believe it," said Sam Newby, who represents At-Large Group 5. "I have to commend this young lady for living through this."
That tenant said she's been living with mold for seven years.
"I have four small children," Dwan Wilson said. "My ceiling leaks feces water into my apartment. They came in and painted over it. The mold is coming back through."
Wilson said the mold forces her to use a nebulizer inhaler three times a day.
Council members said that they are going to take action about what they've seen.
"We're going to push this all the way to make sure this community gets fixed," said Councilman Garrett Dennis, who represents District 9, which includes Eureka Gardens.
Wayman Ministries, which is across the street from the complex and has been active in efforts to improve the complex, is ready to assist any residents with housing if their units are deemed to be unlivable.
"I've always said by the time a murder is committed, the murder itself is the end result of a number of failures," said pastor Mark Griffin. "We're seeing today one of the failures is the living conditions of these people."
The mayor agreed.
"What I saw here today makes me angry and it also breaks my heart," Curry said. "We are on top of this and we will continue to do what we have to do to make sure people anywhere in Jacksonville are not living in these kind of conditions. Anybody in an unlivable place right now, we will make sure ... they are relocated."
Wilson was pleased to see the code enforcement sweep and that city leaders got to see the conditions firsthand. She believes something will finally be done to fix the problems.
"We're so happy that y'all are here," Wilson said. "Seven years is a long time."
Reports of problems lead to inspection sweep
News4Jax saw contractors at the complex Thursday and residents said they were painting and caulking over mold.
On Thursday, the owner of Eureka Gardens -- Richard Hamlet from the Global Ministries Foundation, a Christian-based organization -- denied the allegation that he had workers paint over mold.
"They wouldn't do that," Hamlet said. "There is a difference between mildew and mold. We're assessing to make sure there is no mold in the units and if there is, then we will have it remediated properly. Units I walked in last week were mainly mildew and the mold was very minimal."
But it's not just residents pointing fingers at apartment management, said Ken Adkins, a local minister and community activist. He said the problems are bad enough to warrant a criminal investigation.
Enough concerns came to the attention of the city to warrant the inspection sweep Friday. The goal of the sweep was to determine whether there is enough evidence to declare units unsafe and hand out violations. Code enforcement can also look for evidence of a cover-up of any violations.
The current issues came after the complex faced problems last year with former City Councilman Warren Jones, who was pushing for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove Eureka Gardens' Section 8 vouchers, which a large number of the residents use to pay their rent, unless security improved.
Jones is no longer in office and his successor, Dennis, was at Eureka Gardens Friday as the inspection sweep began. Other City Council members at the sweep included Newby and Anna Lopez Brosche.
With much of the rent being paid with government money, residents want to know why proper repairs aren't happening if Hamlet is getting those tax dollars.
A check of federal records on Global Ministries show it received $5 million in taxpayer money since 2013 to subsidize rents at Eureka Gardens alone.
Residents believe the mold and mildew in their apartments are the result of improperly installed air conditioning units that can be seen leaking throughout the complex.
Residents said they were forced to use the property manager's husband, Mark Garrard, who is not a licensed contractor in the state of Florida, to install the AC units.
Residents said they were forced to sign an air-conditioning addendum as the only way they were able to get AC installed in their apartments.
It reads, "Air conditioners must be installed by the contractor approved by this property." Checks show that tenants paid Garrard $50 to install an AC unit.
"We're on this thing and we want to make sure our residents are healthy and the housing units are safe," Hamlet said.
The complex is home to 866 people. In addition to the 28.3 percent of tenants who are under 5 years old, 47 residents are disabled.
Hamlet confirmed to News4Jax that he makes $485,000 every year. He said he deserves the salary for running a company that generates $100 million in revenue every year.
He values the company's real estate portfolio at $500 million, which includes 11,000 units spread across 61 affordable housing properties in eight states.
Some residents said they feel that's money that Hamlet is using to pad his own pockets.
"That's just not true," Hamlet said. "We raise private capital. These are capital developments. We are a developer (and) the only reason why we're in the news (is) that I'm an evangelical pastor who runs a faith-based agency that runs a business corporation. That's the bottom line.
"We have nothing to hide. We abide by the statutes, the HUD regulations."
Hamlet denied that he was a slumlord and said his work was all about helping others.
"Absolutely false. Anyone who says that knows nothing about me, my calling, how we do so much to help people," Hamlet said. "A slumlord doesn't care about their residents, and we care about our residents and we're here to serve them."
Hamlet said he believes he's being targeted because he's an evangelical Christian. But Adkins, also an evangelical minister, isn't holding back his criticism and wants a criminal investigation.
"Everyone has an opinion and HUD is our regulator and we're doing a great job out there. We've been there for two-and-a-half years and spent millions of dollars and made lots of improvements," Hamlet said.