New legal investigation into Eureka Gardens

Legal Aid attorney: Proper housing is 'just a basic human right'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville's troubled Eureka Gardens apartment complex is now the focus of a new legal investigation.

Attorneys with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid are trying to determine who might be held legally accountable for the deplorable conditions residents of the apartment complex -- and other properties owned by Tennessee-based Rev. Richard Hamlet and Global Ministries Foundation -- are living in.

"If we can do something to make sure the residents of Eureka Gardens and the other complexes, Washington Heights, etc., have stable, affordable, habitable housing, that's just a basic human right," JALA staff attorney Katherine Hanson said.

Eureka Gardens tenants called News4Jax, crying foul after a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspection gave the complex a passing score of an 85 in August. A week after those reports aired, a multi-agency city code enforcement sweep at the complex uncovered numerous defects that were not included in the HUD report.

The city inspection found 163 units out of 400 with code violations at Eureka Gardens. That's 40 percent of the homes in squalor.

News4Jax also uncovered that property management compelled residents to use an unlicensed contractor to install air conditioning units.

"We saw the same things you guys saw -- the improperly installed, leaky, mold-covered air conditioners. We saw the stairs that were obviously and visibly unsafe," Hanson said. "I smelled the gas, as I think you did as well. Just a litany of violations."

HUD said the inspection was done by a third-party contractor, which officials said is common practice. JALA is now investigating how the inspection was conducted.

Jim Kowalski, executive director of JALA, said the issue with the HUD inspections is that "they're apparently not factual."

JALA attorneys are also looking into the fact that Hamlet (pictured below) and his company have spent only 3 percent of $7 million in federal funding on maintenance and repairs for the six Jacksonville properties.

Those properties were purchased in 2012, and in one year, Global Ministries Foundation pulled in $7 million to run the properties, according to an audit. But the company spent just $242,757 of that on maintenance and repairs spread across all six aging housing facilities.

"Obviously, a lot of the problems preceded his ownership, but at the same time, he gets funding from the federal government to maintain those properties," Hanson said. "And in my opinion, he's not doing a good enough job."

JALA attorneys said the issue is the Federal Fair Housing Act and whether Eureka Gardens has violated it.

"Our tax dollars are paying for people to run these complexes so that we can provide decent, safe and affordable housing," Hanson said. "Congress made that one of our goals as a nation, and if we're not doing that and the people who own these buildings are not putting their money toward that purpose, then we want to look at that."

An administrative complaint could be filed with HUD or the Department of Justice. There's also the possibility of a civil lawsuit filed in state or federal court.

As part of its investigation, Legal Aid will also pull past code enforcement violations for Hamlet's Global Ministries Foundation not only in Jacksonville but also in seven other states, where the foundation operates more than 50 properties, to see if there is a pattern of behavior.

JALA attorneys said they could look to hold Hamlet, property managers or even the inspector hired by HUD responsible.

JALA attorneys said typically, a systemic investigation like this takes time, because it involves a lot of people and substantial research. But with Eureka Gardens, they plan to move swiftly because they feel they have the city's attention.

"I hope this is a tipping point," Hanson said. "I hope people are really going to take seriously that we have hundreds and hundreds of children in Jacksonville living in conditions I wouldn't wish on anyone."

Kowalski said Jacksonville's public housing issues are not limited to Eureka Gardens but are widespread across the city.

After 25 years of not seeing change, he said he thinks now is the time to act.

"We've got some strong tenants. We've got media attention. We've got a compassionate mayor who's walking into these complexes to see it firsthand," Kowalski said. "We've got code enforcement to play a role. Let's keep this going."

HUD officials and the U.S. Inspector General's office have said they can't confirm or deny the existence of an investigation into Hamlet or Global Ministries Foundation by their agencies. If there is another investigation, the public will find out only if the inspector general determines laws have been broken.

Hamlet has not returned News4Jax investigators' last eight phone calls, requesting comment.