JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Attempts to cover Mayor Lenny Curry's crime walk of a federally subsidized apartment complex Wednesday afternoon were blocked by armed security guards who work for the property's owner, Global Ministries Foundation.
During a live broadcast from Washington Heights showing the mayor meeting with residents, two guards approached I-TEAM reporter Lynnsey Gardner and photographer Travis Anthony and asked them to leave.
The guards from Protected Enterprises of Florida were hired by GMF and its founder, the Rev. Richard Hamlet, to provide 24-hour protection for residents at Washington Heights in an attempt to reduce crime.
Washington Heights and Eureka Gardens are two of GMF's properties in Jacksonville that have been under scrutiny for substandard living conditions.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development scored Washington Heights at 60.01 in its most recent inspection last fall. Subsidized properties need a score of 60 or above to keep a federal contract.
The I-TEAM was notified of the mayor's visit Wednesday to the Moncrief Road West property and was invited to attend by residents.
Despite explaining that the news team was there to cover public officials and at the invitation of residents, two security guards told Channel 4's crew to leave. Gardner said she needed to hear that from police before complying. At one point, the head of GMF security in Jacksonville grabbed the lens of Channel 4's camera, which could result in a battery charge.
Once off the property, Gardner got a spokeswoman from GMF in Memphis on the phone, who told the guards that News4Jax had permission to be at the complex. The guards continued to deny Gardner access to the gated complex even though city officials were still touring the property.
According to Protected Enterprises' president and CEO, Marcus Williams, the property has strict visitation rules.
He said civilian visitors and the media can go wherever they want to on the property, as long as they are invited on by a tenant. The front desk is required to document the visitor's name, license plate number and reason for the visit.
The media is allowed to take photos or video anywhere on the property that is in public view, if accompanied by a tenant.
Several residents at Washington Heights have told the I-TEAM they want the media's attention to help expose the living conditions that need addressing at their complex, which is half the size of Eureka Gardens with only 200 units.
Residents want media attention on plight
Tenants have told the I-TEAM for seven months that people at Washington Heights are afraid to talk to the media or city leaders for fear of retaliation. One mother of four was too afraid to be identified Wednesday but told the I-TEAM she wanted them to see the mold in her shower and the cleaning products she uses daily to try to clean it off.
“They need to step up their game. They really need to,” the woman said. “There’s a lot of people out here that’s clean and don’t deserve for their apartment to fall down, because they don’t want to take care of things the right way.”
Another woman said as a mother of three she's also concerned about mold after hearing that 70 percent of units at Eureka Gardens had mold spores.
“It’s really a big concern. I mean, I have a great unit, but I would like to know -- I have children as well -- and I would like to know if there’s any mold in my unit,” she said. “It’s not where you would raise children, but when you have no options other than to be here, you make the best of it.”
She said she wanted the media to tell the city what's really going on at the complex.
“If it weren’t for you guys, where would our help be at? Where’s Reggie Brown?” she asked. “We get our help from you.”
Councilmen walk property
City Councilman Reggie Brown, whose district includes Washington Heights, did join Curry on the crime walk Wednesday, along with City Councilman Tommy Hazouri and other city leaders.
But Brown said he wasn't going inside homes.
“I'm going to walk the community. I have no intentions of walking back into those apartments, because we have, the management company has gone through every apartment and taken inventory of every apartment of what they want done,” Brown said.
On Tuesday, Brown emailed Gardner to say he had formally called for a “multi-unit inspection” at Washington Heights, which is in Brown's district.
A city spokeswoman confirmed that Brown made the request for a code enforcement inspection, but because Washington Heights has federal involvement, HUD generally performs inspections of the property.
On Wednesday, Brown said, "We have seen some improvements, but it's not been enough. We can do better."
In certain situations, the city can perform inspection raids, as it did last fall at Eureka Gardens after I-TEAM reports exposed deplorable living conditions there, but those next steps still have to be discussed in the case of Washington Heights, city officials said.
"HUD has jurisdiction over this, which is why we have collectively worked together to put a spotlight on what's happening," Curry said. "We're going to be working with HUD to make sure we hold ownership accountable, to make sure people have safe place to live in a place that I'd be comfortable with me and my family moving in."
The mayor and councilmen will be addressing the issues at Washington Heights when they meet with the secretary of HUD in Washington, D.C., next week.
"It's a problem. As the mayor said, it takes a village, and that's what we're going to do. We came here. We listened. We saw some of the issues and addressed everybody," Hazouri said.
Mayor wants to see change
Curry said his goal Wednesday was to go door-to-door to talk to the people of Washington Heights.
"I've been doing community walks and neighborhood walks since before I was elected," Curry said after his tour was complete. "This one was good timing, because I'm going to see HUD Secretary (Julian) Castro next week."
One of the biggest concerns at the property is mold.
“Whether it's adults or children, but particularly children, living in places that are mold-infested, and again, you've got to take it on a case-by-case basis, but there should be no tolerance for people having to live in mold,” Curry said.
Residents said they were happy to see the mayor and other city leaders. Curry said he was there to hear about the living conditions at Washington Heights.
"I talked to some folks in there who tell me they're working 15-16 hours a day, trying to raise their kids," Curry said. "A lot of good people live here. They want to (have) a space where they feel good about their kids outside playing."
Zebedee Williams, who was born and raised at Washington Heights, told News4Jax reporter Francesca Amiker that he was glad the mayor came to see the apartment complex.
"It was amazing to see him come through here. It was my first time meeting him. He took the time to talk to residents. I saw him going to a few apartments and talking to the young ladies that stay out here and he made a promise that he would make it a lot better living condition for the kids and the people in the community," Williams said.
Curry said it's not about HUD, GMF or city leaders as much as it's about the people of Washington Heights and Jacksonville.
“Every neighborhood, every ZIP code matters to my administration, to me, to members of council,” Curry said. “We're working together. We're all in this together, one city, one Jacksonville. We've got to set the bar as high as we can. We set the bar high. We strive to get there, and we'll be in a better place in the end.”
Curry told Amiker that he'll aim to be the voice of the tenants when he meets face-to-face with the secretary of HUD.