WASHINGTON, D.C. – Mayor Lenny Curry and Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis met Wednesday afternoon with the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington to discuss what Curry and others call deplorable living conditions at Eureka Gardens Apartments, Washington Heights and other properties in Jacksonville owned by Global Ministries Foundation.
News4Jax accompanied Curry and Dennis on the flight to D.C. as they followed through on the mayor's promise to tenants of the subsidized housing projects to get answers from the top.
Castro was not in the meeting room during the brief time News4Jax's camera was allowed inside -- his staff saying he was on a call with the White House. But after the closed-door meeting, Curry said the HUD secretary was actively engaged for over an hour and promised the full resources of federal government to clean the mold at Eureka Gardens, and continuing providing help down the road.
Curry was told that Tuesday's I-TEAM story on continuing mold problems was reviewed by top officials and that HUD representative was sent to Eureka Gardens on Wednesday.
Both parties agreed they want GMF to sell its Jacksonville properties. HUD has already stripped GMF of two troubled Tennessee properties.
"While this has been a long journey, a painfully long journey, if you look at from the moment in time when it this started, we shined a light (on the problem) and shined it brighter, brighter, brighter," Curry said after his meetings. "Yes, I'd like to see things move faster, but we're just going to keep pushing."
"We're here; we're on the front lines, and we're going to continue to fight in the fight until it's done," Dennis said.
The News4Jax I-TEAM's reporting over recent months has exposed conditions at the Jacksonville complexes. Curry had promised to tenants of the subsidized housing projects that he would get answers from the top.
After meeting with Castro and staff, Curry and Dennis met with Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also pushing HUD to revamp its inspection process after Eureka Gardens received a passing score last year. That score had to be vacated after the I-TEAM exposed squalor at the community, ranging from mold and crumbling stairs to gas leaks and exposed wires.
Rubio credited the News4Jax reports for the overdue attention at the problems at the GMF properties in Jacksonville and is outraged that Eureka Gardens could pass two inspections despite obvious problems indicates the whole inspection process should be revamped.
"Anyone who visits there and looks at it knows immediately that it is not a place that people should not be living," Rubio said. "We're not going to let it fall on deaf ears. We're going to use Eureka Gardens as an opportunity to highlight that, and also as a way to get residents relief."
Delton Nichols, of HUD's real estate assessment center responded to Rubio's call for changes in the inspection process and are rethinking its policy of letting property know in advance when inspectors would be visiting.
"We are already looking at any changes to improve our inspection process. That's an ongoing process," Nichols said, but added that process had not been finalized.
HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing Priya Jayachandran previously sent a letter to Hamlet expressing concerns over the state of Eureka Gardens. In the letter, she called out "Band-Aid fixes" at the property.
She told the I-TEAM in D.C. Wednesday that such workarounds are rare at HUD properties.
"Our owners are good, solid owners who share our vision for providing decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing to our residents. Unfortunately there are times like this one where owners do not meet their statutory obligations, and frankly their moral obligations to our tenants and to our mission," Jayachandran said.
Sources tell the I-TEAM that the office of the Inspector General is also investigating Global Ministries. Officials with the Inspector General's Office said they cannot confirm or deny those reports.