JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Several units at the Eureka Gardens apartment complex had to be evacuated Thursday after the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department deemed the apartments unsafe for residents.
Contractors repairing faulty stairs at the federally subsidized housing complex pulled one set of stairs off the building, leaving too little access for those on the second floor to escape if a fire broke out, fire officials said.
Several entrances into the units were also boarded up, creating a further fire safety hazard, officials said.
The evacuation affected at least four units on the second floor of the building.
City Councilman Garrett Dennis was at the complex Thursday looking into complaints about repairs to the stairs and doorways. He became so concerned about the residents' safety, that he called the fire department.
Firefighters confirmed that two usable entrances are required for every unit, according to the fire code.
According to Global Ministries Foundation, which owns the complex, it later found the work permit for the repairs that allows the complex not to have the stairs accessible and have the doors boarded off. It was signed off by JFRD.
The residents who were ordered to evacuate were then able to return to their apartments while the repairs are underway, GMF said.
Dennis said the fire department will require round-the-clock watch to make sure no fires break out while the exits are blocked.
"You never know what to expect now because (at) any given time something can come up that we don't know," Eureka Gardens resident Alexis Laury said.
Laury first contacted News4Jax I-TEAM Thursday afternoon after her back door had been boarded up with nails sticking through the wood, which was done while one of the staircases that accesses her apartment was replaced.
"There’s nails through my door, you can all come see. If I were to run out the door, someone is chasing (me), I would have fell, got hit by nails, something else. I have little kids. Notify me if you’re going to do something," Laury said.
Laury said she and other tenants are stressed out by the situation.
"Now, at least that this is going on I can prepare myself that, you know, I don’t know, OK if it do break out we can go to this window," Laury said. "I’m going to have to do something, I’m not just going to sit in there."
Evacuation ordered day before Rubio arrives
The senator who has been vocal in seeking federal changes in light of the troubles at Eureka Gardens will be in Jacksonville to walk the property Friday, just one day after the evacuation order.
Sen. Marco Rubio will be joined by Mayor Lenny Curry and Dennis, who have been fighting to push the owner of Eureka Gardens, the Rev. Richard Hamlet's GMF, out of the city.
Rubio said last month that he became aware of the troubles at Eureka Gardens through the I-TEAM reports.
"I think it’s almost exclusively due to that. It wouldn’t have happened without it. The bottom line is this -- HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) has an inspection process that they inspect whether a facility is safe. This facility, Eureka Gardens, passed inspections. Not once, but twice. Repeatedly passed its inspection. Anyone who visits there and looks at it, knows that is not a place where people should be living," Rubio said.
Jennifer Carroll, News4Jax political analyst, talked about what exactly Rubio will be able to accomplish during his visit.
"Well it’s not going to amount to much. This is the first time Marco Rubio has set foot on the Northside of Jacksonville," Caroll said.
Carroll said Rubio likely can’t have any direct impact on the situation at Eureka Gardens, but he can influence the HUD inspection process, which Eureka Gardens has passed.
"What Marco Rubio can do is take information back to Washington, D.C. to let HUD know that either their inspectors are not doing a good job or their criteria needs to be revamped," Carroll said.
Owner given extension to fix stairs at Eureka Gardens
Last month, a city magistrate gave the owner of Eureka Gardens another 90 days to fix the remaining unsafe stairwells at the troubled housing complex.
A representative for GMF said that might not be enough time. GMF had asked for 120 days to complete the repairs.
The city had previously given GMF, which was founded by Hamlet, an extension for the deadline to fix the stairs, which were noted in inspections by the city and HUD to be unsafe.
Dennis, whose district includes Eureka Gardens, asked the magistrate for financial penalties against GMF for not fixing the stairs by the initial deadline, but that request was denied.
The magistrate did say that fines could result if GMF does not finish the repairs to the remaining stairwells by the three-month deadline.
Of 30 stairwells found to be in violation of city code in October, 18 still need to be replaced.
The city of Jacksonville has confirmed that all interior code violations at Eureka Gardens had been fixed.
The complex received a score of 62c during its February HUD inspection, barely surpassing a passing score of 60, but enough that the federal government renewed its $6 million contract with GMF to operate Eureka Gardens as subsidized housing for another year.
HUD recently released its 80-page inspection report for Eureka Gardens, which has been under scrutiny since I-TEAM reports exposed deplorable living conditions, involving everything from mold and mildew concerns to gas and carbon monoxide leaks, exposed wires and faulty stairs.
Jacksonville's code enforcement division swarmed the property in October for a two-day inspection raid after I-TEAM reports exposed the conditions there.
Code enforcement found violations in 165 units inspectors went into. There are 400 units on the property.
Hamlet was called before a magistrate judge earlier this year for missing key deadlines on repairs. His attorney appeared instead and bought GMF another 30 to 60 days to fix the outstanding code violations.
GMF has to keep the property in safe and sanitary conditions to qualify for $3 million a year in taxpayer money to cover rents for tenants at Eureka Gardens.
Global Ministries Foundation's entire Jacksonville portfolio has been put up for sale. A real estate broker hired by GMF has listed 11 of the company's properties for sale. The Section 8 portfolio is being offered without an asking price, according to the Affordable Housing Advisors listing.
The listing posted for GMF said the 11 properties include 2,352 units located in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Hamlet owns 61 housing complexes in eight different states. Here in Jacksonville, he’s established one umbrella company to run Eureka Gardens and five other housing communities, including Washington Heights.
The latest HUD report confirmed Washington Heights was in even worse condition than Eureka Gardens. It scored 60.01.