JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After Florida Sen. Marco Rubio walked the Eureka Gardens subsidized housing project and talked with tenants Friday afternoon, he said he will call a criminal investigation of its owner, calling Global Ministries Foundation "a slumlord."
Rubio, who has been a vocal critic of conditions at the property, was joined by Mayor Lenny Curry and City Councilman Garrett Dennis on a tour of the apartment complex on Jacksonville's Westside, getting a firsthand look at the problems that the I-TEAM has been reporting on for eight months.
The Rev. Richard Hamlet and other representatives of Global Ministries Foundation, which receives $6 million of federal money to run Eureka Gardens and GMF's six other Jacksonville properties, were on hand during the walk-through.
"I want you to know what you have done here is horrifying and inexcusable," Rubio told the GMF executives. "These people should not have another contract (with) HUD again and, quite frankly, (I'm going to) ask (the) Justice Department to look into this company and how they are spending money because they have stolen taxpayer money that was supposed to be used to provide for these people and put (it) in their own pocket."
Rubio said he is in talks with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro to change how subsidized properties are inspected, how contracts with landlords are written and to review the portfolios of the property owners.
The most recent HUD inspection score for the complex was a 62c. A passing score is 60. Despite the low score, HUD's protocol allowed the renewal of GMF's contract to run Eureka Gardens.
After the tour, Curry asked the city's Code Enforcement Division to come out and investigate safety concerns the group found.
The official visit comes eight months after the I-TEAM began exposing deteriorating conditions and safety issues at the complex.
Rubio arrived about 12:30 p.m. After meeting with local officials and Tenant Association president Tracy Grant, they began walking the property. At one point, Rubio told GMF a GMF representative, "What you've done is horrifying."
After his tour, Rubio was outraged, even calling for a possible criminal investigation of Global Ministries, which owns five other properties in Jacksonville and dozens more around the country.
"When I get back to Washington Monday, my hope is we'll have all those properties examined and these people put out of business because what they do is outrageous," Rubio said. "It's a slumlord, pure and simple, and my hope is we can even get the Justice Department interested."
Rubio and Curry both cited the tenants who fought to get living conditions at the complex exposed the real heroes.
"I've said to ownership, 'We are not going away. We've got a U.S. senator out here and we are not going away until these people are cared for and loved for the way they ought to be," Curry said.
Friday morning, signs went up at the complex reading "Restoring a vital community asset providing safe and affordable housing for Jacksonville families."
"Interestingly enough, when word got out that we'd be visiting here, within 48 hours a bunch of work crews showed up to do some cosmetic work," Rubio said. "Despite that, I just left an apartment that hasn't been painted in 13 years. We visited another apartment where there's no functional window. ... If there was a fire, this child could get trapped in there."
The I-TEAM learned last week that all of GMF's properties in Jacksonville have been listed for sale.
A GMF source told the News4Jax that the properties are profitable and there is a bidding war over the properties and five others in three other states that were also put up for sale. When Rubio was told that, he found it distasteful.
"No. 1, I thought (GMF) were a not-for-profit. No. 2, what do they do with all the money ... because it didn't go to paint jobs or new refrigerators," Rubio said.
Global Ministries personnel wouldn't give any interviews, but released a statement late Friday afternoon:
We are pleased the Senator finally decided to visit Eureka Garden for the first time. GMF has been working hard investing millions in restoring the property since they acquired it 3 years ago. Eureka Gardens did not become a problem property overnight. It has been a perennial problem for the City of Jacksonville for decades."
In response, Curry tweeted, "Actions speak much louder than words/statements."