JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After three long weeks with no gas to cook or shower with, one building at a government-subsidized housing complex in Jacksonville is back up and running.
Gas was restored Friday to the first of 37 buildings on the property, but the work at Valencia Way, formerly Eureka Gardens, will continue for weeks, possibly into the holidays.
The News4Jax I-TEAM learned that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is now surveying residents about possibly relocating some to nearby hotels.
City Council member Garrett Dennis has worked to improve his district's problem-plagued Eureka Gardens for four years.
"Millenia has been working diligently. It may not have been the best at every step of the way, but they've been working and they've been here, unlike the previous owner, who was out of touch and out of state," Dennis said.
A gas leak three weeks ago uncovered a massive problem in the gas lines. Dennis met last week with HUD and Millenia, the owner, and a complete rehab was given the green light. Extra gas crews were called in from surrounding areas to lay all new pipes for 400 units.
"I knew it was going to take time, but how can you tell close to 900 people that it's a matter of time and you're last on the list?" Dennis said.
Bob Starfast, who has been a resident for 25 years, is one of those people still waiting.
"Grateful they're doing the work, but we hope and pray it ends soon," Starfast. "It's been going on too long as it is."
He and many other residents told the I-TEAM that, for privacy and sanitary reasons, they don't feel safe showering in the portable restrooms that Millenia has brought in. Mothers said their children are bathing in cold water and eating packaged foods, and they're worried sick over the safety of the property.
"I'm dead worried. I'm worried for everybody else's child around here," one resident said. "Send us help."
Millenia bought the property almost a year ago and has promised improvements. Mayor Lenny Curry helped lead the charge with City Council to improve the former Eureka Gardens, now Valencia Way. The I-TEAM took residents' concerns to Curry on Friday to get answers.
"They inherited a mess, for sure," Curry said of Millenia. "Any time you've got families, children, moms, dad, grandmas, grandpas without hot water in tough living conditions, that's problematic. But they are working through it. They inherited these old terrible gas lines and they're doing everything they can to get them replaced."
Millenia is serving three hot meals on the weekends and one every weeknight free of charge for the residents. So far, 11 elderly and disabled have been put in hotels.
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Democrat representing Florida's 5th Congressional District, told the I-TEAM on Thursday he is calling on HUD to move the residents to hotels, but it does not seem that may be feasible to move more than 900 people. HUD requirements mandate a move be to an extended stay within a 5-mile radius and there are not that many hotel rooms even available for every single resident, and they may not have transportation from hotels to get to work or school.
A HUD spokesperson sent the I-TEAM the following statement on Friday:
"We are closely monitoring the situation at Valencia Way during the repair and replacement of the gas lines. We were notified on Oct. 4 and remain in frequent communication with the owners about their progress and supportive services for the tenants during this difficult time. Alternative housing has been offered to elderly and disabled tenants who desired to temporarily relocate while repairs are done. As of Oct. 24, 11 tenants were in hotels. A survey is being conducted with all remaining tenants to determine their need for temporary relocation. Unfortunately, it is not a simple repair; this work will take a few more weeks before is completed. The owners are providing to all affected households daily meal services, daily stipends, laundry facilities, electric burners, and other options to help alleviate in part the inconvenience while repairs are made."
Millenia outlined the restoration plan in a statement on Friday. The statement said the gas company contractor continues to install main gas line and the general contractor’s plumbing subcontractor installed gas lines on Buildings 3, 4 and 6. Millennia’s contractor replaced valves in Buildings 3 and 4 and the two buildings will be pressure-tested Saturday.
Beyond the new gas lines, all 400 units should be refurbished in the next 12 months, including new floors, cabinets, appliances and central air conditioning.