JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Ben Carson, the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, joined Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Alan Lawson and City Councilman Garrett Dennis on Tuesday for a tour of the Eureka Gardens housing project.
"It really is a fact-gathering venture because, in order to make appropriate policies, you have to know the good and the bad of everything," Carson said. "This is part of the infrastructure of America and we need to take care of it."
The visit comes nearly two years after the I-TEAM began reporting on safety and health concerns about the property, which is home to about 400 families. Last month, the property failed its latest HUD inspection and was given 60 days to make improvements.
Carson walked the property and visited with some of the residents. He said he was impressed by the amount of activism among the tenants and the support they have received from local leadership.
"Looking at some of the units, recognizing some of the incredible disrepair," Carson said of the conditions of part of the unimproved parts of the property. Then referring to the new management company, The Millennia Group, which is in the process of buying the complex: "This group is going to go beyond making them livable. They are going to make them nice."
Eureka Gardens Tenant Association President Tracy Grant, who first alerted the I-TEAM to the deplorable conditions at the complex and who has since testified to a Senate subcommittee, will meet with the group of government officials.
The contingent was shown a trashed unit after a tenant moved out and one prepared for a new tenant to occupy.
"My heart dropped. I love it. It's beautiful," Grant said after seeing a refurbished unit for the first time.
Over the past 20 months, News4Jax has reported on mold, mildew, gas and carbon monoxide leaks that led to evacuations, and crumbling infrastructure including stairs used daily by hundreds of families. The reports prompted Rubio's interest in the problems with Eureka Gardens, its owner, Global Ministries Foundation and problems with the HUD-inspection process.
GMF's president is now under federal investigation and has agreed to sell GMF's entire portfolio of federally subsidized housing complexes, including five other properties in Jacksonville, to Millennia.
Millennia is proposing to spend more than $18 million over the next two years to upgrade the complex.
After the tour, the entire group, including Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, sat down to discuss what they had seen.
Rubio, who toured the property last year, continues to push for changes in federal laws to oversee how nonprofit owners are spending millions in taxpayer money and make changes to the HUD inspection process.
"There's an improvement, but there's more work to be done. I don't think you can come here a year ago and come here today and not be optimistic (about a place) where people can raise their children in peace and give them a chance at a better life," Rubio said. "A lot of credit goes to the local media. To be honest, that is what brought it to our attention, got us involved, got the community pressure created."
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