JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said that despite some progress, conditions at the problem-plagued Eureka Gardens housing complex are still “disgusting.”
The complex 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. The reports last year led to a citywide code enforcement sweep, spearheaded by Curry.
The city confirmed last month that all the interior code violations found at Eureka Gardens had been fixed, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development confirmed this week that it has renewed its contract with Global Ministries Foundation to run Eureka Gardens for another year.
Curry had sent a letter to HUD Secretary Julian Castro at the end of February, asking HUD to consider a new owner for the complex who would be “better able to operate, maintain and preserve” it and other federally subsidized housing in the city.
But a HUD representative told News4Jax that contracts are not generally denied for renewal unless the property receives less than a 60 on a 100-point scale.
Global Ministries' founder, the Rev. Richard Hamlet, said last month that the complex had passed its recent HUD inspection, but sources told News4Jax that the score was “barely passing.”
Global Ministries told News4Jax the interior and exterior apartments scored 74 points, although two issues on the playground resulted in a 12-point penalty for a final score of 62.
Hamlet responded to Curry's letter to the HUD secretary with a letter of his own, calling Curry's requests “politically motivated.”
He said Eureka Gardens did not become a problem property overnight and that the city had largely ignored the issues there and allowed them to fester.
“If he calls political motivation calling out children going to bed with mold-covered walls, he ought to be ashamed of himself and he ought to spend a night or week living there, and then we can talk about political motivation,” Curry said, responding Wednesday to Hamlet's comments. “It’s frankly disgusting. The living conditions are no conditions that we would want any of our family members to live in, so I would suggest he go spend a night there -- maybe a week there -- and bring his family along as well.”
Curry admitted Eureka Gardens has made some progress since I-TEAM reports shed light last fall on conditions at the complex that ranged from crumbling staircases and leaking air conditioning units to mold and mildew problems. At the time, Curry called the conditions “heartbreaking” and assured there would be changes at the complex.
“There’s been some work done, some progress made, but this landlord fails to recognize and own the issue,” Curry said. “What this really boils down to is this is about people, this is about families, women, men and children living in conditions that none of us would want to live in, wouldn’t want to sleep in, wouldn’t want to spend time in.”
Mold still being cleaned up
A HUD representative said officials visited Eureka Gardens earlier this week to chart progress in a number of areas.
Residents are still waiting to get a final update on air quality inside their apartments. The indoor air quality in the units was tested by a certified company and apartments with mold were being repaired by an international water damage restoration company. That work is being evaluated by independent experts, and when the testing shows no more elevated or harmful levels of mold, residents will receive letters from the inspectors.
One resident awaiting such a letter is Dwan Wilson, whose unit drew tears from a city employee during the code enforcement sweep.
Her kitchen now has holes, patched with tape.
“They told HUD they were through, but this is what they're doing, guys,” Wilson said. “They came back and just plastered over this for HUD.”
Wilson showed the I-TEAM the mold remediation work in her neighbor's apartment that included a wall ripped out in the kitchen, a tented venting-type system in the family den, ripped out walls in the bedrooms with plastic covers, including the rooms where children sleep.
The children's mother didn't want to show her face, but did want her voice heard.
“When they first started this, I felt they should move everybody out,” she said.
Wilson also said she feels let down that HUD renewed its contract with GMF for another year.
“For everyone who looked in my face and told me that they would come out here and do something about this for us, this is not just for me this, is for the children,” Wilson said. “If y'all are not going to do this for us, do it for the children. Don't just be a politician. Keep your word.”
City's 'hands are tied'
To deal with the issues at Eureka Gardens and other subsidized housing complexes in Jacksonville, the city created a group of representatives from LISC, Family Foundations of Northeast Florida, the Jacksonville Housing Authority, members of the City Council and key members of Curry's staff.
Curry said the goal is for the group to engage HUD “in a collaborative process that will systematically address the challenges facing Eureka Gardens as well as other privately owned multi-family properties with HAP contracts.”
Curry is hoping for a meeting with HUD leaders to try to get the city more leverage on oversight at Eureka Gardens and other troubled Jacksonville housing communities.
“Right now our hands are tied in many respects because the federal government is the ultimate overseer of that,” he said.
Curry said he was insulted and bewildered by Hamlet's accusation that the city government hasn't been involved in the Eureka Gardens issues.
“I would say his comments are nonsense,” Curry said. “First, there was Councilman (Warren) Jones. Councilman Garrett Dennis has been all over this issue, and last I checked there is a new mayor in town. I was elected on July 1.”
Hamlet responded to Curry's criticism Wednesday by reiterating what he wrote in his letter to the HUD secretary that the city is attempting to assume control after allowing the problem to develop in the first place.
“A war of words is not productive," Hamlet said in a statement. "The focus should be on government and GMF working together to improve conditions for the residents.”
Global Ministries owns 61 housing complexes in eight states. Hamlet established one umbrella company in Jacksonville to run Eureka Gardens and five other housing communities.
GMF will receive $6 million from the federal government to operate Eureka Gardens as a Section 8 housing project over the next year.
"Our Eureka Garden community families and the management team should take great pride in the collective work done to achieve the recent passing HUD REAC inspection score," Hamlet said in a statement. "We remain committed to our partnership with HUD and focused on continuing the steady progress on restorations which began just after we acquired Eureka Gardens three years ago. My heartfelt thanks go to our community leaders, neighbors and residents for their support and guidance as we have worked diligently in partnership with HUD to provide Jacksonville families with comfortable, safe and affordable homes at Eureka Gardens."
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