New congressman, prospective buyer visit Eureka Gardens

Residents told HUD will reinspect troubled Section 8 property this week

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Newly elected North Florida U.S. Rep. Al Lawson visited Jacksonville's most troubled subsidized housing projects Monday to promise continuing support from Washington to improve living conditions at the complex.

For more than a year, the I-TEAM has reported on deplorable living conditions at Eureka Gardens, reporting that brought a city code enforcement sweep, the re-inspection by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a visit by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and a special hearing before the U.S. Senate.

The complex's owner, Global Ministries Foundation, has agreed to sell Eureka Gardens and its entire Section 8 housing portfolio, subject to HUD approval.

During his visit, Lawson told a group of residents that he believes improvements will come under the new owner, but added that GMF will not be off the hook even once they're out of the public housing business.

"We want to make sure we hold people's feet to the fire," Lawson said. "They allowed this complex to get out of hand. They kept the resources and didn't put them into the facility, so they need to pay."

Lawson is promising bipartisan support for the 400 families living in Eureka Gardens. Beginning 18-months ago, the I-TEAM has documented squalor, mold, crumbling stairs, gas and carbon monoxide leaks at the complex that was receiving tens of millions of taxpayer money and that kept passing HUD inspections.

Lawson hopes to get the new HUD secretary, Ben Carson, to Jacksonville and walk the property now managed by its prospective owner, Millenia Group.

"I can't speak to (GMF's) business model, but I can tell you we have experience in handling these types of properties," Millenia Group's Jeff Crossman said. "Affordable housing is what we do."

Millenia promised it wants a complete rehab of the entire property once they are given ownership. That's welcome news for resident Barbara Eberhart.

"I don't have faith (but) I have a lot of hope," Eberhart said. "Things are way better now, and I'll like I say, give it a couple more years and Eureka will be off the chains."

Eureka Gardens is in City Councilman Garrett Dennis' district. He told News4Jax know he was unable to attend because of late notice of Lawson's visit, but sent a statement:

I am pleased that Congressman Lawson has taken an interest in Eureka Gardens. I hope to discuss other issues plaguing our community and the city of Jacksonville in the near future."

Lawson is spending three days in Jacksonville. He has meetings planned with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida about the Affordable Care Act, with the Jacksonville Port Authority about dredging the St. Johns River and a group of 30-40 ministers to catch them up to date on issues in Washington.

"Washington right now is very unstable. It's very partisan. There are some parts of Washington where Republicans and Democrats go through different doors. A lot of that stuff has to change in order for us to remember the campaign is over and to work for the people," Lawson said. "Harvard University is doing a study on us, and so far, they say this could be the (congressional) class to break the gridlock."

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