Newark Housing Authority behind on thousands of repairs and counting, director says

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on June 12, 2015

Mark Bellini, 59, sits in his wheelchair inside his apartment at Riverside Villa. Bellini claims he has had trouble getting mold and other problems in the home repaired.

 

NEWARK — Walls and floor tiles covered in mold. Splintered drawers and cabinets hanging off their hinges. Leaky ceilings with holes big enough to stick an arm through.

All are common sites inside the apartments in Riverside Villa, a 198-unit public housing complex tucked along Route 21 in the city's North Ward. Residents say they routinely submit requests for repairs, but that the problems can persist for months or even years without being fixed.

"I've been living in housing all my life, and they're not doing nothing," said Deborah Abney, who has been living in Riverside Villa with her husband since 2001.

But the man in charge of the complex says the situation at Riverside Villa is far from unique. Keith Kinard, who has been executive director of the Newark Housing Authority since 2006, says massive reductions in federal funding have rendered the agency unable to promptly take care of repairs and other quality-of-life issues at public housing units across the city.

"It's a resource issue," he said. "Unfortunately, Congress has not been allocating the appropriate amount of funds for the greater part of a decade now, and its really starting to to take hold across the country."

According to Kinard, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sends approximately $14 million less per year today than in 2010. The agency relies on federal funding for about 80 percent of its budget, with the other 20 percent filled by the rent paid by each tenant (Riverside Villa residents pay an average of $226 per month for their units).

The cuts have fallen largely on staff, according to Kinard, and the Housing Authority now employees less than 400 people in total, down from more than 1,200 in 2006. Of those remaining, just 105 are devoted to maintenance, who scramble to fill the some 5,700 repair requests, known as work orders, that the agency receives each month.

Next year, the Housing Authority expects the funding to be cut by another $8 million next year, which Kinard said could cause conditions in the city's 6,928 public housing units to deteriorate even further.

"If Congress continues to disinvest in public housing, the problems are going to get worse," he said.

But as residents continue to face long waits for repairs on their homes, tensions have begun to boil over.

Late last month, a group of Riverside Villa residents crowded into Housing Authority headquarters to demand the resignations of Kinard and the agency's Board of Commissioners.

"They're just irresponsible. They're not accountable to their residents," said Shadeequa Swiney, who said problems with tiling in her apartment regularly cut her young daughter's feet.

In response, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. and Councilman At-Large Eddie Osborne, who also serves as a Housing Authority Commissioner, visited the complex last week.

After taking a look at many of the homes, they agreed that some immediate action was necessary, though they stopped short of saying Kinard or others with the agency had abdicated their responsibilities.

"It's a lot of area for them to cover at a time when they claim they have limited resources," said Ramos. "But when you have the presence of mold and big holes in the ceiling...that's pretty dangerous. They've got to prioritize that."

Osborne agreed, saying that while residents were clearly emotional, the problems likely boiled down to a shortage of dollars.

"Based on what I've seen today, I think both the long and short-term solutions are for the city to lobby Washington for additional funding and resources," he said.

In spite of the ongoing issues, however, Housing Authority officials say there is visible progress being made at Riverside Villa.

Grants of about $10 million recently allowed for the opening on a new recreation center, where residents can take classes including yoga, rock climbing, boxing and self-defense techniques. A security gate at the complex's entrance that had been boarded up and covered in graffiti was reopened and outfitted with bullet-proof glass, and new security camera and lights were to added to combat problems with gangs and criminal activity.

More recently, measures have been taken to form a tenant association to help provide feedback, and a special election is scheduled for the coming weeks. Complex residents had charged that the Housing Authority had been actively sabotaging their attempts to organize, which the agency denied.

Isaac Jenkins, a resident of the Seth Boyden Housing Complex who helped Riverside Villa organize the tenant association, said they were simply asking for basic human compassion.

"These folks over here are living in squalor," he said. "Nobody should have to live like this."

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