In the twilight of his Senate term, Sen. Marco Rubio is focusing on constituent issues, such as Eureka Garden Apartments in Jacksonville.
Eureka Garden has stirred the senator to sound a clarion call for reform of HUD’s clearly problematic process.
The long-neglected, 400-unit HUD complex is currently for sale by Global Ministries Foundation. It’s a meaningless distinction for those who live there, dealing with institutional neglect, most recently manifested on Thursday with a forced evacuation of units during repair of a faulty stairwell.
Rubio outlined the horror those residents live with on the Senate floor Thursday.
“When my staff visited the complex, it was nearly unlivable. They saw crumbling stairs. They saw black mold. They saw exposed electrical wiring that had been covered up by a trash bag. They smelled the natural gas that would soon hospitalize residents just days later,” Rubio noted.”
In that context, Rubio visited Eureka Garden Friday, May 13.
The walkthrough happened in the unforgiving sun of the early afternoon in Jacksonville, where the humidity perhaps drove Rubio to even more candor than he otherwise might have expressed about the “horrifying and inexcusable” conditions at Eureka Garden.
Pointing to where a crew was stationed to work, Rubio told media that “they started all that repair work two days ago when they heard I was coming.”
“Seventy-two hours ago,” Rubio said, it wasn’t happening.
From there, walking to a unit, Rubio was told that the front stairwell was the only one that could be used, because the back was closed down.
Looking at the dilapidated metal framework, well past its usable life, Rubio said “this isn’t far behind.”
Then, Rubio, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, and district Councilman Garrett Dennis went inside a unit.
Media was discouraged from entering with them, but the smell of mold wafted out of the door.
Dingy floors with tile from a bygone era were visible, as well as a throwback window air conditioner too small for the space, and a small gas stove of similar mid-century vintage.
Emerging from the apartment, Rubio called Global Ministries Foundation “an old-fashioned slumlord” whose nonprofit status, Rubio said, was a dodge to “avoid property tax.”
He then said the group’s feeble simulations of repair work were “all a show.”
“They only do anything when people make noise,” Rubio added.
Curry added that in the back doorway of the unit, pictured above this piece, there was a “board with nails sticking out of the doorway,” presenting an opportunity for a child to slip out.
After the walking tour, Rubio, Curry, and Dennis addressed the media.
Rubio was every bit as blunt in the press availability as he was in the moment, calling the complex’s condition “deplorable,” pointing out an apartment he saw that had gone unpainted for 13 years and had “no functional window” in a bedroom.
“If there was a fire,” the senator said, “a child would be trapped.”
Rubio then went on to put the entire system of 501(c)(4) nonprofits on blast, saying that the model was for them to do “minimal maintenance” and give a “couple of tenants extra-special care” to bluff their way through HUD inspections.
Then the senator vowed he would push for all Global Ministries Foundation units to be examined when he returned to D.C .on Monday.
GMF, Rubio said, is a “slumlord, pure and simple.”
“Our initial hope,” Rubio said, was “that the owners take ownership and get [these problems] fixed.”
The senator didn’t want a media “spectacle,” yet “delay after delay ensued.”
“How can HUD certify that this property is habitable?,” he asked.
Rubio contended HUD needs to change its system for grading properties, which has allowed owners like GMF to collect federal dollars and, instead of “buying new refrigerators, putting money in their pockets.”
His goal: to ensure that Global Ministries Foundation “never again” gets federal money.
Rubio expressed sympathy for HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who “inherited this,” and who expressed interest in changing the grading system to account for habitability threats such as mold and bedbugs.
Beyond a change in the grading system, Rubio wants Section 8 properties to post bonds, money that would be forfeited if the contract was violated.
He added that the situation at Eureka Garden is “in no sense isolated” and quite likely is replicated elsewhere, adding that GMF’s “C4 status is laughable.”
From there, an incredulous Rubio went on to comment on the “bidding war” interested parties have in the GMF portfolio.
“Bidding war? I thought these were nonprofit. What are they doing with the profits?”
Curry, whose friendship with Rubio is well documented, gave the senator credit for being “fully engaged,” adding that “we’re not going away.”
The mayor noted that when Garrett Dennis, the councilman for Eureka Garden, talked to Curry about the conditions, he said “be prepared. You’re probably going to cry.”
Curry noted that “we’ve seen rough [conditions] today, but we’ve seen much worse.”
Regarding the sale of these properties, Curry said “that’s a win,” adding that he wanted the city in the process, “close enough to make sure that the new owner is not a slumlord,” attempting a “scheme” to “get rich off the property.”
Dennis noted that the problems with HUD properties are “much bigger than Eureka Garden,” yet “because of Eureka Garden, a light is shined on the whole system.”
There was pushback from Global Ministries Foundation.
Audrey Young of GMF noted that “if [conditions were] that bad, why do we have such an incredibly long waiting list?”
Young said Rubio’s interest was politically driven, “because Julian Castro is being considered for Hillary’s ticket.”
One wonders what Rubio will be able to accomplish in the next few months, as a lame duck senator dealing with a lame duck administration. At the very least, he can plant the seeds.
When asked if the GOP nominee, Donald Trump, should take a hard look at HUD reform, Rubio quipped that “I hope he makes this a world-class facility.”
The residents would settle for a safe and habitable home, of course. When will they get it? That’s still an open question, and appears that it will be for some time to come.