Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson don’t agree on everything. But when it comes to the horrors of the HUD-funded properties in Florida that are owned currently by Global Ministries Foundation, they presented a united from Thursday in a Senate subcommittee meeting on “Oversight of the HUD Inspection Process.”
Both Rubio and Nelson have visited GMF properties in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Riviera Beach, and have documented the decay and decrepitude in these low-income housing blocks.
On Thursday, they again sounded the alarm bell.
But, observed subcommittee head Tim Scott, HUD “could not spare a single individual to be here this morning,” despite thousands of employees and a $32 billion budget.
“How is it that not a single employee of HUD could make the time to explain how this has happened,” Scott said after showing a video of the degraded conditions.
“I cannot believe the conditions that Global Ministries allows in its properties,” Scott continued.
Scott lauded Rubio and Nelson for kickstarting the Senate investigation into the “widespread neglect” into properties like Eureka Garden in Jacksonville, the most high-profile failure of HUD oversight in Florida due to media attention and recent focus from the senators.
Subcommittee member Bob Corker lauded the two Florida Senators for “shining a light” on GMF; Corker, a senator from Tennessee, saw a similar narrative of neglected GMF public housing properties play out in his state.
In testimony, Nelson spoke of the “outrage” he felt, urging a subpoena of HUD officials to bring them to heel in front of the Senate.
Nelson went on to discuss the unacceptable conditions he and Rubio saw in Orlando at the Windsor Cove complex, including severe water damage, mold, roach infestation, and waterlogged carpeting.
As was the case with Eureka Garden in Jacksonville, Nelson noted that HUD had passed this tenement in its initial investigation, then “after we raised cain,” the agency invalidated the previous score after outcry from tenants, who faced “intimidation” for blowing the whistle.
Mysteriously, a second inspection revealed horrors galore: “broken smoke detectors, exposed electrical wires, blocked fire exits, leaky water valves, window cracks, missing floor tiles, and water seeping in from roof damage—just to name a few.”
Nelson discussed a hopeful augury: the potential sale of GMF properties to Millennia Housing Management in Ohio, which he believes has the resources to remediate these properties.
Nelson, who introduced the Housing Accountability Act with his Sunshine State colleague, noted that bill would tighten up inspection criteria and protect residents.
Rubio noted that “we are all deeply disturbed” by the “broken” process, and noted his displeasure with HUD’s no-show of the hearing.
“I became involved in this situation about a year ago when the tenants took their case to the public,” Rubio said, which has led to outcry against “slumlords” like GMF, which pay themselves handsomely and take the money out of maintenance.
Rubio spoke with passion about apartments at Eureka Garden unpainted in 13 years, with boarded-up windows and doors.
Rubio addressed, also, the “bureaucratic indifference” that led this to happen.
Furthermore, what he saw in Riviera Beach was even worse, with discarded “nickel bags and dime bags of drugs” strewn on the ground.
“Nothing displays how broken this system is better than HUD’s own inspection process,” a rigged game designed to “keep the money flowing to the landlord.”
Rubio, as Nelson did, discussed the flawed inspection process; however, Rubio depicted it as one of many “failed safety-net processes.”
GMF, Rubio noted, owns properties in many states: “over 5,000 taxpayer-funded properties throughout the nation.”
“I look forward to hearing from witnesses about GMF’s fraud and HUD’s neglect,” Rubio said.
Witnesses buttressed the senators’ claims.
Dr. Edgar Olsen, a public policy expert, noted that the subsidies exceed market rates, and contended the system actually offers incentive to a lack of repair.
“You should not assume the problem is limited to one owner,” Olson continued.
Deterioration, Olsen continued, is augmented by the inflation-adjusted subsidy not being tied to the level of maintenance, which allows them to “maximize profits by skimping on maintenance.”
Olsen argued against offering additional subsidies to these owners for renovation, instead contending that housing vouchers are a more cost-effective solution, tied to market rates.
Tracy Grant of the Eureka Garden Tenants Association spoke of moving into the complex in 2010, where she encountered “stumbling blocks,” including questioning of the validity of her birth certificate.
The night she moved in, she heard a gunshot outside her window. Her kids and she slept on the hard cement floor that night.
Meanwhile, the initial walkthrough revealed dirty floors and mold in the bathroom.
Once in the apartment, issues like leaky pipes and other signs of structural neglect, such as gas leaks that permeated the inside and the outside of the complex, plagued Ms. Grant.
Her fellow tenants, Grant said, want change; some of them have lived there 50 years, Grant said.
And some languish there in poor health, and some died there, perhaps because of complications from mold, gas leaks, and even lead poisoning from the water.
Grant’s own seven-year-old daughter has asthma, and so does Grant; she noted the correlation between conditions and health outcomes.
“We don’t want to live like this,” Grant said.
Josh Lewis of the Riviera Beach Police Department spoke next, about the conditions at the Stonybrook Complex, which was built in 1972.
Despite the property repeatedly being spotlighted by law enforcement, and repeated assurances by ownership that compliance would occur, no meaningful action was taken.
Eventually, in May 2016, the property was officially declared a criminal nuisance by the police department.
And, said Lewis, GMF still hadn’t taken meaningful corrective action.
After witness testimony, Sen. Rubio noted the goal of the hearing was to “make the current system work better,” then posed questions to witnesses.
One such question: to Grant, regarding the intimidation of tenants and “preferential treatment” to certain tenants to serve as mouthpieces to the press.
Among those amenities: refrigerators made this century.
Grant confirmed the senator’s read, saying that tenants who spoke up were threatened with a “ten-day eviction notice” rooted in spurious cause.
Grant also described rust peeling off of bathroom pipes, in response to questions from Sen. Scott.
Josh Lewis, meanwhile, called for “accountability.”
But the issue, pointed out by housing consultant Vincent O’Donnell, is tough to solve given the guaranteed income streams provided by housing vouchers.
The incentive is on landlords to keep tenants in units as long as possible.
Chairman Scott closed the hearing, saying there are “many issues in the housing footprint that we need to engage in,” as housing and upward mobility and quality of life are inextricably yoked.