Federal representatives have tough words for GHA
By Michelle L. Quinn Post-Tribune correspondent August 7, 2013 2:08PM
Wanda Jones (standing) paints a jarring picture of life at Genesis Towers for Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials during the first of three Wednesday town hall meetings discussing HUD’s administrative receivorship of the Gary Housing Authority. | Michelle L. Quinn~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 9, 2013 2:46PM
GARY — U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials had harsh words for Gary Housing Authority workers Wednesday morning.
Willie Garrett, who’s been chosen as the GHA executive director during HUD’s administrative receivership of the city agency, said during the first of three public forums that he had met with Genesis Tower employees this week and was told there were “little to no work orders.”
But after sitting and listening to complaint after complaint, he estimated there were at least 100 issues needing immediate attention.
“I find this especially strange that I’m hearing this after just meeting with the staff,” Garrett said. “It is not in your best interest (to lie).”
HUD Assistant Secretary Sandra Brooks Henriquez was also blunt in her criticism, calling the conditions “totally unacceptable.”
“If you’re here and you’re hearing comments from the people, I have to say, I don’t know what you’ve been doing on your job to not notice these things,” Henriquez said. “How can you not walk into a building and it not smell?
“I’ve seen a lot of conditions, but this meeting has been personally and professionally difficult for me. Starting today at 10 a.m., this is a new day (for GHA).”
Henriquez told the packed Genesis Tower Ballroom that the receivership into which the city has entered is a “resident-centered decision” and she, along with Garrett and Steve Meiss, the director for the Illinois Office of Public Housing who will be serving as GHA’s lone board member, will work to make sure Gary’s public housing is the best it can possibly be. They’ve already called for emergency procurement procedures to get the ball rolling for renewal and restoration.
But tales of unsanitary conditions abounded. Wanda Jones, who’s lived in the Al Thomas High Rise on West 11th Avenue for five years, said a pest contractor tasked to remove bedbugs came to a neighbor’s apartment and told them “it ain’t that bad,” and didn’t exterminate. Now, she’s infested.
“I lost my homemaker because she got bit by one,” Jones said.
Isabella Walker, who’s lived in GHA housing for 40 years, said she’s never seen things so bad. In her residence, there are maggots coming up a chute in the back of the building.
“We don’t need promises,” Genesis Tower resident Billy Moore said. “Decent people are leaving. Would you bring your momma here?”
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, whose mother lives with her, said, “Absolutely not.”
“But our job is to make it a resounding, ‘Yes,’ ” she said. “I know you don’t believe it. I wouldn’t either. But I can’t wait to prove you wrong.”
Meiss said the GHA faces daunting challenges the next two years of the receivership, and he expects it will be extended past two years. The tools to fix it, however, will be different, and Henriquez said she’ll be involved personally to clear away any obstacles as quickly as possible.
Genesis Tower residents Helen Harris and Johnnie McNeil would like to believe them. Harris, who was displaced from her apartment in the February flood at the complex, is still displaced.
“I’m in an apartment where the roof is leaking, and I had to buy my own window screen because one didn’t have one,” said Harris, 85. “But it’s so quiet here. I love it.”
McNeil, who’s 69 and once thought moving to the Tower was a privilege but now has a bathroom covered in black mold, doesn’t want to leave, either.
“I’ve lived in Gary all my life, and I don’t want to go nowhere,” she said. “But if my daughters ask me one more time, I might have to do it.”