Slum Maintenance at Essex Village

Crime scene at Essex Village.

Crime scene at Essex Village. (Photo credit: WTVR)

Who needs tenement slums when we’ve got public housing projects? The supposed “market failure” of the private sector to provide the poor and working class with decent shelter provided the justification for the federal government to get into housing business in the 1930s. We all know the result. Uncle Sam turned out to be the worst slumlord of all. In desperation, the government tried outsourcing to the private sector. How’s that working out?

I’ve highlighted the disastrous Kippax Place in Hopewell in previous posts. Now, courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, we learn that Essex Village in Henrico County has similar problems. Here’s how Debbie Truong leads off the story:

Inside one apartment building in Henrico County’s largest federally subsidized housing complex, the bathroom ceiling leaked, the stove thermostat was faulty and the windows wouldn’t stay open.

Across Essex Village, stairs were in disrepair, and there were mice and leaking water heaters. In November, raw sewage bubbled to the surface of manhole covers and, in December, drains backed up in four ground-level apartments.

Since April 14, 140 cases of building code violations were either reported or discovered by the county as part of an enhanced effort to turn around what officials say has languished into the county’s most poorly maintained housing complex.

Henrico County officials have vowed to get the housing complex back up to an acceptable standard. It will continue to pursue inspections aggressively and it will pilot a “family stabilization” project that will bring health, financial literacy, social services and other resources to the 1,600-resident complex, reports Truong.

Gregory Perlman

GHC Housing Partners, which owns the 496-unit complex, said it has addressed the building code violations, which were “fairly minor” in any case. Also, CEO Gregory Perlman noted that Henrico had failed to support a proposal last year seeking federal tax credits that would have helped pay for renovations.

Who is this Perlman person? In 2012 he claimed to have invented a “new approach to affordable housing.” This comes from a GHC press release:

“We focus on our residents and provide them with the opportunity to better their lives through self-improvement programs as well as support from the non-profit Perlman Foundation.”

… GHC Housing Partners specializes in acquiring and managing primarily Section 8 housing and providing social services and amenities that go far beyond HUD requirements. Vegetable gardens, dog parks, job counseling, college scholarships and summer camps are only part of this transformation of affordable housing. GHC Housing Partners is focused on initiatives and programs that improve lives and provide bootstrap opportunities for residents to achieve a higher standard of living.

Wrapping public services around public housing is the hot concept in the non-profit world. But how has the idea fared in the real world? The building code violations speak for themselves. The T-D also quotes a Rev. Joe Ellison who previously ran a day care at Essex and served as a pastor in the community. He left in 2005 “crestfallen over the living conditions.”

He said he approached management at Essex two  years ago, hoping to establish a program that involved mentoring and job creation. After a lukewarm response, he instead turned his sights to Fairfield Court in Richmond.

GHC warrants a closer look, far closer than I can provide in this quick blog post. The company is part of a housing-industrial complex that has grown up around public housing and, some have told me, exists as much to provide a comfortable living for a vast ecosystem of for-profits, non-profits, consultants and government administrators as for the poor themselves.

On its website, the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based GHV claims to be the ” industry’s leading affordable housing owner and developer.” Since 1993, the company has acquired 20,000 housing units across 24 states in $1.25 billion worth of projects.

I infer that the company is for-profit, as the website makes no mention of a non-profit status. The parent company, GHC Housing Partners, is affiliated with GHC Investment Holdings, which acquires, owns and manages affordable housing; GHC Development, which develops properties using tax-exempt bonds and low-income housing tax credits; PK Management, a property management arm whose mission includes providing “quality service to its residents;” and a charitable arm, the All Ways Up Foundation.

In 2014, according to its IRS 990 form, the All Ways Up Foundation provided $128,777 in grants to organizations and $123,935 to individuals — sums that work out to an average of $12 per housing unit across the GHC system — and hosted an educational summit.

PK Management, which manages 18,000 units, purports to employ 41 social service coordinators to oversee resident welfare, focusing on delivering expanded services to its residents. It also offers “educational and professional opportunities designed to break the cycle of generational poverty.” (It’s not clear from the website if PK Management serves Essex Village, nor who pays for these services.)

The federal government turned to outsourcing after it became clear that it was doing a terrible job of running public housing projects itself. Perhaps it is time to ask if the non-profits and for-profits are doing any better. Anecdotal evidence is piling up that they are not, although Essex and Kippax may not be representative of performance at other housing projects. My suspicion is that private players master the latest buzz words and throw out a lot of flash-and-dazzle to impress the bureaucrats and win big contracts but that there’s not much follow through.

Perhaps the Times-Dispatch could do a little digging. What is the precise nature of GHC’s relationship with Essex Village? Does it own the property outright? Does it have a contract with the federal government? Does it provide wrap-around social services? Does the All Ways Up Foundation provide any grants? How much revenue does the project generate, and what is the cost structure? Most pertinently, how much money does GHC devote to maintenance and upkeep? Surely, this information would be available through the Freedom of Information Act.

Related questions: Who in the federal government, if anyone, is responsible for looking over GHC’s shoulder to make sure it is maintaining basic standards — and why has Henrico been forced to step in?

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6 responses to “Slum Maintenance at Essex Village

  1. Where’s Larry? This was posted at about 2:30; it’s already past 4:30. I would have thought that Larry would be effusively congratulating Jim on recognizing that maybe the private sector can’t do everything better than government, along with an extensive post in support, with circles and arrows on 8×10 glossy photos pointing out just how terrible a job this California outfit did. Wait… I missed it…it was a California outfit. Enough said.

  2. housing low income people together in one place is bad no matter if it is the govt doing it or the private sector.

    the real question is what should be done instead.. . and I invite Crazy to give us the Conservative “plan”… heh heh

  3. This is yet another example of highlighting something that is clearly a problem – a “fail” if you will and deserves to be focused on.

    but as usual – there are two sides to the coin.

    One side is to see this as somehow emblematic of govt efforts in this area – in general – ergo – this is something that govt is ill suited to do – and that govt is inherently – incompetent.

    The other side is to ask how many of these housing projects is the govt doing overall – and are most of them a failure or most work reasonably well or somewhere in between – a mixed bag?

    Is this fundamentally not something that govt should be doing in the first place?

    So – lets ask these questions about this one.

    How many of these projects are there in the Richmond Area ? How about Virginia? Are they all as bad as this one?

    I think what rankles me the most on some of these posts – is the “look what else the govt has screwed up because govt is inherently incompetent and corrupt and the less of it the better” perspective.

    Even that would be “ok” if the second part of the post would be something along the lines of ” we should be doing this instead” or ” here’s a govt that is doing this right and we need to adopt that way” or even ” here’s an example of how the private sector actually does this better than govt.. and perhaps govt should step back and do the things it can do – to enable the private sector to step in and do this better”.

    Govt – is – people and people are flawed in what they do – ergo Govt can be also. Ditto for the private sector – though a key difference is that the private sector will seek to provide a desired service and competition weeds out the bad performers. The question is – does the market seek to provide low-income housing for people of almost no means to pay or what could be done to create a “market” for low-income housing that the market would pursue and competition to weed out the low performers.

    So – this is all about – finding solutions – as opposed to ” here’s another example of how bad govt is and no I chose not to deal with solutions”… thinking…

  4. Yes, it is interesting that the private sector can’t be the solution to everything. After all, the reason the feds stepped in on low-income housing is that the private, landlord or sharecrop system failed miserably to provide decent housing. True, there were some private companies that provided more than adequate housing for their workers, but in the South, so many did not that rickets and pellagra were rampant. (See “White Trash,” a really good book I am reading).

    So, the feds moved in. Since then, there’s been a drumbeat to privatize government services like housing and see what can happen.

  5. I’d be the first one to admit that “public housing” is an abomination if for no other reason than it concentrates the poor with all of it’s attendant ills in dedicated areas .. which has proven to be a failure.

    but the private sector has not done much better because again – neighborhoods that are “affordable” tend to concentrate the poor in the same way – and thus the schools in those neighborhoods – also become reflective on the demographics.. in myriad bad ways.

    And no – charter/choice schools won’t fix this either.. and may well make it worse if it further concentrates the bad in the public schools.

    Clearly -we’ve not solved this problem.. but the “Solution” is not what we hear from some folks which is basically to abandon the problem .. run away.. blame it on others.. etc..

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