After call-in complaint campaign, city council scrutinizes public housing authority

At Tuesday night’s meeting, the city council discussed a pattern of complaints about conditions at in some city public housing units // The Citizen file photo

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Complaints about conditions in city subsidized housing prompted both expressions of support for residents and indignation from members of the Harrisonburg City Council on Tuesday evening, as current and former tenants along with activists from across the state called in to the livestream meeting.

Brenda Coles, president of the Richmond chapter of the National Action Network, helped organize the callers. 

“Harrisonburg, you are failing your low-income seniors,” she said, with “far away from acceptable HUD housing.” 

Residents and activists complained of ongoing bedbug infestations, black mould, faulty plumbing, and racial discrimination in evicton practices at the Lineweaver Apartments, a property run by the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA). One former resident said that the bedbug infestation has been going on “for quite some time: frequently reported and never changed.” 

Council member Chris Jones said he would reach out to the state office for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the HRHA. He noted that the authority’s executive director, Michael Wong, reports to a board of commissioners that is appointed by the city council. But he said that complaints like these have been coming to the council for four or five years. 

“At this point I think we’ve been insulted by Mr. Wong” by reports of “blighted homes,” Jones said. “I think that we as a council need to speak with the board, and execute our maximum authority to make sure that people are being taken care of.”

Wong was not present at the virtual council meeting.

Mayor Deanna Reed said she’s visited a tenant in Lineweaver about her concerns, and attended a board of commissioners meeting with the tenant. 

“What I’ve tried to do is respect the protocol of, Michael does not report to city council. He reports to his board,” Reed explained. “We keep hearing the same complaints … but now I think it’s a little bit too much.”

At the council’s request, City Manager Eric Campbell said he would look into conducting an inspection of the building tomorrow.

“I’m just a little appalled by what I’ve heard tonight, and I feel bad for people in that building,” said council member George Hirschmann.

This is not the first time the authority has publicly butted heads with the council.

Last May, the council shut down a subsidized housing development planned at 650 East Gay Street for the second time. The first time they voted against it in 2018, they said it was in large part because the authority’s other four housing complexes – Lineweaver Apartments, Lineweaver Annex, Franklin Heights, and Commerce Village – are also all located in the Northeast neighborhood.

Guarded optimism on local COVID-19 trends

The council also heard an update on how the city is handling the COVID-19 pandemic from Paul Helmuth, the city’s deputy emergency coordinator, and Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of the Central Shenandoah Health District. 

“I think we have made a very good effort to flatten the curve and slow the growth of the disease,” said Helmuth. Besides just tracking the numbers of new cases – Harrisonburg has had 96 in the last month – he said the percentage of positive tests out of all those tested is a good indicator of how well we’re slowing the disease’s spread. Early in the pandemic he said our region’s had been “well over 20%,” at one point hitting 40% – now the Central Shenandoah Health District is down to a 4.3% positive rate out of all tests. 

“Which is a phenomenal place to be, especially with where we started off,” he said.

Another piece of good news, he said, is that we haven’t seen a spike in new cases following July 4th, when family and friend gatherings could have increased transmission. 

A graph showing infection curves in Harrisonburg (right) and a similar community elsewhere in Virginia, shown at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

However, we aren’t out of the woods yet. Helmuth showed a graph of Harrisonburg’s cumulative total cases since April 1, compared to that of another “similar,” unnamed Virginia locality that hasn’t flattened the curve.

Helmuth said that when he asked officials in that locality about the spike, he was told that that public’s attitude there had been, “we weren’t as bad as Harrisonburg, and everyone sort of gave up.”

To that cautionary tale he added, “what we don’t want to do is to go back and forget that the virus is still here.”

Kornegay and Helmuth said that the biggest challenge they’re facing right now is the inconsistent timing of test results – sometimes they come back in six hours, and other times it’s 14 days.

Laboratories “are feeling the strain not only here, but all across Virginia because there’s so many tests,” Helmuth said. 

To that end, upcoming testing sites that are free to the community will only be available to those with symptoms of COVID-19, have had contact with someone diagnosed with the virus, or are in a “hotspot” of transmission, Kornegay said.

Harrisonburg reported seven new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, July 28, bringing the total to 1,035, and the seven-day average to 3.6 new cases per day. The seven-day average of positive tests is 4.3 percent for the Central Shenandoah Health District, and 7.3 percent for the state as a whole. Graph and analysis courtesy of Joe Fitzgerald.

Also at the meeting:

  • The council unanimously re-appointed Cheryl Mast to the Community Services Board and Rob Alexander to the Stormwater Advisory Committee.
  • The council unanimously appointed Adriel Byrd and Deb Fitzgerald to the Planning Commission. Members tabled a new appointment to the HRHA board until concerns with the authority could be looked into.

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