Council pushes for low-income housing improvements, gets briefing on JMU’s COVID-19 numbers

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Harrisonburg City Council members pushed for improvements to low-income housing properties operated by the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority in their meeting on Tuesday night, even as the authority’s board chair, John Hall, sought to address tenant complaints made in July

At that time, multiple residents called in to city council with allegations of bedbug infestations, black mold, plumbing issues, and racial discrimination in evictions. Following those complaints, the city’s building and fire inspectors visited that property – the Lineweaver apartment complex – and reported that there were no “major or significant findings.”

Hall addressed the specific complaints in his presentation to council, and explained that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the housing authority, requires that they inspect housing units annually. He said the authority sometimes does additional inspections throughout the year, and that it’s not uncommon for black mold to crop up.

“It’s always because the tenant has not cleaned,” Hall said. 

And if tenants are not physically able to clean the mold, the authority will do so for them. He said that plumbing issues also occur occasionally, and are repaired regularly. One repair that is yet to be completed, he said, is a leaking sprinkler drain.

As for complaints of bedbugs, Hall said that an entomologist from Virginia Tech was hired in 2006 to “help us design our pest management system,” and recommended heat treatment to deal with bedbugs, which the authority still uses. Hall said they check for bedbugs in each unit on a quarterly basis and immediately treat them upon discovery. But he said total eradication is impossible because of the high rate of tenant turnover and the amount of used furniture that residents bring into the building.

Hall said the authority had a building inspector and pest control specialist look into a specific room that was identified in the July meeting, but found “no evidence of bedbugs in that unit at this time.”

As for eviction practices, Hall said the authority has not evicted any Lineweaver tenants this year due to state and federal moratoriums on evictions which have been implemented at various times throughout the pandemic. In 2019, Hall said, three tenants were evicted from Lineweaver, all of them white – one for heroin possession, one for threatening other residents, and one for unpaid rent and “continuous smoking.” He did not include eviction data for before 2019.

The council also asked the housing authority to improve the appearance of its buildings, including picking up leaves and debris, power-washing exterior walls, and removing broken appliances stored behind their Kelley Street offices. Hall said on Tuesday they would build a fence to hide the broken appliances, which they only collect until they have a full truck load to take to the landfill. 

In response to the other complaints about unsightly buildings, he said “we are trying … we do want to be good neighbors,” but that upkeep is costly, and “our biggest issue in this town, for us, is the 4,000 people who are on our waiting list.”

The explanations didn’t appease some council members, though.

Council member Chris Jones urged the board to take responsibility for “managing the executive director,” Michael Wong, so that tenants’ complaints would be properly handled by authority staff, and don’t come straight to council. 

“If I can’t get you to pick up leaves, why wouldn’t I believe the complaints that I’m hearing?” Jones asked. “Let me be clear: I believe them … the complaints start to sound believable because they’re consistent.”

Vice-mayor Sal Romero encouraged the authority to be more proactive in discovering tenant’s complaints, “so they feel like their concerns are being heard, and something will be done about it.” 

Mayor Deanna Reed put it simply: “you shouldn’t be able to go to my neighborhood and see a difference, or feel a difference.”

“We see our elders out there raking up leaves who are over 80 years old because they have a pride in their home and their neighborhood, and they don’t want leaves all over the street, all over the corner and their yard,” Reed said. But when the council asks the authority to manage their debris, “it’s like dismissed, or it’s not a priority.”

While Jones agreed that the 4,000 people waiting for services are the top priority, he asked why the council should allocate more funding or approve more housing projects if the authority isn’t taking care of the properties they already have.

“Michael [Wong]’s heard these things before. And yet he comes to us about blighted homes … and can’t keep his front porch clean.”

Council gets briefing on JMU’s COVID-19 cases

The council also heard an update on the current spike in COVID-19 cases that’s struck the city with the return of James Madison University (JMU) and other college students. Paul Helmuth, the city’s deputy emergency coordinator, said that as of Tuesday morning, JMU reported 1,065 cases – 4.83% of the student body – with 388 people “recovered,” or no longer showing signs and symptoms.

Some of the cases JMU reported haven’t yet made it into the city’s case data, Helmuth said, as students’ test results may first be reported to health officials in their hometown, and then forwarded to the Central Shenandoah Health District.

In the last seven days, Harrisonburg has averaged 73 new cases per day, Helmuth said. It’s the most cases the city has seen in one week since the start of the pandemic. And the first eight days of September, with the city reporting almost 600 new cases, already tops the entire month of April, which saw just over 400 cases, including the outbreak at Accordius Health nursing home.

Helmuth said the city has seen only six people hospitalized and two people die from COVID-19 since mid-August. To his knowledge, only one of the six people hospitalized was a JMU student.

City staff, JMU and the Central Shenandoah Health District are coordinating additional free testing for local residents who show symptoms of the virus, and Helmuth said JMU will continue testing students in their health center on campus. 

Reed asked why “it seems that JMU is higher than any other college in the area.” 

Helmuth said it was, at least in part, because the university is disclosing more data than other institutions. For instance, he said Virginia Commonwealth University only publishes “what they define as an active case,” while Radford University and Virginia Tech only update their data weekly. 

“One thing I have to give JMU credit for … is JMU is reporting self-reported cases,” Helmuth said..

Helmuth also cautioned local residents that they’ll have to get used to “a population of 55,000,” even with JMU moving to online instruction for at least part of this semester because 75% of students live off-campus and aren’t likely to leave the city right now.

“Whether they’re from here or not, they’re still going to go to our churches, they’re still going to go to our grocery stores, they’re still going to order from our restaurants,” Helmuth said.

Also in the meeting:

  • The council unanimously approved rezoning the former Spangler property on Old South High, which for decades operated as a wholesaler of plastic, paper, and custodial supplies, from an industrial to a business district. The new owner, C-Side, LLC, in conjunction with Matchbox Realty, plans to renovate the historic buildings to create 19 apartments. Council member Richard Baugh recused himself from the vote.
  • The council also unanimously established and appointed 10 members to the CARES Act Advisory Task Force: Mayor Reed, Council member Jones, Rev. C.M. Johnson Sr., Krisztina Szekely, Josué Hernandez, MuAwia DaMes, Karen Thomas, Laura Toni-Holsinger, Paul Somers and Andrea Dono.

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