The Circle of Government Fecklessness and Homelessness – Newport News Edition

Newport News City Manager Cynthia Rohlf

by James C. Sherlock

Newport News ought to work.

It starts with Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS). I’ll let them describe it.

Newport News Shipbuilding is the sole designer, builder and refueler of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and one of two providers of U.S. Navy submarines.

With approximately $4 billion in revenues and more than 25,000 employees, we are the largest industrial employer in Virginia and the largest shipbuilding company in the United States.

We build the most advanced ships in the world using our expertise in nuclear propulsion, naval design and manufacturing.

Many of the 187,000 citizens of Newport News either have a family member who works at NNS, one of its 2,000 active suppliers (half of which are small businesses) or one of the businesses who provide services to those employees. The population of Newport News is a full five years younger (median age 32.9) than that of the rest of Virginia (37.8).

So, as I said, Newport News as a city ought to work, if for no other reason than that it is anchored by 550 acres of the most spectacularly accomplished industrial plant and white- and blue-collar workers in the world.

But in key government services it does not work.

Many of the most skilled and prosperous NNS workers do not live in Newport News. Fifteen percent of the population lives in poverty. Ten percent of the households speak a language other than English (mostly Spanish) at home.

In Newport News,  23% of the population is under 18 — a little over 43,000 kids. Its public schools don’t work. As a result, they hosted only 26,672 students in 2021-22, including the 18-year-olds.

And as an object lesson in the circle of government fecklessness and homelessness in Virginia, I regretfully offer Newport News.

SeaView Lofts apartments in Newport News

A real sequence of events:

  • Based on tenants’ complaints, the city knew an apartment building, SeaView Lofts (above), had issues. A tenant in March of this year told the city that one of two elevators was out of operation in a high- rise building with disabled tenants. City gives the owner 30 days to effect repairs;
  • City inspects in April at end of the 30 days. Repairs had not been accomplished. As a matter of fact, both elevators were inoperable. Disabled tenants were unable to get to their apartments and back downstairs. That violates federal law;
  • No word on what happened after that inspection, but based on another inspection in late June, city found conditions were so bad that the tenants are evicted — notified by letter June 29 with 48 hours notice to be out by July 1.  No word on whether there was an elevator in operation by July 1 to help with the moves;
  • Tenants were told in the letter to contact the Newport News Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NNRHA) for assistance;
  • NNRHA’s offices were at that time and apparently are still closed. As with other Virginia jurisdictions, even the wait lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers are closed;
  • The city billed the owner for emergency accommodations for tenants for two weeks;
  • Tenants have been on their own since mid-July.

Those are what are deemed government services in Newport News.

City inspections. TV 10 in Norfolk reported in late June that tenants of SeaView Lofts apartments in Newport News were ordered to vacate July 1 due to safety issues. A city letter stated that the premises were no longer safe to live in.

On Wednesday morning, June 29th, according to that report:

…many of the residents found a letter from the Newport News Department of Codes Compliance on their door. It said the building’s owner failed to correct safety issues. The property has been “deemed unsafe for occupancy.”

Now, the mix of families, singles, couples and elderly who live at the apartment building must leave by 9 a.m. on July 1. Some already packed their things.

That, of course, brings up a very large number of questions about what the city knew, when they knew it and what they did about it. They officially made that latest discovery on Monday, June 27. But they had complaints, and failed inspections, piling up for months.

From a report in the Daily Press August 8:

A tenant first told the city March 10 that one of the building’s two elevators wasn’t working, according to the lawsuits. The city gave Seaview 30 days to fix the problem. But on April 11, both building elevators were found to be out of order.

Stop. Am I the only one who wonders why the elevators were not fixed by emergency federal court order sought by city attorneys instantly because of the disabled people who lived there? Even if the city paid for the repairs and billed the owner?

As for the human tragedies caused by the elevators being out — from the Daily Press article:

One plaintiff, John Towler, 55, a disabled military veteran, has lived in Seaview Lofts since September 2017. He is a lower left leg and right foot amputee, and had significant issues getting home when the elevators were out in both mid-2021 and early 2022, the complaint asserts.

“This military veteran had to crawl up seven flights of stairs on his stomach and back to reach his apartment in order to get his insulin,” the complaint said. “The uncertainty about his living arrangements has caused him stress, high blood pressure and severe depression due to his unknown future.”

Another plaintiff, Margaret Eley, 80, is on Social Security and lived at Seaview Lofts since 2011. She has back and knee issues and uses a walker or scooter to get around, with the elevator outage meaning she could not get safely up and down the stairs.

But, moving on, as did the city of Newport News:

After the elevator issue (both elevators being out in a high rise building is called an issue) persisted for several weeks, the city condemned the property for the elevator issues as well as other problems with the electrical and fire detection systems and other issues.

Stop again. When, exactly, did the city discover the electrical and fire detection system problems? Were the long-reported leaks in the ceilings pouring water on them?

From the Daily Press article:

The city of Newport News paid for tenants to stay at area hotels and motels for a couple of weeks — billing Weinstein more than $140,000. But the city stopped covering those expenses July 14, with tenants now on their own.

No word on why the owner, Mr. Weinstein, is not still being billed to house his tenants.

NNRHA. From the earlier TV 10 report: “Residents who need assistance can call the Regional Housing Crisis Hotline at 757-227-5932.”

Karen R. Wilds
Executive Director, NNRHA

Newport News did take some action unless this was coincidental:

The Newport News Redevelopment and Housing Authority was awarded 32 Emergency Housing Vouchers effective July 1, 2021.

Referrals for this program are administered through the Continium of Care (CoC) which is a local planning body that coordinates housing and services funding for homeless individuals and families. In order to participate in the Emergency Housing Voucher Program, please call the Housing Crisis Hotline at 757-587-4202.

There were 100 tenants evicted, but the emergency housing voucher program was a start. There was other assistance available.

But this is Newport News, whose Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NNRHA) acknowledges there is not nearly a sufficient supply of low cost housing.

Not even the waiting lists for Public Housing or for Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) are currently open. I checked yesterday. The NNRHA announced it has no prediction when they might be open.

As an aside, all of the NNRHA rental offices and the main office are still closed to the public because of COVID. I checked that yesterday as well.

Perhaps not the best time for people to be suddenly evicted.

Bottom line. This points out again the fecklessness of a jurisdiction in providing services to its citizens. It also shows how strained the low cost housing supply is in Virginia.

Local Governments. The City of Newport News was as negligent and  responsible as the owner for Mr. Towler’s danger, distress and humiliation.

Local governments must do their jobs in following up complaints and inspecting properties to ensure that major discrepancies are fixed. They need to use the courts when those discrepancies violate the law. And they need not just to inspect and file the paperwork, but to act to fix the problems if owners won’t, and bill them.

With the lack of availability of alternative housing, emergency court orders are called for when discrepancies that are the responsibility of the owner violate the law and threaten tenant eviction.

There needs to be real political accountability in Newport News over this disgraceful sequence of events.

McKinley L. Price, DDS. Mayor of Newport News

If tradition holds, the same people will be reelected to City Council next time. I hope I am wrong.

RHAs. The RHAs really need to think out of the box regarding low cost housing, as do the federal and state politicians who are elected from districts where homelessness is a big problem. I have offered suggestions.

They need to come up with their own. I note that Newport News regularly auctions city property that the city does not need.

Perhaps start there.

But do not close housing offices because of “COVID” in the summer of 2022.

Do not leave citizens, evicted by government order through none of their own doing, on their own in an undersupplied housing market when owners don’t maintain their buildings.

Newport News City Attorney Collins L. Owens Jr.

The City Attorney. The City Attorney’s Officerepresents the city as counsel in any civil case in which it is interested”.

The owner should not have been allowed under the watchful eye of the city to let his property deteriorate over months to the point where an emergency eviction order was required.

The owner’s last dollar should be spent before his tenants spend one of their own.

I hope the city is now “interested”.

Note: Twice within 24 hours I asked both the City Manager and the Executive Director of NNRHA to correct for the record and comment for the record on a draft of this article.  I received no response from either.