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.

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42 responses to “The Circle of Government Fecklessness and Homelessness – Newport News Edition”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    “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.”

    Yeah, let’s keep raising taxes so we can get more of the excellent service provided by Gub’mint.

  2. 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?

    No, you are not. And the elevator repairs would probably have cost significantly less than $140,000, too.

  3. David Wojick Avatar
    David Wojick

    Re schools, how many of the under 18 population are of school age? Comparing the under 18 pop with the school pop does not work.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Don’t have that data. I also don’t have the data about how many are 18. If I did I would have used them. Kids start pre-K at 4. You can do your own math. Something like 13,000 – 15,000 kids of school age live in Newport News and don’t go to Newport News public schools.

      1. David Wojick Avatar
        David Wojick

        Do they get educated some other way or are they not being educated? If they are home schooling, private schooling, etc., that does not mean the public schools do not work. It is just choice.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          Look at the data linked under the word “work” in the article.

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “When he took the stand, Seaview Lofts Apartments owner Ben Weinstein read a letter to the court in his own defense. Weinstein said the building had been neglected long before he took it over, and he blamed the city for many of the problems.”

    Blame the city and cue Randy Newman… “He’s got a friend in you. He’s got a friend in you.”

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Saw that. Blaming the city, which inspects his property and will continue to do so, for its bad condition might not be a strategy kicked around at the MENSA picnic.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        His problem are:
        1) He was never the mayor,
        2) His family trust doesn’t own the property,
        3) He and the condemned property isn’t in Hampton, otherwise
        the City would purchase the development at a premium prices and then pay to raze the buildings.

        You might be able to discover to which Molly Sue that applies, but I’m not mentioning any names.

    2. John Harvie Avatar
      John Harvie

      Growing up in Richmond I always heard from my dad that Virginia had three armpits: Hopewell, Petersburg and Newport News.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Nope. Not Newport News. Can’t give an enema to an armpit.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          well.. technically… you can
          do fart noises with them…

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          well.. technically… you can
          do fart noises with them…

        3. John Harvie Avatar
          John Harvie

          Agree with that… Take away NNSB&DD, the TJNAF collider, and JRCC what do you have left?

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            CNU, a very Republican school, and VARC, a multi-university collaboration, and 2 very nice parks.

          2. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            Maritime Museum is worth a visit, definitely. USS Monitor turret way cool to see. Hard for the public to get in to tour the high energy physics lab (I got a nice visit once.) I’d take you all on a shipyard tour, no, wait, can’t swing that anymore…(took Bacon once.)

            Why Sherlock want to reach his powerful spotlight into exposing the evils of that hapless city, no idea. He has the city manager’s name wrong in the photo caption and after that I stopped reading.

          3. John Harvie Avatar
            John Harvie

            Oops. Forgot that. And NN’s below. My bad.

          4. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Mariner’s, of course, is included in one of the two parks. If you have small children, the Virginia Living Museum is also a pleasant site.

            And now for a saing I cannot usually tolerate. NNSB&DD — “Been there, done that.” God, I hate myself, but dammit, it fits.

          5. An ‘i’ instead of an ‘l’. You are a harsh judge, sir.

            Seriously, though, the Maritime Museum is great.

            There is also the Army Transportation Museum, although I guess technically that is at Fort Useless.

          6. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            Is that the one with Patton’s jeep, or was that the army post formerly known as Ft. Lee…? The one with the special horns (for sound, not for goring.)

            If Nancy spent substantial time in the yard on bizzness, I’m sure he would find another visit boring. That is not a reaction I usually got from first-time visitors. I never got bored on the tours.

          7. I’m pretty sure Patton’s jeep is/was at the Army Installation Formerly Known as Fort Lee.

          8. John Harvie Avatar
            John Harvie

            Security at the yard was one of the three tightest I visited. The others were Naval Research Lab in Anacostia DC and Vint Hill Farms Station in Warrenton.

            Had to give up my pipe lighter upon entry at Naval Ammunition Depot in Indianhead, MD. Not a bad idea probably. Believe closed down now.

            Doing business with Ft. Detrick, MD bio folks they’d come visit my Arlington office; I was never allowed in which suited me fine. Would have made me nervous.

            Pentagon was wide open and a good lunch could be had on the Concourse. No WMATA back then.

            Best ever Navy bean soup was at the old original Senate Office Bldg. You could park at Capitol Bldg. and ride the subway over to the cafeteria.

            Places like Ft. Belvoir and Andrews AFB were relatively wide open. Not now I’m sure.


          9. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Lawrence Livermore had the heaviest security I had to deal with. Searched, wanded, photographed, and weighed. Close second was the USCG data center in WV, but that because it was originally built and outfitted as an IRS data center.

          10. The tightest security I ever experienced was at the FEMA facility on Mt. Weather.

          11. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Well, Jeez. Look at you! Wal-Mart guards would freak.

          12. Mt. Weather was an interesting place. It’s been a long time since I had to visit there.

            Mt. Pony in Culpeper used to have very tight security when it was a Federal Reserve Facility. I have not been there since the Library of Congress made it in to a motion picture repository.

          13. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Personally, such preservations and facilty reuse is well worth the monies spent.

          14. I agree. From everything I’ve heard, they did an outstanding job converting Mt. Pony.

            And Fauquier County has done a pretty decent, if slow, job of repurposing Vint Hill.

          15. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Worked there ‘member? O69 and X44.

          16. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            Typo Stevve. Thanks. Either your editor must be better than mine or your spell checker has learned Rohlf.

            As for the spotlight, it is a habit of mine to point out when public officials screw poor people. I’ll work on it.

          17. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            Read it now. Without question there is far more to the story and your reliance on media reports is inadequate for the level of hate and condemnation you applied. You don’t know what is going on in full, and this is another area where state law leans pretty heavily toward the property owner.

            I spotted the misspelled name because I know (well, knew) Cindy Rohlf and Mayor Price. Hatchet jobs can happen here, too.

  5. I was curious what the Sea View Lofts had to say about itself. From the website: Monthly rent ranges from $925 per month to $1,995 per month from apartments ranging from 500 square feet to 1,460 square feet.

    About SeaView Lofts
    UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT!!! Welcome to Sea View Lofts, where luxury living meets the Chesapeake Bay! Our community is nestled quietly in Downtown Newport News with Newport News Shipbuilding as our neighbor and easy access to I-64/664, The Coliseum, shopping and restaurants. Sea View Lofts has all of the qualities you are looking for in finding your new home. Our community is presently undergoing extensive renovations! Our apartment homes have brand new kitchens, stainless steel appliances, flooring, bathrooms, and so much more! All units have a private balcony with beautiful ocean views or city views. We are also Pet-Friendly with no weight restriction, (we do have breed restrictions so ask about our pet policy). And best of all…ALL UTILITIES ARE INCLUDED!!! Call us today and pre-lease your apartment home now before they are all gone!

    Among community amenities, SeaView Lofts lists elevators!

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Seriously James, how many brochures have you read that used the word “working” as an adjective?

      “We have working elevators, and working sewage, and…..

  6. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    And now you see why I am philosophically opposed to UVA’s low income housing virtue signal…
    They will eventually be eyesores with everybody pointing the finger at somebody else…

  7. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    An apartment building owner lets his property go to crap, posing a danger to its residents, and this article is all about blaming the city government?

    Instead of giving the city a chance to comment on an article, a better approach might have been to ask specific questions, such as what legal actions have been filed against the owner? What has been the result of those actions?

    Does the government have the authority to fix the problems and bill the owner? I don’t know, but that sort of information would be helpful to know.

    The city did condemn the property. If the owner obviously refused to fix the elevator, what was the city authorized to do?

    In this case, it will probably be cheaper for the owner to walk away. The city probably has legal avenues it can pursue, but those legal proceedings could take years.

    But, hey, it’s easy to blame the city.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I read all of the reports on the questions you asked, Dick. I even linked the newspaper articles. The newspaper articles blamed the owner. So do I.

      You will see some indication of that when I said the city attorney enforcing the city’s housing codes should have taken him to federal court in April under the Americans with Disabilities Act and various federal fair housing laws,, fixed the elevators and billed him, and/or bankrupted him before the tenants had to move or spend a single dollar of their own money.

      They have the ex post facto legal assistance of the Virginia Poverty Center. The should have had the services of the city attorney in April.

      They should have had better help from NNRHA. They should still be in those motels at building owner expense.

      That is why I wrote this. All of the press was about the owner. Balancing the record. For the record.

      It is easy to blame the city. They earned it.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        Taking the owner to federal court would have taken years before there was any remedy.

        Sec. 33-106 of the Virginia Code sets out penalties for violations of the building code. It provides for civil fines, as well as misdemeanors. Nowhere in that section is there authority for the local government to undertake repairs, such as of an elevator, and bill the owner. Do you know of any provision that gives the local government that authority?

        Even if the owner had been found by a court to have violated building code requirements, the owner would have had up to six months to fix them.

        1. I think this might cover it:

          13VAC5-63-490. Section 106
          [Paragraph I] Section 106.8 Emergency Repairs

          Of course, the locality also has to allow it under its ordinance(s).

  8. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    The real real estate story on Newport News, never told, is the lost opportunity of its waterfront. That was hardly the only run-down older building with a major water view, and there were/are plenty of other places for modern, high-end developments like you see in Norfolk or along Shore Drive. Perhaps that major industrial neighbor running a shipyard three shifts or the busy coal piers were a put-off. Perhaps the city never set up tax incentives to spark the development or the landowners with likely locations were not inclined to sell. But for the dozen years I was in and out of that area, I kept thinking about lost opportunities.

  9. Richard Corner Avatar
    Richard Corner

    What’s missing from the conversation is the timing of the City’s action and closure of the building, very late in June. This was a problem that the City ignored until it couldn’t, as the Pandemic-inspired moratorium on tenant evictions was set to expire on July 1. Virtually everyone in the building had not been paying rent for over a year, leaving the Owner no rental income, and thus no means to fund or finance the needed improvements. While I hardly excuse the building owner’s inaction, the fact that the building was occupied at all throughout such conditions is a direct result of Governor Northam’s moratorium. The City of Newport News, realizing that the Owner was a day or two away from legally evicting most residents for non-payment of rent, stepped in as a humanitarian effort. The story is complicated by a lamentable owner/landlord about whom we seem to know very little, tenants throughout the building who failed to qualify for housing assistance and broke their leases by not paying their rent, the Commonwealth of Virginia that enabled tenants to occupy rented property without paying rent for so long, and the City of Newport News which appears to have turned a blind eye to the building’s condition longer than it should.

    1. I’d say that if most residents had been failing to pay their rent for a year, that’s a relevant part of the conversation!

      If residents of that facility weren’t paying their rent, one wonders if that was an outlier or if it was part of a common pattern.

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