Houses of ill repair: Witnesses say Sacramento public housing agency has been retaliating against whistle blowers

Former employees, current tenants say embattled Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency is failing its mission

Former SHRA employee Laura Cedidla stands in front of the courthouse where she’ll face the agency on July 7.

Former SHRA employee Laura Cedidla stands in front of the courthouse where she’ll face the agency on July 7.

Photo by Evan Duran

On July 7, Laura Cedidla will walk into a courtroom to make her case against the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. With her will be reams of documentation she claims proves that the public housing agency fired her for doing her job—looking out for the region’s most vulnerable tenants.

Better known as SHRA, the institution that employed Cedidla is a joint powers authority in control of all city- and county-owned affordable rentals—a last stop before homelessness for thousands of Sacramentans paddling against the tide of a major housing crisis. Cedidla worked for SHRA for a decade. Two years ago, she says, she started blowing the whistle on what she viewed as unsafe conditions. And that, Cedidla alleges, got her terminated.

“They’re all about image now,” Cedidla said of SHRA. “And they’ve lost sight about what we’re supposed to be doing for the residents.”

Meanwhile, tenants in three apartment complexes operated by SHRA are reporting widespread crime and safety issues, which they say are ignored by the agency’s managers. These residents live in different neighborhoods and don’t know each other, but they all agree on two things: SHRA’s public housing is badly managed; and the only employee who took their concerns seriously was Cedidla.

One tenant, Gina Hall, says she’s being evicted by SHRA for the same reason she believes its managers fired Cedidla—demanding properties be safe and bad actors held accountable. Hall’s eviction notice cites her tendency to call sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and Child Protective Services to an SHRA property as the reason she’s being kicked out.

Now, as one local politician openly talks about dissolving the housing authority, its executive director is stressing that her team faces the most uniquely demanding landlord responsibilities imaginable—responsibilities SHRA must tackle in the wake of added challenges and dwindling federal funds.

Hall never expected public housing to be perfect when she moved into SHRA’s Orangevale apartments on Main Avenue in 2008. But that doesn’t mean she expected another tenant to try recruiting her into his drug dealing business around the complex.

“I said, ’Absolutely not,’” Hall remembered. “Well, to a gang member, you just don’t say that.”

Hall says she was soon being menaced. Hall reported her concerns to SHRA management. She and another witness say those concerns were repeatedly ignored.

In 2012, Hall moved to a new SHRA-operated complex on Elkhorn Boulevard in Rio Linda. She said it was more crime-ridden than the Orangevale location. Hall told SN&R she witnessed an ongoing parade of drug-dealing, theft, assaults, domestic violence and animal abuse. From Hall’s perspective, the criminal activity originated from a small group of tenants. Yet no matter how many times individuals complained to on-site management, no action was taken, Hall charges.

That’s not hard to believe for Noel Hopkins, who lives in an SHRA property in a different part of Sacramento County. Hopkins said those residing in his complex on Cypress Street have long witnessed vehicle burglaries and thefts, drug-dealing and assaults. One night, Hopkins says, he saw a woman stumble out of a nearby apartment, her face drenched in blood and screaming. When Hopkins reported the tenant connected to that incident, nothing happened, he says. He claims the same is true for other crimes he and his fellow residents have reported.

“The complaints went to deaf ears,” Hopkins said. Managers, he added, seemed “detached from reality.”

Marilyn Gorst says she has also witnessed crime thrive in her SHRA complex on Redwood Avenue. Yet, for Gorst, it’s the basic, unaddressed safety issues that shock her.

Gorst says she and her neighbors have suffered through waterlogged walls and flood-damaged carpets for six months at a time. Equally perturbing to Gorst is the fact that SHRA managers keep one of her complex’s three gated entrances locked at all times, forcing elderly and disabled residents to walk extra distances.

“Every time the tenants have asked, we’ve been told that gate is locked to keep out a bad element,” Gorst noted, rolling her eyes. “Even though there’s already drug dealers, strangers and ladies of the night all through the place.”

People renting from SHRA are supposed to have a unified voice through resident advisory boards. But one tenant who served on the advisory board at the Redwood Avenue complex told SN&R the boards are summarily ignored by management. That includes when the boards raise concerns about drug dealing and methamphetamine-addled strangers stalking through the premises.

“Management is supposed to be keeping that stuff out and they don’t,” said the former board member, who requested anonymity for fear of being evicted for speaking out. “And there are a lot of seniors living there that can be intimidated.”

SHRA Executive Director LaShelle Dozier acknowledged that some maintenance issues could have been fixed sooner, but strongly disagreed that her managers don’t take resident safety seriously. Dozier said that when one tenant reports another for suspected crimes, SHRA’s managers are barred from discussing the investigations that follow, probes that can take months.

“In many cases, evicting our tenants leads directly to homelessness, so the system is set up to require a high burden of proof,” Dozier explained. “Often the actions we’re trying to take are invisible to the resident who made the complaint. And a judge can block the eviction, too.”

Dozier added that the job of housing vulnerable clients in some neighborhoods already plagued by crime, addiction and disinvestment breeds a tough balancing act for her property managers.

“With the nature of the housing we provide, they’re often in between tenants who don’t get along,” she said.

But Alex Hamilton, who worked as an SHRA housing technician for 23 years, says the residents of these various properties are not exaggerating the conditions—or the danger.

Hamilton says SHRA has gradually decreased its maintenance budgets for public housing while steering more funds into city and county development projects. That’s because, in 2012, California eliminated funding for redevelopment agencies, which caused local leaders to heap the burden of renovating districts, reinvigorating blighted streets and recreating micro business climates onto SHRA’s plate. At the same time, Sacramento’s elected officials voted to allow developers to pay a far smaller share into the trust funds that SHRA uses for affordable housing.

For Hamilton, that doesn’t explain a track record he claims to have witnessed of SHRA hiring and protecting bad managers, especially ones who ignore disruptive tenants.

“SHRA’s mission statement is to provide safe, decent and affordable housing. And it’s affordable, but it’s anything but safe and decent,” Hamilton observed. “When you look at all of the gang activity, drug dealing, theft and prostitution, the managers don’t get paid anything extra to take care of those problems, so it’s easier for a lot of them to just act like they don’t see it. They tend to have an attitude that, ’Well, it’s good enough for public housing.’ And that is just wrong.”

One employee who believed in SHRA’s mission was Cedidla. However, over the years, she says, she became convinced the agency was providing the least amount of service it could get away with.

Cedidla told SN&R—and will make the same argument during a court hearing next month on a restraining order—that SHRA managers regularly ignore tenant concerns, communicate with residents in demeaning ways, file incomplete paperwork with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, foster a hostile work environment and make confrontational statements about the county employees’ union.

Conversely, Cedidla’s own work has been lauded by tenants. Hall, Hopkins and Gorst—who live at different SHRA addresses and don’t know each other—all described Cedidla as the most professional and effective SHRA employee they’d encountered.

The former member of the Redwood Avenue complex’s resident advisory board had the same glowing impression of Cedidla.

Fed up with what she viewed as SHRA’s dysfunction, Cedidla contacted the Sacramento County Grand Jury in August 2015 to suggest it assign an independent watchdog to investigate management’s handling of safety issues and legal procedures. In January of this year, she filed a complaint with her union, Local 146 Sacramento County California Employees, about dangerous mold, asbestos and lead-based paint in SHRA’s employee office on Redwood Avenue. Weeks later, she filed an identical compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The same month, Cedidla filed a complaint with her union about a neglected bed bug infestation in the Redwood Avenue apartments.

In March, Cedidla says, a manager asked her to transport documents with tenants’ personal information to another SHRA office. Cedidla says she refused because her SUV didn’t have a secured compartment to protect the identifiers, which the agency called for with its double-lock and key policy.

When she declined, Cedidla claims, the manager “violently” pulled the paperwork out of her hands and yelled at her. Cedidla says she quickly reported the incident to her union and requested that SHRA transfer her or that manager to a different office. She said the request was denied. Four weeks later, SHRA served Cedidla with a restraining order and began the process of terminating her employment.

For Cedidla, the paperwork that outlines why she’s being fired is stranger than fiction. It cites her possessing a utility knife and pepper spray, both of which are legal. It also cites a cartoon that Cedidla doodled while in a staff meeting—a sketch portraying one of the managers as a ticking time bomb. At least, that’s Cedidla’s explanation of the drawing.

SHRA’s restraining order charges it was a literal bomb threat against the agency.

SHRA also accused Cedidla of making an offhand remark with threatening tones at a work lunch, though a judge assigned to the restraining order hearing has already ruled there’s no evidence of that.

Hamilton, who worked alongside Cedidla for a decade, says he is sure she’s being retaliated against for holding SHRA’s managers accountable.

“If you stand up to them, they try to get rid of you and they try to discredit you,” Hamilton told SN&R. “And they’re trying to do that to Laura now. They’re going to try to paint her as a crazy person—and she’s not. She’s competent and she cares about the residents.”

Dozier told SN&R that city and county policy prevents her from commenting on active personnel disputes. Similarly, the rules around public housing bar Dozier from discussing Hall’s pending eviction. Dozier did say that the mold, asbestos and lead-based paint hazard Cedidla told OSHA about was fixed shortly after the fact, as was the unrelated bed bug infestation Cedidla reported. In terms of whether her managers are responsive to complaints, Dozier says she’s been holding monthly meetings where the residents can speak to her directly.

“In one of those meetings I learned about some food insecurity at the complex on Redwood Avenue,” Dozier recalled, “and we were able to get food drops there by one of our local food banks.”

This is a challenging time for Dozier’s embattled agency.

County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy has publicly expressed concerns about SHRA’s oversight and financial transparency. The District 2 representative even suggested dissolving the agency, which would task the county and city with managing affordable units.

But tampering with SHRA’s joint-power structure essentially means launching a housing experiment at the same moment Sacramento is taking a spotlight in California’s affordable-housing crisis.

According to new data released by the California Housing Partnership, Sacramento County needs more than 62,000 affordable rental units to meet the needs of its lowest earners. The report also indicates rents in Sacramento are up 18 percent since 2000, while household incomes are down 11 percent in the same period. Even some tenant advocacy groups like the Sacramento Housing Alliance, which has a strained relationship with SHRA, favor overhauling the agency rather than disbanding it.

Dozier says it’s hard to articulate to the public everything her agency does, from running public housing to getting more affordable and market-rate units built, to spurring economic development where local leaders determine it’s needed.

“It’s a lot,” she said. “But I think we have passion for it and we work really hard.”

As for Hamilton, he still believes in SHRA’s basic purpose, but he has serious misgivings about a political will to reform it.

“The maintenance on the housing stock has been so neglected,” Hamilton offered. “And they just make it such a terrible place to work.”

For tenants like Hopkins, things have actually improved in recent months. He says a new manager at the Cypress Street complex is working to address some crime and safety issues. But after hearing about what happened to Cedidla, he says he’s worried how the story will end.

“As far as Laura goes, that’s someone I’d trust with my life,” Hopkins said.

When she’s not thinking about it, Cedidla still speaks as if she’s part of SHRA’s team. But she’s not. Next month, she’s scheduled to face SHRA officials in Sacramento Superior Court, where she’s trying to lift the restraining order her previous employer filed against her. After that, the next step will be filing a wrongful termination suit, she says.

Asked about Kennedy’s tough talk on SHRA, Cedidla replied, “As sad as it is to say this, we probably shouldn’t exist, because of the level of service we provide. We probably don’t deserve to.”