Originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 59, printed August 23. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.
There was one overriding question that drew an overflow crowd July 17 to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners meeting:
“You tear down that housing, where are the people supposed to go?,” Virginia Defender Editor Phil Wilayto asked in a post-meeting interview with Channel 6 News. “Well, RRHA is not considering that.”
Wilayto was among a half-dozen Richmonders who had addressed the RRVA commissioners. Other speakers included longtime public housing resident and community advocate Cora Hayes, former City Council member Marty Jewell and Community Unity in Action activist and now Legal Aid Justice Center housing organizer Omari Al-Qadaffi.
The meeting was held in an RRHA building in Gilpin Court, which was appropriate, since that community of 783 housing units is to be the first of the city’s six major public housing communities to be demolished, according to newly-hired RRHA Director Damon Duncan.
The former director of public housing in Elgin, Ill, had been quoted in Richmond’s daily newspaper as saying, “I’m not going to let nobody convince me to rehab [Gilpin], put a new facade, a new canopy over the doors. No – we’re not doing none of that. We’re tearing it down.”
RRHA’s 10,000 public housing residents have an average annual income of around $10,000. Living in subsidized housing, they are not required to pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent. Thirty percent of $10,000 is $3,000 a year, or $250 a month. Now, where in Richmond can you find even a studio apartment for $250? That’s why previous RRHA directors were forced by the community to agree to “one-to-one replacement,” meaning if one low-rent unit is torn down, it must be replaced by another.
Duncan has refused to honor that commitment.
“Some folks would live in the redeveloped properties,” the city’s daily newspaper quoted him as saying. “Some folks will take vouchers and live somewhere else. Some folks may not make it at all because they’re not in good standing.”
So who’s going to live in the “redeveloped” housing?
In late June, according to the city’s daily newspaper, “RRHA issued a ‘request for qualifications’ to line up private developers to replace its biggest properties with mixed-income neighborhoods.
“A new market analysis the housing authority commissioned shows how the existing communities could be carved up to make way for young singles and empty-nesters, capitalizing on new residents moving into the city who pay higher rents.”
“Young singles” and “empty-nesters” who can “pay higher rents.” This is the demographic city government has identified as ideal residents.
Why? Because they have more money. More importantly, they don’t have kids, which means fewer children in the public schools, which means a less expensive school system, which means lower property taxes, which makes Richmond even more attractive for millenials and retired people, who more often than not are white.
RRHA officials have promised to hold public hearings to discuss the five-year plan. Public housing residents and their allies would be wise to make sure that those meetings are even better attended.
EDITOR: Richmond housing advocate Omari Al-Qadaffi has chaired the housing committee of the activist coalition Community Unity in Action and is now a Housing Organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center. We asked him his thoughts on RRHA’s redevelopment plans and how he thinks they will affect the residents.
RRHA has expressed their desire to transform all the housing courts into what they would call mixed-income developments. That doesn’t necessarily mean they all will be demolished, but some will, and some will be rehabbed.
The plans right now don’t seem, at least on paper, like a large percentage of the residents would be able to afford to come back. And so with the lack of replacement housing being developed in the city, whether in the private market or public housing, it seems like there would be a lot of displacement.
The plans rely on a lot of vouchers, and the city’s fair housing analysis had already identified three problems in the Richmond area: racial discrimination in the rental market in general; the discriminatory effects of how polices affect non-white people in particular, and the fact that not all landlords accept vouchers.
The Legal Aid Justice Center, Virginia Poverty Law Center and Central Virginia Legal Aid Society have come together in a program in which they’re trying to address issues of housing instability: evictions, slumlords who don’t keep up their property, the demolition of housing, all those kinds of issues.
So in this program what we, the Legal Aid Justice Center, are doing is getting these three law firms better access to the community and giving the community better access to them. So with that comes better representation of tenants and high impact litigation for policy change.
Categories: Community News