Community News

THE HOUSING CRISIS AND RICHMOND’S DECLINING BLACK POPULATION

Originally published in the Autumn 2021 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 66, printed October 25. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. For other stories in this issue or to see the full PDF, see the Autumn 2021 post here. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Delaney Jooris

A map displaying Richmond and its surrounding counties, with the population mapped onto it using colored dot. Each dot is one person, and each person is color-coded according to whether they are Asian, Black, other, or white.
This graph illustrates the racial segregation patterns in the Richmond area, 2013-2017. Graph courtesy of the Special Analysis Lab at the University of Richmond.

There’s no doubt that Richmond is experiencing a housing crisis.

And, contrary to what the word might imply, the crisis has been largely manufactured, and its effects haven’t been evenly distributed across our city’s population. Black and poor Richmonders are being priced out of the city limits, which has major implications for the city’s political balance of power.

2020 ended a 50-year period in which Richmond had been a majority-Black city. At the time of the 2010 census, Black people made up just over half the city’s population. By the 2020 census, the Black population had declined to 40.5 percent, while whites made up 43.3 percent.

Meanwhile, Black populations are on the rise in neighboring counties. From 2010 to 2020, Henrico’s Black population grew by 1,500 people and Chesterfield’s by 13,860. Black people are becoming less concentrated within the city and more so in the counties, where the cost of living is lower.

It is, in effect, Black Flight, from an increasingly expensive Richmond.

Poverty & rising housing costs

Poverty rates are following a similar trend. While neighboring counties have generally experienced a rise in poverty rates, Richmond’s rate has been on a general decline.

John V. Moeser is professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University and a retired senior fellow of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond. He also is an expert on poverty and demographics in the Greater Richmond area. His research with “Unpacking the Census” at UofR shows the ongoing suburbanization in Greater Richmond.

In 2019, 23.2 percent of residents in the city were living in poverty. Fully 60 percent of those people were Black – a rate that has generally grown despite the consistent decline in their share of the overall population. In 2019, just 24.7 percent of impoverished people in the city were white.

While Black poverty is rising, so is the cost of buying a home. This is true for the whole region, but it’s rising at a much higher rate in Richmond than in the counties. According to data from Central Virginia Regional MLS, which includes all listings from the Richmond Association of Realtors, the average sale price of a home in Richmond increased more than 100 percent from the first quarter of 2012 to September of this year. In the same period, Henrico saw a 74 percent increase and Chesterfield 82 percent.

The Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, or PlanRVA, composed of nine local governments, reported that 30 percent of people surveyed in the city wanted to buy a house, but could not afford the down payment, while 24 percent worried about their rent going up to an amount they could not afford.

According to Housing Forward VA, a resource for affordable housing data, 37.5 percent of households in the city were cost-burdened in 2019, meaning they were spending more than 30 percent of income on rent and utilities.

The effects of gentrification

Bill Conkle, a Church Hill resident and landlord in the city’s East End, has witnessed the changing demographics of Richmond firsthand.

“The (Church Hill) neighborhood has really changed,” Conkle told the Defender. “It used to be that mostly people of color lived here and mostly people that were probably of middle income or lower income. Over the last 10 years or so, there’s been an influx of wealthier people moving in and paying more for houses.”

Conkle said he’s made a point of only purchasing vacant homes, so as not to displace anyone, and that he prides himself on “trying to be reasonable” with his rents. He noted that doing this has become increasingly difficult, because “it is more expensive to try to provide reasonably priced housing just because the price of providing housing has gone up.”

Attacks on public housing

Richmond’s Redevelopment & Housing Authority is in the midst of an ongoing effort to turn the city’s major public housing communities into mixed-income developments. This project will likely raise area home market values, while severely reducing affordable housing options in the city.

There has been no promise of a one-to-one replacement effort by RRHA, which would ensure that for every unit demolished, one of equal affordability would be built. In preparation for construction, many residents have been relocated to neighboring counties through use of Section 8 vouchers, a rental subsidy funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

However, it seems RRHA’s continuation of current plans might be in jeopardy. Mayor Stoney recently announced an Equitable Affordable Housing Plan that includes a partnership with RRHA and “a commitment to no loss in the number of public housing units as reported in RRHA’s 2019-2020 Annual Agency Plan.”

It is unclear whether RRHA will be obligated to structure their redevelopment plans to meet this goal.

A recent amendment to Virginia’s Fair Housing Act that prohibits landlords from refusing Section 8 vouchers also aims to protect city residents seeking affordable housing. However, Omari Al-Qadaffi, a housing organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, told the Defender he isn’t so optimistic.

“It’s like you’re trying to legislate away racism … you’re then just forcing racist landlords … to rent to people they don’t want to rent to,” he said about the amendment. He also noted the potential for this to produce hostile situations and believes landlords will continue to try to work around the law.

“Just like during the so-called eviction moratorium, landlords found ways to evict people,” he said. “Landlords will adjust their behavior … I think that they’ll find a way around it.”

The ongoing eviction tsunami

For many years now, Richmond has had the second highest eviction rate of any city in the country. In 2016, this meant more than 17 households were evicted every day, for a total of 6,345 evictions. Altogether, more than one in 10 renters here are evicted each year.

And it’s not only Richmond. Four other Virginia cities also make the top 10 list of cities for evictions:

Hampton (No. 3), Newport News (No. 4), Norfolk, (No. 6) and Chesapeake (No. 10). (Statistics are from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, 2016 figures.)

Racism plays a major role

The reasons for the high rate of evictions include high poverty rates, low and stagnant wages, the rising cost of housing and racism. However, according to the RVA Eviction Lab, housed at Virginia Commonwealth University, areas where eviction rates are highest are not necessarily the poorest. Rather, racial composition is the biggest predictor of high rates.

In 2018, the lab found that the top 10 evictors in Richmond owned 9 percent of all property here. It also found that poverty, income and neighborhood characteristics used to predict rates of eviction alone do not adequately explain areas that have either above or below average rates. This suggests that an undetermined factor is responsible in areas with extreme rates in either direction.

Despite the eviction moratorium, RVA Eviction Lab reported in June that 1,566 evictions had taken place in the city since the pandemic began. Dr. Ben Theresa, the lab’s co-director, noted that collected data likely underrepresents the scope of evictions, because many people facing the threat of eviction will leave their home before proceedings happen.

Homelessness on the rise

Many of these evicted people will end up on the streets. On any given night in 2020, 546 people were homeless in Richmond and Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Chronic homelessness in this area saw a 76 percent increase from 2019 to 2020, a period when Virginia’s overall rate declined.

The Richmond area has not had spare shelter bed capacity for individuals since at least 2007. This crisis led to the formation of Camp Cathy, a tent city of houseless people set up in August of 2019 just behind Richmond’s cold weather shelter on Oliver Hill Way. The shelter only opened on nights when the temperature dropped below 40 degrees, regardless of whether it was raining, storming or flooding. (The cutoff temperature used to be 32 degrees – freezing, until it was changed after a community campaign led by the Richmond chapter of Food Not Bombs.)

The self-governing Camp Cathy, assisted by the all-volunteer, nonprofit group Blessing Warriors, functioned for about seven months and grew to more than 100 tents and some 130 people before Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration ordered its removal, relocating most camp residents to temporary shelter in hotels and displacing the rest, as a grappling truck showed up to remove the tents and people’s personal possessions.

Photograph of rows of dozens of tents in a field under an overcast sky. In the foreground, there is a handmade plywood sign that reads "Cathy's Camp" with a picture of Christ's face on it.
Camp Cathy (written as Cathy’s Camp in this sign) provided safe, supportive housing for some 130 people from August 2019 till January 2020, until the city had it torn down. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

The cruel irony of the city destroying a functioning homeless encampment located outside a closed city shelter was not lost on the public. Since then, smaller homeless encampments have been forcefully removed from other areas, such as around the closed Richmond Coliseum.

Commonwealth Catholic Charities, which provides services to the unhoused, is now preparing to renovate its facility at 809 Oliver Hill Way to include a new shelter, using $1.8 million in federal funds allocated by city council in October. On the plus side, the new shelter will be open in any weather during cold-weather months, and at other times of the year in case of bad weather. On the negative side, it will only have 75 beds, half as many as the old shelter. Renovation is expected to take three to four months, meaning the shelter may not open until late February or March.

Weakened political power

All these factors – the gentrification of traditionally Black neighborhoods, the destruction of public housing, the fact that builders are not building new affordable housing, the rising assessments on existing homes and simple racism – contribute to what might be called Black Flight: The steady of migration of African-Americans from a once-majority Black city to the surrounding majority-white counties.

This inevitably leads to a decline in Black political power. A smaller Black population means fewer Black voters, whether concentrated in Richmond or dispersed through the surrounding counties. Richmond already has moved to a majority-white city council. If this trend continues – and there are no signs that it won’t, we will likely see Black political power continue to decline, with consequences for poor and working people, of whatever race.

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