Challenging the Authority
How Richmond’s mayoral candidates are addressing the future of public housing.
In the virtual Richmond mayoral race that 2020 demands, a masked and gloved candidate, Justin Griffin, picking up a fly-covered pile of dog poop and gingerly tossing it in a trash bag, is a rare physical moment.
The goal of holding a Gilpin Court trash cleanup, he says, was to meet voters and demonstrate the kind of attention he would offer as mayor. In the first 20 minutes, he’s talked to one resident sitting on his porch. A few people have stopped to stare at the dozen yellow-vested volunteers rummaging around garbage bins looking for trash.
The intent of a political campaign driving into Gilpin to pick up after its residents could be read as condescending. But in the past year, Gilpin Court has faced far worse from people with the power to either help save public housing communities or eliminate them.
For decades, cities across the country have seen disinvestment in public housing, even as need rises. There has been some movement at the national level to increase funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that supports public housing, and Richmond needs it desperately.
Steve Fischbach, litigation director for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, says residents need a mayor who will advocate for money.
“Public housing is infrastructure every large city needs, because there are so many low-income families in urban areas, and cities have become hot spots for real estate investors,” Fischbach says. About 10,000 people live in Richmond’s public housing, and more than 3,300 families are on the waiting list to move in, according to the Richmond 2016-2020 Consolidated Plan. “Public housing provides long-term, stable housing for the poorest of the poor. It’s a resource that shouldn’t be squandered.”
In 2019, Richmond moved closer to squandering it.
City leaders, including Mayor Levar Stoney, attended community strategist and Gilpin resident Lillie A. Estes’ funeral in February that year. Estes, a longtime public housing advocate, made “one-to-one brick and mortar replacement” a phrase the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) had to confront as it developed plans to replace its dilapidated, 70-year-old housing units.
Within a month, the authority’s Board of Commissioners continued a campaign to do the opposite, aiming to shift “brick and mortar” responsibility for public housing to private developers within a voucher-based system. RRHA contends that years of dwindling support from HUD leaves the agency little choice.
Amid pushback from activists, HUD rejected a set of plans outlining this goal in late 2019, citing the authority’s lack of community engagement. It pushed ahead in 2020, giving only a few hours’ notice before it voted on plans to demolish Creighton Court in favor of a voucher-based system.
The pandemic has called for unprecedented halts to evictions in a city recently infamous for its high rates. Prior to the pandemic, the housing authority was one of the largest sources of evictions in Virginia, with a freeze on the process in November coming as a hard-won victory.
The authority’s recent history has found its way into the mayoral race. In a Sept. 15 candidate forum, a pointed exchange unfolded between Griffin and Stoney. Griffin implied Stoney had ignored public housing residents, adding, “We need a leader who doesn’t just talk about public housing communities when it’s election time.”
“He’s been quite disingenuous to say I don’t care about people who live in RRHA communities,” Stoney responded. “That is flat-out false.”
Who’s right? In addition to looking for past statements, we sent candidates a survey to ask for their reactions to the RRHA’s past year, and their plans for the future. Fischbach and Legal Aid Justice Center Housing Organizer Omari Al-Qadaffi provide further context.
One candidate, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Michael Gilbert, responded by saying he was dropping out of the race. Business owner Tracey McLean did not respond by deadline. The other candidates’ positions, taken from our survey and their records, follow.
Click here for their full survey answers.
During the past four years, Mayor Levar Stoney has been aligned with the authority’s moves toward a voucher-based public housing system in place of owning its own real estate, which currently sits decrepit and often unsafe.
In January 2018, the authority’s chief executive, T.K. Somanath, resigned after public outcry about his lack of action to fix heating issues, when he asserted that providing heat to residents wasn’t feasible given the lack of federal funds. In a statement, Somanath said he looked forward to working “toward better long-term outcomes for the residents.” Recently, Somanath served as the affordable housing consultant for the Stoney-led Navy Hill redevelopment proposal.
Stoney has indirectly referred to the authority’s voucher-based plans as the solution to provide the thousands of replacement homes needed. Activists and observers have long pointed out that if the authority does not own its own property, the result is less secure housing and eventual displacement.
“With [RRHA-owned] units, the lease automatically renews upon expiration and the tenant can only be evicted for good cause,” Fischbach says. “If a voucher lease is not renewed, the landlord can evict without good cause.”
In the face of widespread opposition, the authority has continued plans to begin demolishing its housing. That opposition grew when the agency increased evictions and left units vacant to ease the way toward demolition. This time last year, one in eight families in Creighton Court faced eviction. A judge eventually began siding with tenants and officials relented in the face of pressure through an eviction moratorium.
A Freedom of Information request from public journalism site MuckRock found that Stoney issued a letter of support for the Creighton demolition, saying: “Disposing of these public housing units will create new affordable mixed-income housing for residents of Richmond.”
Al-Qadaffi, who attempted to rally Creighton residents on a few hours’ notice, says he was disturbed to find out Stoney had sent the letter of support in October 2019, three months before the authority approved the plans, when he and residents only found out hours before the vote.
“When I learned that the administration had granted a letter of endorsement for the Creighton Court demolition application, I realized that there would be no intention of taking efforts to prevent the displacement of Black residents,” Al-Qadaffi says. “Instead they would continue to push efforts that hasten displacement.”
“I am very disappointed in the inability of the current administration to steer RRHA in a direction that addresses the ongoing neglect and historical aggression towards Black Richmond residents,” Al-Qadaffi adds.
Fischbach did give Stoney credit for pushing the authority to cease its widespread evictions in late 2019. “That was a very good thing, because RRHA was the city’s largest evicter.”
Asked in our survey about opposition to demolition plans, Stoney points to his efforts to engage the public on the Richmond 300 plan, saying he’d support a similar process for the authority. “However, we must remember that consensus does not mean 100% unanimity. Governing is about finding consensus and compromise to make real progress.”
Stoney did not directly answer whether he supports one-to-one, authority-owned, replacement housing for current residents: “I will guarantee that every Richmonder living in public housing today has a place to live in Richmond tomorrow. Our city must continue to grow, but we must do so without displacing any existing residents.”
Stoney says he will focus on building new mixed-income housing, first by funding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and reworking city zoning laws to create greater density.
Both Fischbach and Al-Qadaffi say Stoney’s positions on public housing do not answer questions about where those residents will live after tomorrow.
“He hasn’t really presented a clear vision for what public housing could be, other than eliminated,” Fischbach says.
Elected to City Council in 2016, Kim Gray’s most prominent moment in the chamber came in February when she led the votes to defeat Stoney’s Navy Hill redevelopment proposal. The billion-dollar proposition centered around the replacement of the Richmond Coliseum using heavy tax subsidies.
Project backers pointed to a planned 480 units of what Stoney called “an unprecedented level of commitment to affordable housing.”
This would not have made up for the blow to public housing, according to Al-Qadaffi. RVA Eviction Lab and the Virginia Poverty Law Center made the case in presentations to the Navy Hill Commission in December. They noted stability concerns with Navy Hill’s housing component, citing a lack of commitment to federal tenant-rights standards and other anti-eviction practices and policies, and waned of inevitable displacement.
Following two years of secretive planning and a commission to study the project, Gray was joined by four City Council members who voted it down. “The public trust is at an all time low and we need to rebuild that,” Gray told VPM after the vote.
Gray had not publicly challenged many of the authority’s transparency lapses during the past few years but pointed to general support of efforts to stop 2019’s wave of evictions and efforts to help families affected.
In March, Gray objected to the presence of the authority’s then chief executive, Damon Duncan, at interviews of candidates for its Board of Commissioners, noting the conflict of interest inherent in interviewing candidates who would have the power to hire or fire him. Duncan resigned shortly after for a similar role in Georgia. He had been with the authority less than a year. He faced controversy for his entire tenure.
“What we have seen during the current administration is that transparency in government, a basic right enshrined in our laws, is not afforded to those who live in public housing, and that is not acceptable,” Gray says. “As mayor, I will not allow RRHA to operate behind closed doors and without the input of the people they serve.”
Gray says she supports one-to-one, brick-and-mortar, and authority-owned replacement for its current housing stock.
“We must work to find shorter-term solutions by encouraging true affordable housing stock to be increased,” she says. “We must do so honestly and with intention – not by tying housing to ‘shiny object’ projects such as Navy Hill. In the longer-term, we must continue to advocate for more HUD funding and hold RRHA accountable to its mission and commitments to its residents.”
Alexsis Rodgers, state director for advocacy group Care in Action, previously served as policy director for Gov. Ralph Northam when he was lieutenant governor. She says Richmond’s public housing residents have been “wronged,” and seen their safety net disrupted. “They’ve been repeatedly told one thing yet seen another happen,” she says.
Rodgers says she supports one-to-one brick-and-mortar, and authority-owned replacement for its current housing stock.
“A one-to-one replacement principle should be core to any renovation or revitalization projects around public housing,” she says.
Rodgers notes that she will build trust by “ensuring public meetings are announced in a timely manner and planning documents are accessible so residents and the community can participate.” As mayor, Rodgers would identify city-owned parcels to be offered up to affordable housing providers, in exchange for creating units for the more than 3,300 families on the waiting list for public housing, she explains.
“Recently, the Virginia General Assembly banned discrimination against housing vouchers, but that’s not enough. My administration will also work to encourage more landlords to participate in the housing voucher system,” Rodgers tells Style.
Of top priority is resident leadership and voice.
“My administration will lay out a framework for resident-driven redevelopment of our public housing. The status quo of decades-long divestment and negligent mismanagement have left entire communities isolated and ignored by city leaders. … I would seek to empower RRHA residents to chart a new future of expanded opportunities for their communities,” she says.
Fischbach says Rodgers’ vision for resident engagement is on the right track. “It’s very vague but better than what we got now,” he says.
So far, public housing residents have not been at the forefront of the redevelopment process so much as they are “witnessing it happen to them,” Fischbach points out.
But, he recommends, for development to be genuinely driven by residents, they should have access to the technical process and resources provided to them such as advisers, in order to truly plan.
Fischbach says the mayor’s office should “engage with residents to at least come up with the parameters of a vision: What should Richmond’s public housing stock look like? Five years out? 10 years out? Etc. And once that vision is more jointly agreed upon, then finding the financial resources to implement it.”
When it comes to redevelopment, small business attorney Justin Griffin says, “Transparency is key in government across the board.”
“Anytime you are making plans that will affect someone’s shelter, they should be constantly updated and included on those plans. If you are doing things the right way, there should be nothing to hide.”
Griffin says he supports one-to-one, brick-and-mortar, and authority-owned replacement for its current housing stock.
“Where our government has let us down is by not developing plans and programs that uplift people to a point where they can move out of public housing,” he says.
As mayor, Griffin would focus on attacking the root causes of poverty. “By doing this, we can start to get people to a point where they can leave public housing, opening the doors to those on the wait-list to move in and receive the benefits of those programs.”
Economic realities are key to Al-Qadaffi’s advice as well, which is focused on more imminent action. He says the authority should immediately suspend all activities that further any demolition or redevelopment plans during the pandemic.
“Things look very uncertain for the future state of the economy and how we live our lives.”
Click here to read the full responses of the Mayoral Survey on RRHA