Housing developer T.K.Somanath helps turn the hopes of hundreds of people into the American dream. 

The Builder

Thirty years ago, long before he was struck by his revelation, long before he became the conduit for the dreams of thousands of poor people, T.K. Somanath ran out of money on a Greyhound bus. Already, he had come a long way. Inspired by the idealism of Americans like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, he had scraped up $400 in his hometown of Mysore, India. He had sailed across the ocean to New York City, where he hoped to get work as a civil engineer — perhaps, he now recalls with a chuckle, building skyscrapers. But he discovered that skyscraper-building jobs were hard to find in the middle of an economic downturn. So when some friends told him his job prospects would be brighter if he went farther south, he bought a bus ticket down the East Coast. At the bedraggled bus station in downtown Richmond, his money had run out. Somanath got off the bus and hauled his suitcase to the YMCA. He had no set plan, no job and no home. But he liked the scale of Richmond and was enchanted by its architecture. Armed with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Mysore, he quickly got work at an engineering firm. Soon, though, he heard of a job developing low-income housing. He was curious: How much cheap housing could the richest nation in the world require? He applied for the job. The opening was with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, a quasi-governmental agency that develops and supervises low-cost housing for poor people. Before he accepted the job, Somanath toured some of the areas the RRHA planned to help. What he saw appalled him. On Catherine Street he found houses with no floors. Elsewhere, he saw rows of houses sagging to pieces. It reminded him, he says, of the rural poverty he used to see in India. "I thought I'd take up the challenge," he says. He's done that ever since. For the past 30 years. Somanath, now the executive director of the Richmond Better Housing Coalition, has changed for the better the way many poor people live in Richmond. His methods and his influence may change the way they live around the country. His closest acquaintances and biggest fans — and Somanath has a lot of those — agree on a lot of things about him: He is effective, energetic, endlessly patient, creative and idealistic. "The biggest challenge of working with T.K.," says Bob Newman, Somanath's second in command at the Better Housing Coalition, "is that he has about eight ideas for every one that works out. He's a whirlwind." But they have a harder time putting into words what it is about him that has driven him to turn hopeless housing projects into miracles. "He's just a very human person, wanting his fellow men to have happy, safer lives," offers Mary Tyler McClenahan, a tireless Richmond activist who co-founded the Richmond Better Housing Coalition. "T.K. is a great example of putting faith into action to do the work of God," says the Rev. Ben Campbell. Though Somanath is a devout Hindu — he's a co-founder of the Richmond Hindu Center — Campbell says with a grin, "he's the best Christian I know." Gary Johnson, the chair of the department of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, puts it even more forcefully. "There are few people I've met in my life that when you meet them you feel as if you're in the presence of greatness because of their commitment. T.K. is one of them," Johnson says. "He is a great man." The object of all this is a 55-year-old of average proportions, the father of two 20-something children, the husband of a wife for more than 30 years. His job is perhaps the least seductive-sounding of any developer's: to create inexpensive homes for working poor people. But he aims to do a lot more than that. Somanath tries to do no less than heal and rebuild wounded neighborhoods. He uses buildings and bureaucracy to change people's lives. Somanath embodies a tangle of contradictions. He is a bureaucrat who chafes at bureaucracy. He is a traditionalist who made a radical break with his industry. He is the undisputed leader of an organization that prides itself on consensus and group leadership. Somehow, however, Somanath makes all that work. He is driven, his friends say, by the conviction that where people live has profound effects on how they live. Poorly designed communities create chaos and dysfunction, particularly with all the stresses already present among the poor. Developments designed to make people look out for each other, by contrast, foster a sense of community. But Somanath's formula isn't simple: He insists that those designs can't come from outside the community. They have to arise from a consensus among the residents themselves — about everything from the styles of the homes to the carpet on the floor. This much agreement among so many people, of course, is complicated to achieve. To do it, Somanath has had to delve into huge reservoirs of patience, determination and pluck. But, by all accounts, he's made it work. And in the process, he's shown a lot of people how much one man can do. Somanath runs the Richmond Better Housing Coalition, a nonprofit group with 35 full-time employees. He oversees an annual budget of about $1.4 million, half from donations and grants, half from fees and contracts. His salary is more than comfortable — he earns $115,000 a year, according to the coalition's public records — but people in the industry say he could make three times that amount if he went to work for a for-profit developer. [image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)T.K.Somanath The housing coalition plans, funds and develops housing projects by weaving a complex tapestry of gifts, contracts, government funding, private financing and tax credits. It relies on contributions of time and money. And it relies on Somanath. His accent has mellowed over his three decades in this country until now whatever he says sounds like lulling poetry. When he talks, his face morphs along with his sentences — a frown of frustration, a thoughtfully crumpled brow, a wry smile to accompany a joke. But he's even more effective when someone else is talking. Then he listens so completely, gazing intently at the speaker, that it can almost be disconcerting. This quality has made Somanath somewhat legendary in local nonprofit circles, because it has allowed him to mesh ideas that should be incompatible. By being willing to hear what someone has to say, and then to incorporate those ideas into the final plans, Somanath has turned many foes into supporters. In 1995, the Better Housing Coalition decided to redevelop the former Mrs. Plyler's Nursing Home, a decrepit Fan building that had been boarded up for years. Another developer had tempted the Fan District Association with the failed promise of high-rent apartments, so when Somanath came with the idea of an apartment complex for low-income elderly residents, its members were doubtful, to say the least. A hostile crowd of about 40 neighborhood residents met Somanath and his team in the boardroom of Retreat Hospital. They pelted him with skeptical questions, some of them pointed enough to be hostile. Who would manage the property? Who would live there? How poor would they be? How would they fit into the gentrified Fan? "T.K., in a very calm and rational way … answered all those questions," says Bev Lacy, then president of the neighborhood association. For example, Somanath observed that the prospective residents would be active people in their 50s and 60s — people who would drive their own cars, not vegetate on porches all day. Then Somanath asked for the association's ideas, and actually listened to them. "Over the course of that meeting," Lacy says, "he turned that [attitude] not only into acceptance but into anticipation." But after making his case for the development, Somanath made it clear that his group wouldn't go where it wasn't wanted. By then the mood had shifted: Oh, no, the association members pleaded with Somanath, you must come. The housing coalition and the association held a few more planning sessions. When they were through, association members were signing up to design the building's landscaping and to give it a new name. Somanath helped the neighborhood association put together a financing package to buy the building and pay for its renovations — the total cost ran to $2.5 million. It now rents 28 apartment units, mostly to poor, elderly people, and is called Columns on Grove. When it opened, people from the neighborhood took Somanath on a tour of the building and gave him flowers. The longer Somanath has worked to build low-cost houses, the more they have been needed. The city — and the rest of the country — faces a worsening, critical shortage of housing for low-income people. In 1970, the nation had 6.5 million low-cost rental units for 6.2 million low-income renters, generally defined as families making less than $12,000 a year. By the mid-1980s, according to a study by Jennifer Daskal for the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that proportion had reversed: The number of low-cost units fell to 5.6 million, while the number of low-income renters increased to 8.9 million. By 1995 -the latest data available — despite the strongest U.S. economy in history, the housing shortage had increased, with 6.1 million low-cost units for 10.5 million low-income renters. That gap — a shortage of 4.4 million housing units — is the widest on record. A lot of those shifts have come as the United States has split into a nation of haves and have-lesses. The fastest-growing segment of the economy is the service sector, employing people in jobs ranging from burger-flippers to low-paid workers at silicon-wafer factories. The numbers vary depending on the observers' definition of "poor," but one thing is clear: While the upper one-fourth of the economy is making more money than ever, the lower one-fourth is making less. Of course, the laws of supply and demand work the same way at the bottom of the economy as they do at the top. As a result, the tight market for inexpensive housing has pushed the cost of living upward for poor renters. Between 1974 and 1995, Daskal reports, the median expense for rent and utilities for poor renter households not living in subsidized housing rose 21 percent when adjusted for inflation, from $386 a month to $466 a month. In all, about 13.2 million people live in households that pay more than half their annual income for housing. This, obviously, leaves less money for other needs — food, medicine. One more observation: Most jobs are now spread around the sprawling suburbs, not concentrated in tightly knit cities. This leaves people who can't afford a car at a distinct disadvantage in the job market. Clearly, though, something has to change. After all, who will work at those fast-expanding, low-paying service-sector jobs if not the poor? Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2


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