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Closed Doors: In the Rush to Transform Richmond Public Housing Projects, Are Residents Being Heard? 

click to enlarge A sign at Gilpin Court lets people know that it belongs to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Scott Elmquist

A sign at Gilpin Court lets people know that it belongs to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The June Board of Commissioners meeting, held in the Calhoun Center’s gym near the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s headquarters in Gilpin Court, begins by recognizing a group of high school graduates who have received scholarships from the agency. After a half-hour of celebration and photos, the board moves quickly to approve the next fiscal year’s budget for the housing authority, for which there was one public hearing the week before the vote, and then moves into closed session.

Downstairs, in a windowless, cinder-block room, the Gilpin Court Tenant Council holds its regular meeting. Two staff members dedicated to Gilpin from the authority are on hand, including resident services coordinator Eliza Stokes.

Two Richmond police officers begin that meeting. They explain they are developing a way to allow authority staff members to find out about truancy without violating privacy laws, and that two days before they had chased a man into the woods after seeing him fire a gun.

Then Stokes goes through the agenda for the benefit of a dozen tenants gathered in the room. A $25 fine for trash violations is in the offing for repeat offenders. Tenants can’t refuse pest control services. “If they treat your neighbors, the roaches are going to come running to you,” she says.

About 10,000 people live in Richmond public housing, with the majority placed in six large developments built as far back as the 1940s. An additional 3,000 families are connected by the authority to the federal Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section Eight. It gives vouchers that allow people with low incomes to rent on the open market. But changes in policy for the housing system are on the horizon.

click to enlarge About 10,000 people live in Richmond public housing in six large developments. Mosby Court is one typical example. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • About 10,000 people live in Richmond public housing in six large developments. Mosby Court is one typical example.

As the meeting continues, Stokes comes to the Family Self-Sufficiency program, which establishes an escrow savings account for participants who sign up for training and secure employment. After five years, qualifying participants get access to the account for a car, homeownership or education. Stokes’ message: Enroll now or risk being priced out when the housing authority redevelops Gilpin into a mixed-income community.

“If it’s a working community, then where are the bulk of our people [going to] go?” she asks the room. “Even if it’s five, six years down the line, we have to think about our children and how we want to prepare ourselves as far as employment skills. So that’s what I’m in here for. Knock on my door.”

Finally, Stokes says, the era of paper announcements on doors is over. Everyone, including the Gilpin Court Tenant Council, is on Facebook and placing flyers on 783 doors costs hundreds of dollars that the authority doesn’t have.

As Lillie Estes, stands by the Calhoun Center entrance after the Gilpin meeting, board member Jonathan Coleman stops to say hello, then leaves. Upstairs, the Board of Commissioners has been meeting in the closed-door executive session for an hour.

Estes leaves the building, and the door locks behind her.

Six days later, the authority’s chief operating officer, T.K. Somanath, stands on stage in the auditorium of the newly renovated Highland Park Senior Apartments for an official ribbon-cutting. The authority used a funding mechanism called Rental Assistance Demonstration from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to convert the rundown former school at one end of the Six Points traffic circle into apartments that accept housing vouchers with a nonprofit developer, Community Preservation and Development Corp.

With 77 one-bedroom apartments, the building has a cozy feel. Halls are decorated with abstract art, and planters are emblazoned with the words “cultivate kindness.” There are still 120 seniors in the Fay Towers complex, built by the authority in 1971, waiting for two additional sites to undergo similar transformations. “The handwriting is on the wall,” Somanath says to an audience of about 100. “There are drastic cuts proposed. We have an enormous task of providing better places.”

As he’s leaving the ceremony, Board Chairman Robley Jones is more stark in his assessment.

“This is one piece of the puzzle,” he says. “This is a microcosm of something bigger that needs to take place. We need the same kind of replacement in places like Creighton and Mosby. It should be viewed in the context of needing to build a better Richmond.”

click to enlarge There are 77 units in new Highland Park Senior Apartments. Renovation of the old school was funded by both HUD and nonprofit developer Community Preservation and Development Corp. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • There are 77 units in new Highland Park Senior Apartments. Renovation of the old school was funded by both HUD and nonprofit developer Community Preservation and Development Corp.

The reception area of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority says two things — welcome and stay out. Next to plush chairs and a photo of children playing on the street, a glass-enclosed desk and security camera meet visitors.

Before Somanath took charge in 2015, the authority had a few things to hide. It shuttered its dedicated police force in 2014 amid controversy around improper spending. Then there was the federal investigation into an authority-funded casino trip for residents, as well as HUD’s finding that the authority hadn’t followed procurement rules for $6.5 million in contracts.

Sitting in its Board of Commissioners meeting room with his executive staff recently, Somanath says the agency has put those troubles behind it. There are newer problems: President Donald Trump has proposed slashing HUD funding by 14 percent, which would reduce the housing authority’s budget. Its 2018 fiscal plan lists $73 million in available funds, with only $1.6 million from nonfederal sources, although the authority does receive $11 million in rent annually as well. Then there’s the mounting gun violence. A state trooper was killed in Mosby Court in May, in addition to six other homicides in or around that development this year.

The front office started receiving calls — averaging at least one a day — demanding that public housing be eliminated. “There are 3,000 families who depend on us, and there’s 3,000 families on our waiting list,” says the chief operating officer, Carol Jones-Gilbert. “That’s why we have public housing.”

“It’s challenging times,” Somanath says. “We really have to manage what we have in a smart and deliberate way to provide services to residents who really don’t have any choice. This is housing of last resort.”

Over the last week of June, the authority outlined what it sees as the way forward: private-public partnerships and mixed-income developments that will replace eight decades of housing policy that put thousands of residents in massive housing blocks. In the interim, the authority has been unloading 66 single-family and duplex homes to nonprofits and through auctions. Many have been vacant and boarded up for years, because the authority lacked funding to fix them and permission to sell them.

“Beyond the housing authority getting its challenges in the rear-view mirror, our partners are more willing to come to the table in a thoughtful manner to help and support the mission to redevelop these neighborhoods,” Marcia Davis, its chief real estate officer, says. “We have to have everybody in this transformation effort, because we can’t do this alone.”

But what do public-housing residents have to say about it?

Amid gatherings and meetings that saw promises of putting public housing residents first, those residents were either at the back of the room or not there at all.

click to enlarge Gilpin Court resident Lillie Estes organized the tenant advocacy group, Rephrame, to ensure that residents’ voices were included in discussions about changes to current housing policy. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gilpin Court resident Lillie Estes organized the tenant advocacy group, Rephrame, to ensure that residents’ voices were included in discussions about changes to current housing policy.

For years, the housing authority has discussed decentralizing poverty by breaking up the massive housing-block developments, well before Somanath, formerly head of the Richmond Better Housing Coalition, came out of retirement. Gilpin Court resident Lillie Estes, the organizer behind tenant advocacy group Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions, known by the moniker Rephrame, and a 2016 mayoral candidate, says the most recent push is occurring in circles that do not include public housing residents.

“The challenge with decentralizing poverty lies in laying a structure when the people involved aren’t there,” Estes says. “What [the authority] should be doing is fostering inclusion for people to speak for themselves.”

Only 20 percent of Richmond’s poor people live in authority housing, based on 2010 U.S. Census figures. On a map, households below the poverty line appear in clusters in both the North Side and South Side. In Estes’ view, that means poverty is already more decentralized than it might seem. She says an “antiseptic conversation” is needed about the authority’s 75-year history and the racist systems that established the issues of representation and poverty still lingering today.

“It’s about changing behavior,” Estes says, “not continuing to do the same thing we’ve always done because we’ve always done it.”

The housing authority’s board, appointed by City Council, represents the needs of around 13,000 who receive such services. It’s received only 18 public comment requests within the past 30 months, from 10 people. Additionally, information about their meetings is difficult to find. The agency’s website posts meeting notices about a week in advance, often without agendas. Paper versions hang at the entrance of the administration office, but are not sent to residents. Facebook and Twitter accounts haven’t been updated in nearly two years.

While all of this is within the bounds of Virginia’s open meeting laws, Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Pat Levy-Lavelle says the authority is avoiding violations rather than soliciting public participation. “They’re sort of posting [notices] more in a way that they have to post them more than they want residents really engaged and coming to those meetings,” she says. “It’s not clear to me how interested they’ve been in taking an approach where they have an open door.”

click to enlarge T.K. Somanath, head of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and Mayor Levar Stoney sit together at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Highland Park Senior Apartments. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • T.K. Somanath, head of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and Mayor Levar Stoney sit together at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Highland Park Senior Apartments.

The 15th floor of the Troutman Sanders building offers a sweeping view of the James, across the river from the cranes building Manchester. A day after the ribbon cutting at Highland Park Senior Apartments, the authority’s Board of Commissioners’ Real Estate Committee held what it billed in a public notice as a retreat for the board and staff.

Gathered around a long table were 19 staff members, board members and consultants. No one from the public was present when the day-long meeting began, although Somanath said later that another reporter came by in the afternoon.

The gathering touched on the challenges of chipping away at the $150 million needed to repair 4,000 units, when the authority’s yearly federal allocation is just $750 per unit. The consultants, who have worked on housing authority partnerships with private developers on the East Coast, pitched mixed-use development that would use the federal Section Eight voucher program, which would move the authority away from paying for housing out of its own pocket.

While Estes was not in the room, the years-long push from her, in conjunction with Rephrame, to ensure the authority continues one-to-one replacement of any redeveloped housing hung in the air. The general agreement from Somanath down the table: Redevelopment would not mean replacing 4,000 housing units with 4,000 more on the authority’s dime. The mixed-income development model would have to allow the agency to use more vouchers to fill housing needs.

“There is a real urgency,” board member Robert Adams says. “The circumstances in which a lot of our residents live are unacceptable. An ironclad one-to-one will slow us down. I’d want to see something more flexible. I would hope we won’t adopt a policy that’s an anchor on our ability to move forward.”

When the real estate committee met again on July 12, that policy was put on the table as a resolution that would free the authority to pursue redevelopment for the six largest housing projects. Gilpin, where Estes lives, was singled out for proposals that would involve “one-for-one hard unit replacement.”

“If you’re going to do one-for-one, hard brick-and-mortar replacement, it should be equitable for all six [developments],” Estes says. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

She says that because the authority didn’t advertise the retreat widely and because it’s moving forward on such a broad redevelopment initiative without public input, it’s seems clear to her that the housing authority only wants residents in the room after the big decisions have been made. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” she says, “people who have limited vision for a certain number of people, and unlimited vision for other people.”

click to enlarge Based on 2010 census figures, only 20 percent of Richmonders below the poverty line live in housing developments such as Whitcomb Court. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Based on 2010 census figures, only 20 percent of Richmonders below the poverty line live in housing developments such as Whitcomb Court.

Jones did not return requests for comment on community involvement. Commissioner Sam Young, a former board chairman, says he is comfortable with the amount of public input so far.

“There’s an implied level of trust that I think the community and other community leaders should respect,” he says. “These things, because they’re very complicated, are conceived-of to a point, but we don’t do anything without resident input.”

Young also said the board has been instructed by the authority’s executive staff not to speak to the media.

“It’s a two-way process, and all our meetings are open,” Somanath says. He also notes that two commissioners, Veronica Blount and Marilyn Olds, are residents. Somanath adds that Olds, a board member since 2004, is especially vocal. “I get quite an earful from her if we’re not doing things right,” he says.

Others say that Olds is too comfortable in her seat to speak for the community, noting that the Richmond Tenants Organization she leads doesn’t advertise its meetings. Estes opposed her reappointment in 2015, when Fairfield Court resident Chanel Bea sought a resident position. Bea, a founding member of a Virginia Commonwealth University project, Engaging Richmond, wanted to represent the voice of younger residents.

“She’s been in a position of power for so long,” says Bea, who moved out of Fairfield in April. “She feels entitled to it.”

Bea says that the process the authority has kicked off to transition into a voucher-based program should have been clearly articulated to residents and that Olds should have led that initiative.

“There’s very little being said in the community,” she says. “The idea behind these changes is not actually getting to the residents so they can give feedback on how this is going to impact them.”

click to enlarge On Memorial Day, a vigil for Virginia State Police Special Agent Michael T. Walter was held at Mosby Court. He was shot while on patrol. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • On Memorial Day, a vigil for Virginia State Police Special Agent Michael T. Walter was held at Mosby Court. He was shot while on patrol.

Fifth District Councilman Parker Agelasto proposed limiting terms of board members, only to see the change stall. Olds has long been backed by the 7th District’s councilwoman, Cynthia Newbille. Olds and Newbille could not be reached for comment.

“I did not vote for [Olds], and I was very disappointed we had reappointed somebody who had been there that long, who the community was complaining about,” Agelasto says. “Where are we going to get the energy needed to transform the public housing community?”

Estes says the answer to Agelasto’s question can be found in the gap between the authority’s vision as shared in tenant meetings in windowless rooms, versus what’s being shared in the lawyer’s office with a 15th-floor view.

“They’re not looking for people to invest in these communities, they’re looking for people to act right until they’re ready to move people out of these communities,” she says. “Just because you don’t think about it as a home, doesn’t mean it’s not a home.” S

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