Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Unnatural Disaster RTD Op-Ed 03.06.08

An Unnatural Disaster


We’ve all read the recent headlines indicating families across the country are struggling to keep their homes.  Yet while the nation’s foreclosure crisis looms large, an entirely different crisis threatens housing for Richmond’s poorest families.

These families live in public housing owned by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which is planning to demolish hundreds of homes without a clearly expressed plan for the many families who will be displaced in the process.  While we in Richmond may long for the day when surrounding counties help meet the community’s housing needs, until this day comes City officials must act responsibly.

Public housing exists because the private market does not provide sufficient housing to accommodate the elderly, poor and disabled who survive on fixed incomes and low wages.  Today Richmond has roughly 4,100 public housing units, nearly 60% of the 7,064 considered “affordable” for families earning less than a third of the area’s median income (less than $13,624 per year).  According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), more than 18,000 such families reside in Richmond—meaning that nearly 11,000 families must live in housing they cannot afford.

Clearly, public housing fills a critical need. In fact, a 2007 report by the City stated that the “major housing demand … is for public and assisted housing.”

While recognizing that the greatest housing shortage occurs among our poorest residents is a key first step toward developing sound public policy, unfortunately for Richmond’s poorest residents RRHA has actually reduced public housing options in recent years.  Starting in 1999, RRHA razed 440 units in the Blackwell community.  Only 75 of the 540 replacement units were affordable to the families whose homes were destroyed.  Delays, strict re-qualification restrictions, and other complications contributed to only 27 of the original families returning, while the rest were scattered across the evaporating pool of assisted housing.  For hundreds of displaced families, Blackwell was an unnatural disaster.

Nearly 10 years later, another such disaster looms.  RRHA recently gained HUD’s approval to sell 120 single-family homes sheltering poor families—with no plans for replacement.  RRHA also plans to demolish the 60-unit Dove Court community to make way for mixed-income development, with no commitment regarding the number of public housing units included in the new development.  And RRHA has indicated that Gilpin Court in Jackson Ward, home to 783 families, will be its next major redevelopment project.  We cannot afford to let Gilpin Court become another Blackwell.

Housing advocates recommend de-concentrating poor families and instead creating mixed-income communities on the theory that families living among others from diverse backgrounds learn from one another, break down barriers, and gain opportunities.  Indeed, these arguments often justify the demolition of public housing.  But these benefits accrue only to the select few lucky enough to live in the redeveloped communities.  Without careful planning, mixed-income communities are a hollow promise for the many families who are not allowed to return after their homes are destroyed.

RRHA may argue that public housing replacement options include “housing choice” vouchers.  In theory, these vouchers allow a family to secure housing on the open market using a combination of their own income and a rental subsidy.  In reality, vouchers are a poor solution.  Private landlords do not have to accept the vouchers.  Most do not.  In fact, within the last 10 years the City has returned millions of dollars in vouchers to HUD simply because needy families in Richmond were unable to use them.

We must recognize that for all its challenges, public housing satisfies a crucial need for which there is no feasible substitute.  Public housing is not perfect, but displacing hundreds of poor families, including the elderly and disabled, who call public housing home is no solution.  Before we start bulldozing, we need a workable plan to build affordable replacement housing for the families whose homes will be destroyed. 

RRHA has not clearly enumerated how many public housing units will replace those tagged for demolition.  Engaging the community in theoretical conversations about the benefits of mixed-income living while ignoring the hard realities is at best an honest mistake, and at worst a travesty.

The City of Richmond and RRHA should commit to at least one-for-one replacement of any public housing units lost—and to a redevelopment planning process that is open and transparent.  Richmond’s poorest families must have a seat at the table.  Only by taking these steps can our community address Richmond’s most urgent housing needs.

This Op-Ed was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on March 6, 2008.  Alex Gulotta is executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, and may be contacted at  Cora Hayes is a public housing resident and serves on the Client Advisory Council of the Legal Aid Justice Center.