Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Michael Paul Williams: Sell-Off of RRHA Homes a Bad Idea

The mulched and manicured front yard of Wanda Jones features gardenias, pansies and rose bushes. The inside of her rental property, on Colorado Avenue in the Randolph neighborhood of Richmond, glows with a similar pride.

"I love my yard. I do my own painting," said Jones, a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority tenant who has lived in the tidy brick dwelling for 20 years. "I fix up this house like it's my house, because it's my home ." For how long remains to be seen.

Jones is among the RRHA tenants who would be displaced by an RRHA plan to sell more than 120 public-housing dwellings, half of which are occupied.

"No final decision has been made at this time," said RRHA spokeswoman Osita Iroegbu. "The RRHA Board of Commissioners and RRHA staff continue to review and assess the strategic direction of the scattered-site properties."

Next door to Jones, in the yard of RRHA tenant Charlene Harris, hot dogs and hamburgers sizzled on the grill during a "teach-in" and cookout held Friday by Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions (RePHRAME). Speakers spent much of the evening raking the housing authority over the coals.

Jones said residents were offered an RRHA apartment in Whitcomb Court, Creighton Court or Fulton, then vouchers for those who qualified. Neither option appeals to her.

"I love the neighborhood. Wouldn't change it for nothing. It's so peaceful. And to go back in a development, I'm devastated. … I don't want to go backwards."

If RRHA sells off its scattered housing, it would take Richmond backward.

Most of the affected homes are in Randolph, an uncommonly diverse community by Richmond-area standards. The housing stock runs the gamut from public housing to homes valued above $200,000. Retirees, professionals, public-housing residents and college students share the neighborhood.

Dispersing poverty is a stated goal of Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones. Indeed, concentrated poverty makes every task more difficult, from educating children to reducing crime to abating poverty itself. But you don't have to be a policy wonk to see that the displacement of vulnerable families in this economy contradicts the mission of any housing agency.

Housing authority officials, citing diminishing funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, say they cannot afford to maintain and repair scattered sites. Such talk breeds cynicism among public-housing residents and affordable-housing advocates. How committed is Richmond to dispersing poverty, anyway?

Adrienne Goolsby, the new CEO of RRHA, is planning a community meeting next week with community members living in the scattered-site development "to continue the conversation with them surrounding the future of the scattered-site houses," Iroegbu said.

Goolsby would brighten the future of public housing in Richmond by abandoning the sell-off and rejecting the idea that the bottom line is an excuse for bad public policy.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6815