The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority wants you to know that a Creighton Court redesign is planned. What it could do instead is abandon the idea of public housing.
Some background information: RRHA is a regional agency – basically a local government with the specific role of running the public housing communities in Richmond. In fact, it is the largest such housing agency in Virginia, with responsibility for over 3,000 units. Most of these houses are centered around the courts – six large complexes, four of which are in the East End of Richmond.
Why do we have our own government for public housing?
On one level, living is a highly technical endeavor that combines both real estate development and human development. From a different perspective, the subject of housing as part of the basic needs of human life, which is anchored as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations.
More and more municipalities are recognizing the urgent need for affordable housing that has reached the level of a national crisis. In economic terms, we have a supply and demand problem. The youngest generations have recognized the advantages of walkable neighborhoods, but have intensified gentrification without an accompanying increase in housing conditions. The tech and financial invasion of real estate, from Airbnb to mortgage-backed securities, has helped keep property prices high, while generous tax breaks and restrictive zoning laws encourage increasingly powerful developers to spread beyond the density we need.
In the midst of a crisis, you will need every tool in your toolbox to solve the problem. And yet, the agency is proposing, with Creighton Court, to completely cancel the provision of public housing units. It’s like doctors at the height of the pandemic were pushing for vaccines and social distancing without having to give up wearing face masks.
The plan for Creighton Court – and all of the city’s public housing units – is to leave it largely to private corporations to create mixed-use, mixed-income developments. The authority would no longer own or operate most of their housing stock, but instead provide vouchers for families with lower incomes. This is an idea promoted by the federal government and which has become a solution even for some proponents of housing construction. Faced with decades of national, state and local divestment and defundation of social housing, local governments are turning to the private sector for solutions.
But public housing projects like Creighton have become the home of last resort for many families. RRHA has done little to ensure that the needs of low-income residents take precedence over the interests of private developers, who are notoriously draconian when dealing with voucher-based tenants. The agency has been vague about the number of units that are actually being “deeply” kept affordable and has not given a clear 1-to-1 replacement guarantee.
In many ways, this lack of commitment shouldn’t come as a surprise. Former head of the agency, Damon Duncan, had barely a year on the job. While there, he played quick and easy with federal requirements, avoiding transparency like it was another virus. After his leadership, RRHA let leases expire without renewal. Despite a waiting list of over 3,000 families, nearly half of the units at Creighton are boarded up. Many of the residents have already been relocated, although the agency has not yet received federal approval for redevelopment plans.
The agency’s indifferent treatment of social housing residents turns from worrying to tragic given the long history of urban renewal. The courts grew out of a longstanding pattern of eviction and resettlement of residents of the black city. Previously “transformed” communities like Jackson Ward may not have been perfect, but they were real communities with networks of social capital, business relationships, and neighborly support. As RHHA tears down Creighton Court after years of neglect, it repeats the crimes of past generations – sometimes to the same families still recovering from the last wave of transformation.
The agency currently has a provisional board chairman who has not yet spoken about a replacement. It is technically led by a nine-member volunteer committee appointed for four years by members of the Richmond City Council who have shown little interest in getting involved in its affairs.
The agency has just released its annual agency plan, which includes a July 2nd comment deadline with a virtual public meeting on June 9th. Interested city dwellers could ask the agency’s leadership to be more committed to 1-to-1 replacement housing instead of their limited promises, which depend on federal funding and the whims of private landlords.
At least that’s what the residents of the city’s public housing sector deserve.
Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College and is the author of Local Politics Matters (Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020).
The opinions on the back are those of the author and not necessarily Style Weekly’s.