© 2019 Thad Williamson. Authorized and Paid For By Thad Williamson For Richmond City Council.

  • Thad Williamson

Fifty Fixes for the 5th, #31-35: Affordable Housing

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth: Focus on Housing

Attention has been properly called this week to the housing crisis in our city, reflected in our high eviction rates. The crisis is partly about housing itself, but it’s also symptomatic of the deeper problem of extraordinary poverty. What’s needed is better policy and a systematic strategy to build wealth and more affordable housing.

I have been working on these issues for ten years, including co-authoring a history of public housing in Richmond for an academic journal. One of the first advocacy articles I wrote in Richmond concerned Gilpin Court and fighting against any proposal to redevelop it without a firm commitment to one-for-one replacement. Working alongside housing advocates like Lillie A. Estes, we built one-for-one replacement of public housing into the core principles recommended by the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission Report.

While director of the Office of Community Wealth Building in 2014, I worked with the Richmond City Health District (RCHD) to establish a Community Navigators program in each of the “big six” public housing communities with later folded into RCHD’s Community Health Worker program based in Resource Centers within each large public housing community. I also worked to find the funding and establish the program concept for the Family Transition Coach program in Creighton Court led by RCHD.

I worked to find the funding and launch the BLISS program of the Office of Community Wealth Building which works with families in public housing holistically to help them achieve greater economic self-sufficiency. And I led the development of a robust people-supporting plan as part of the 2016 HUD Choice application in 2016, which if funded would have led to millions of dollars in federal investment in supporting education, employment, and health services for Creighton residents.

I have been doing the work to expand opportunities for public housing residents in various capacities for a decade, along with many other people. Obviously, as detailed below, it’s not enough—Richmond isn’t where it needs to be. And while there is always a place for protest against injustice, real change comes through improving policy and finding the resources needed to implement them.

Part of that work means understanding that our problems exist within a state and federal context. The federal government sets the rules and provides most of the resources for RRHA—resources which are vastly inadequate to meet our real needs, and which have been flat or declining for years. And yes, I have worked alongside leaders in these institutions who have sought to take on the enormous challenge of generating a program, plan, and resource base to improve our communities in an era of federal austerity for programs serving low-income communities.

I also have worked directly with public housing resident leaders in the shaping of these initiatives, and pushed for more resident voice, from increasing resident representation on the RRHA board to supporting resident engagement in the Creighton Court process to establishment of the Maggie L. Walker Citizens Advisory Board. And in my personal life, I have worked intensively with individuals and families experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness in Richmond.

I share this to make it clear where I’m coming from on this set of issues, not to claim any success. For while we do have some success stories, we have not succeeded as a community. We have not generated the new resources needed at the scale needed to implement a people-centered strategy, and we have not come to terms with the fact that if we wish to make substantive change in a positive direction, we will need to come up with new resources on the same scale as our schools needs—hundreds of millions of dollars.

We cannot romanticize the status quo. Our public housing units are in dire condition, and data shows that Richmond is one of the worst places in America to grow up if you are low-income. I do believe we as a community must find a different, better model of affordable and low-income housing, and we must do so in a people-centered process. Below are some of the steps we must take as a community.

31. Develop a Comprehensive, Citywide Housing Plan

Following the recommendation of many community leaders, in 2018 the Stoney Administration, with City Council approval, established a stand-alone Department of Housing and Community Development, split off from the Department of Economic Development. One motivation behind this reorganization was to elevate the level of policy attention given to the housing sector.

Now in fall 2019, visible progress in meeting the community’s housing needs is hard to find. (The City hasn’t even updated its website to reflect a departmental reorganization that took place more than a year ago.) And we need look no further than this week’s news to worry that we may be going backward as a community in meeting our profound housing needs.

The Department of Housing and Community Development needs to produce and present a comprehensive housing plan for our city’s needs, and it also need to drive the City’s relationship with RRHA. Whatever the bureaucratic rationale, the initiating eviction proceedings against 52 Creighton Court households this week by RRHA was a terrible event for our community. The City’s new eviction diversion program was established precisely to avoid circumstances like these, yet the RRHA did not commit to participating in the program prior to moving forward.

We can’t build the community trust needed to build wealth, build safer communities, or even think about pursuing positive redevelopment of our aging public housing communities when residents reasonably fear that the real intent (or result) of any new policy is mass removal. We need the City of Richmond to take a people-centered approach to anything we do impacting low-income communities, and we need RRHA to be fully aligned with that approach.

We need a comprehensive housing plan appropriate for a growing city, aimed both at facilitating growth and improving affordability. That strategy should encompass construction of new units at all income levels. It also must involve improvements in permitting processes, promoting more high-density development through zoning modifications, making inclusion of affordable housing mandatory in new developments, and consideration of entirely new strategies such as promoting and supporting a “tiny house” sector in Richmond. Because housing affordability is a function of income as well as housing cost, we also must boost investment in strategies to help more residents bolster their incomes such as the workforce programs of the Office of Community Wealth Building.

But it also needs very specific steps to facilitate new housing development and help offset the impact of gentrification: hence, items 32-34 below.

32. Expand Affordable Housing Trust Fund and Expand Maggie L. Walker Community Land Trust

The City of Richmond does have two relatively new policy tools that can help in both accelerating development of affordable housing and in making sure that existing units are kept affordable long-term.

Community land trusts in effect de-commodify urban land, by taking such land off the market indefinitely. Instead of being owned by a private, profit-making entity, it’s held by a nonprofit community organization. Residents of properties located within the land trust may garner a limited equity gain over time, but cannot sell such properties on the private market; instead, the property is returned to the land trust.

The land trust strategy—pioneered in Burlington, Vermont under Mayor Bernie Sanders—offers real promise in preserving affordability in our neighborhoods. The Maggie L. Walker Community Land Trust can’t grow fast enough, in my estimation. As a Council member I will support its growth and encourage it to grow a presence in the 5th District.

The Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which received funding for the first time in 2014, needs to grow in scale in order to have a more meaningful impact on the market. I will support increased investment in the Trust Fund combined with strong oversights measures to be sure funds are being used in a timely and effective way to leverage expanded private investment in affordable housing (including units at 30%, 60%, and 80% of Area Median Income).

33. Move tax delinquent properties back on the tax rolls

This is straightforward, but requires persistent attention. The City needs to devote more staff time and resources to moving the thousands of tax-delinquent properties back on to the market, effectively expanding the supply of available housing and helping alleviate upward price pressure on property values.

34. Protect the most vulnerable from the impact of gentrification through targeted tax relief programs.

We need to be sure more seniors are accessing the existing property tax relief program—a report earlier this year indicated only a small minority of eligible Richmond residents are accessing the program. The City administration must invest in greater outreach to spread the word about this program; I will do my part as a City Council member to be sure every eligible 5th District resident access the program.

I also support use of more nuanced taxation tools to assure that long-time homeowners are inoculated from the effect of rising property values, including capping annual property assessment increase for long-term homeowners. Residents who have invested decades of their life in helping Richmond make it through some tough times should not be forced out.

35. Develop a community-wide plan for the future of public housing

Public housing residents are among the most vulnerable members of our community, and public housing communities have long been neglected and isolated, to devastating effect.

Our priority as a community should be to work together to improve living conditions and to improve options (including housing options) for residents in public housing.

I have stood in support of public housing resident opposing mass eviction in Richmond for over ten years dating back to my public opposition to previous plans to redevelop Gilpin Court in 2009, by assuring that the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission Report and subsequent policy-making committed to one-to-one replacement of housing units.

I do believe that public housing in Richmond should be thoughtfully redeveloped, according to a progressive, inclusive process that a) expands options and opportunities for residents; b) assures that no resident is left worse off; and c) assures that the supply of available low-income housing in greater Richmond is not reduced.

The City of Richmond is one of the worst 2% of county units in the United States to grow up if you are low-income, in terms of fostering upward social mobility. I refuse to romanticize the status quo. And I recognize that RRHA has declining capacity to maintain the units it owns, meaning the quality and safety of the units will continue to deteriorate.

But I also recognize that without firm guarantees, redevelopment could potentially make things worse for some households. As I have documented in scholarly work about the history of public housing in Richmond, our community has a long history of redevelopment processes causing harm to poor, African-American communities. The Blackwell project is a recent example. Future developments must clearly break with past practice.

So I support the following four principles:

1. One-to-one replacement of redeveloped public housing units;

2. Guaranteeing every current resident a subsidized, quality unit at end of process;

3. Strong support via case management and related supports to all residents impacted by a redevelopment process as early in the process as possible; and

4. Strong resident participation in the change process.

Each of those principles correspond to the requirements of HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative program.

I do not think maintaining the status quo in our larger public housing communities in Richmond is a progressive position. In fact, it is tantamount to preserving the legacy of deliberate segregation which created our model of public housing. The progressive position is to craft a strategy for change the protects the well-being of current residents, assures that the supply of low-income housing in Richmond does not decline, provides support to residents at each stage of the change process, and ultimately allows most or all residents to access improved living conditions.

Here are three needed elements of that strategy:

Internal improvement: In 2016, the RRHA received a score from HUD of 1/8 for its demonstrated capacity to execute a project like the Creighton Court transformation. RRHA needs an organizational and cultural overhaul, using a people-centered mindset. It has major work to do to become a better-performing organization and to establish vital trust with residents. Doing this work should be RRHA’s top priority at this time.

Communication and Transparency: RRHA historically has done a very inadequate job of communicating with neighbors concerning what’s going on, in real time. A culture of minimal communication needs to be replaced with a culture of over-communication and responsiveness.

Community wide discussion of the future of public housing: One regret from my time as a staff member of the Office of Community Wealth Building is that we were compelled to shelve a community engagement plan aimed at identifying and building wide public support and buy-in for policy principles concerning public housing redevelopment, in order to focus attention on the Creighton Court project. The service providers working group that the Office of Community Wealth Building convened in 2015-16 did agree to several core principles, principles which informed the work on the Creighton people plan.

(This was principle one, adopted by the group in 2015: “As public agencies, service providers, community organizations, community researchers, and community leaders involved in the development of the Creighton Court People Plan, we affirm that enhancing the well-being and capability development of all Creighton Court residents and surrounding community members is our top priority. A successful People Plan must engage and empower residents, and must account for the needs of all residents, throughout the entire redevelopment process, with a minimum aim of assuring no residents are left worse off and a positive goal of providing as many residents as possible meaningful opportunities to pursue their goals and improve their quality-of-life.”)

Here's the problem: the larger community still hasn’t been part of the difficult conversation we need to have, to answer some basic questions: what do we want the future of low-income housing in Richmond to look like? How can we bring about change while making sure no one is made worse off? How can we bring greater resources into our public housing communities as an essential part of this process? How can we engage and empower residents throughout the process? And how do we garner the resources needed to implement a strategy?

Those are the key questions we must ask as a community, through front-end engagement process, and before anything new related to redevelopment happens in Richmond. Let’s be honest: the unsuccessful CHOICE Planning Grant submitted by RRHA for Gilpin Court this summer was scored 41/102.

HUD does not think Richmond has its act together, does not think RRHA’s resident engagement is close to adequate, does not think there is true community buy-in, and is not about to give Richmond substantial dollars any time soon. (We have actually taken a step backward since the 2016 Creighton Choice application, in my estimation.)

We need to stop and have the open community-wide conversation about what we are doing and why and how we will do it. RRHA is part of that conversation, but so is the City of Richmond (agencies and elected officials), so are public housing residents, and so is the wider community. I have in mind multiple facilitated dialogues aimed at developing a set of core policy principles which then could be voted for adoption by the relevant governing bodies (most importantly, City Council). Those adopted principles should become the lens by which the City and RRHA operate, as well as the lens by which the public holds government entities accountable for its actions and inactions.

That’s the next step we need, in 2020.


Item #35 focuses largely on public housing redevelopment. But we must recognize redevelopment is a long-term process and that thousands of residents will continue to live in existing public housing for years to come.

That’s why the RRHA must do everything within its power to improve service delivery, maintenance, and support for the existing public housing stock, and to support the needs of its residents. This is its duty, and as a Council representative when 5th District RRHA residents are not receiving due services or are having needs neglected, I will stand with them and demand accountability and action.