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Creighton Court demolition met with mixed feelings

Creighton Court
A bare foundation is left from the first phase of demolition at Creighton Court. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority plans to demolish 504 units of public housing in Creighton to replace them with 600 to 700 mixed-income units. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

This story has been revised after issues around its reporting were brought to VPM News' attention. We regret the error.

Standing on top of the blank, flat foundation of a recently demolished building in Creighton Court, Marilyn Olds said she’s grieving for her home of 65 years.

“I got there just in time to see them knock down the building that I lived in. That was the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my life. To see something go down that you grew up in as a child,” Olds said. “The bricks are down, people are hurt and they’re crying. They’re looking for a new dream.”

Olds, who has served as president of both the Creighton Court Tenant Council and the Richmond Tenants Organization, spoke Wednesday at a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority event marking the completion of phase one of its work to redevelop the neighborhood from public into mixed-income housing.

So far, 192 units already have been torn down, according to RRHA officials, and many of those residents have been relocated nearby or could return to a radically different Creighton Court. Esco Bowden, a former Creighton Court resident and community advocate, said that makes them nervous for the neighborhood’s future.

The reconstruction of Creighton Court is part of its citywide plan to replace public housing. All of the city’s six largest public housing neighborhoods are slated for redevelopment, but Creighton Court is the first property where it’s moving forward.

RRHA plans to convert the 504 existing units in Creighton Court into between 600 and 700 mixed-income units, according to RRHA’s vice president of redevelopment, Desi Wynter. Mixed-income neighborhoods include both affordable housing and market-priced units. About 200 units will be rented to families whose rent is subsidized by Project Based Vouchers, according to a Community Unit Plan adopted by the city.

According to Wynter, the only public housing residents guaranteed a home in the new development will be current tenants who have indicated to the authority that they want to return to the court after it is redeveloped. Residents also have the option to choose more immediate housing by utilizing tenant vouchers to move into private apartment complexes or by moving to another property managed by RRHA.

Prior to Creighton Court’s demolition, RRHA built the Armstrong Renaissance community on the former site of Armstrong High School, partially in view of the Creighton community. It contains 256 units, of which 122 are subsidized by Project Based Vouchers.

“For families that do want to return to Creighton Court, we then accommodate those amount of units for families that designate on their assessment that they would like to return,” Wynter said.

Of the families displaced by the first phase of the Creighton Court plan, Wynter said only 17 have requested to return to the neighborhood.

Bowden said it isn’t surprising that most of these tenants are reluctant to return to the neighborhood. Bowden, who after moving away from Creighton still came back regularly to support youth in the community, said the neighborhood has become unsafe and unlivable due to years of neglect by the housing authority.

“They're to blame, because they haven't been a good landlord. It's de facto demolition,” Bowden said.

At Wednesday’s ceremony, RRHA’s interim CEO, Sheila Hill-Christian, agreed that the accomodations in Creighton Court haven’t been properly maintained and argued that’s why they need to be replaced. Creighton Court was built in 1952.

“Our families deserve homes that meet current code requirements, that are not physically obsolete or beyond rehabilitation,” Hill-Christian said.

Mayor Levar Stoney and Cynthia Newbille, whose East End district on the City Council includes Creighton Court, both endorsed the project during the Wednesday ceremony.

“It will provide quality, affordable housing for families. It will provide access to resources,” Newbille said.

This plan has been described by the authority as a way to improve public housing, but according to HUD, “research shows that low-income residents who formerly lived in public housing have realized little or no economic or educational benefit from living in a new mixed-income setting.”

Thad Williamson, a University of Richmond professor and former director of the city’s Office of Sustainable Wealth Building under Mayor Dwight Jones, told VPM News that’s because it doesn’t solve the primary issues former public housing residents face.

“Deconcentrating poverty is not reducing poverty,” Williamson said. “It’s also really important to do things to build assets and wealth in place where people are."

The first 68 units built following the demolition in Creighton Court will be available for rent in less than two years, according to RRHA. Twenty-one will be subsidized by Project Based Vouchers. A 72-unit multifamily building — including 21 subsidized units — will be built following that.

The remaining units in both newly constructed buildings at Creighton will be limited to tenants who make below 60% of the Area Median Income as a part of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. Currently, that means the units would  be restricted to households that make less than $60,600 per year. The income restriction is guaranteed for 15 years, after which developers can seek regulatory relief to convert units into market-rate apartments.

A 2012 HUD study found that most apartments remained affordable after the 15 year period expired.