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The newest promises of public housing

Two men are building the wooden frame of a new building. In the background older townhomes can seen.
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VPM News Focal Point
Are those who’ve relied on public housing reaping benefits from redevelopment?

All over Virginia, public housing authorities have been demolishing aging developments with the plan to rebuild better homes with more amenities. From demolition to newly designed home, are those promises being realized years later? 


ANGIE MILES: Shovels in the ground. Richmond leaders are celebrating a fresh start for one of the city's public housing communities. Creighton Court is the first of six Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties slated for demolition and total makeover, a project years in the making and expected to impact about 10,000 current and former RRHA residents. But it's not exactly a new beginning as this is just another step in the fulfillment of promises made to housing development residents in an effort to eliminate pockets of poverty, improve safety, and modernize homes.

STACY FAYSON-DANIELS (FMR. INTERIM CEO, RICHMOND REDEVELOPMENT & HOUSING AUTH.): I would like to see our families to have the amenities that we have in terms of, you know, wifi, washer, dryer, 21st century stoves.

DENISE WINFREE (MOSBY COURT RESIDENT): It cooks good, but it takes a lot for me to have to keep cooking and cooking when I can use a bigger stove space.

ANGIE MILES: Two years since Mosby Court resident Denise Winfree invited us into her home and listed her wishes, The housing authority has a new CEO in place. Steven Nesmith grew up in public housing and considers himself credible proof of what's possible for those who want more than what they've experienced so far in public housing.

STEVEN NESMITH (CEO, RICHMOND REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTHORITY): The challenge is making sure that we can move from articulating a vision to implementation, to literally closing out on deals. Can we show that we made a difference for the residents?

ANGIE MILES: Since the demolition of the old units commenced, starting with Creighton, and the promise of better, newer mixed income, mixed use residences was made, Winfree remains hopeful and engaged.

DENISE WINFREE: This new crew that we have up here now at the rental office is a good. Me, personally, I feel like they're a good crew. They're pulling together with one another to pull with us.

STEVEN NESMITH: I tell my team, we're very smart people. But at the end of the day, it's not our vision for what those communities should look like. It should come from the residents. So in Mosby Court, we have a developer, and we've begun community conversations.

DENISE WINFREE: The first time the company came out, oh, I wasn't really comfortable with what they showed. Who wants to live in an apartment building, a tall building, where you're going to have some people, families are going to have children, children stomping and running over top of your heads. Then you're going to have some people on medication that have health issues. Some are afraid of heights, some people don't have families there to help them.

STEVEN NESMITH: The residents tell us what they want to look, what they want to look like, and for us to go out and come back to them with architectural drawings and say, "Here are some possibilities after having listened to you."

DENISE WINFREE: Second meeting I went to, I saw different plans. Very much interested. Very much interested. They had layouts that we had a chance to pick from and they were right. Interesting, and rather good.

ANGIE MILES: Public housing throughout Virginia and nationwide started as a dream of affordable but temporary shelter. Former communities, mostly inhabited by Black people, and usually labeled as ghettos or slums were demolished to create something brighter. However, challenges associated with poverty persisted and the consequences of isolation, limited transportation, and scarcity-driven crime have remained.

SECURITY OFFICER: We've had the fights.

STEVEN NESMITH: We brought in our own security force, not a police force, a security force. And before that security force put one boot on the ground, we had them go out and talk to the residents. It's been a resident-led initiative before they put one boot on the ground.

ANGIE MILES: Another challenge is similar to one faced all over Virginia, sufficient affordable units to address extensive waiting lists and household incomes that are not a match for rising rents. These were concerns for community organizer and housing advocate Omari Al-Qaddafi when the promises of reinvention were first made.

OMARI AL-QADDAFI (HOUSING ADVOCATE): I would much rather see public housing renovated and not turned over to a private developer or a private landlord.

ANGIE MILES: The skepticism remains central for him now. He says he watches with caution as RRHA seems to be moving forward with plans as promised, but continues to displace public housing residents through planned and supported temporary relocation as well as through evictions for nonpayment of rent.

OMARI AL-QADDAFI: I can't even say that I'm optimistic. Over the past few administrations, our residents’ concerns haven't really been taken into account.

ANGIE MILES: RRHA is having to manage with less public funding and with an evolving federal mindset. The Federal Housing and Urban Development Program and those supported by its dwindling dollars are invested in moving more low-income residents to a voucher-based system, enabling them to live in housing authority properties if they choose, or in privately owned units partnering with housing authorities. And you'll see a similar set of solutions in play in cities across the commonwealth.

STEVE MORALES (CHIEF COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT OFFICER, NORFOLK REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTHORITY): As we look at the funding that we get from HUD, is that we know as we move forward in the future, that we will need to make some changes, some transformations. And so, a big thing that we're looking to do right now actually is we're working towards a conversion of much of our senior housing from public housing to project-based Section 8 housing. A lot of the housing authorities across the nation have moved in that direction.

JOHN SALES (CEO, CHARLOTTESVILLE REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTH.): The voucher is the only route to make that happen, unfortunately. We would love the federal government to step up and close that subsidy gap or bring more money to the table for housing authorities to redevelop public housing and then bring 'em back.

TOM FLEETWOOD (DIR., FAIRFAX HOUSING AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT): We do not have public housing in Fairfax County anymore. We converted all of our public housing to a Section 8 subsidy, which is a much more stable funding platform. Gives a lot more opportunity to residents and gives a lot more opportunity to the housing authority in terms of being able to do new development on formerly public housing land.

ANGIE MILES: Residents who've made the move into new facilities away from their previous homes. Like those here in Richmond's Armstrong Renaissance, have expressed satisfaction with many upgrades and the emphasis on safety, support, and amenities. But what about those displaced by demolition who've not found a suitable replacement? Those who may want to move back to their old neighborhood when it's rebuilt, but without enough available units for them. Or those who may be relying on rent remaining reasonable over time in a privately owned apartment.

DENISE WINFREE: Over in Creighton, some people went on and got their own place 'cause they don't want to live in public housing anymore. Some people, from what I understand, are waiting for the new place to come up over there. I'm hoping that over here would be the same. Give us vouchers from what they told us, that everybody would be eligible to come back to the new place. That was what was said a few months back. Now, you know, things change all the time, so I don't know what it's going to be.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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