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What used to be public housing is becoming affordable housing

There is a two-story brick public housing building with a set of stairs running down the front.
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VPM News Focal Point
What was public housing is shifting to affordable housing. Managers lay out the vision.

As public housing authorities have struggled to match shrinking federal support with growing demand for housing assistance, there’s been a dramatic shift to new forms of development and hybrid communities. Affordable housing managers lay out the vision and the rationale for what they describe as a better way forward for those most in need of housing assistance.


TOM FLEETWOOD (DIR., FAIRFAX HOUSING AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT AUTH.): It's important to understand that affordable housing today is very different than it used to be.

ANGIE MILES: There is a new vision for public housing in America.

TOM FLEETWOOD: Formerly, public housing authorities would build large complexes that tended to serve only families with extremely low incomes. In the modern era of affordable housing, we firmly believe that mixed income, mixed use housing in communities of opportunity is the way to go and the way to help our families be successful, and to contribute to our economy.

ANGIE MILES: Mixed use—meaning there is more than just housing in a redeveloped community—but also there are services like grocery stores, health clinics, childcare, etc...

STEVEN NESMITH (CEO, RICHMOND REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTH.): We're going to be looking at not just residential development, we're going to be looking at whether or not we can have a job incubator in there, job training for our youth, whether or not you want a Boys and Girls Club. Do you need a food center there, so we can have food?

JOHN SALES (CEO, CHARLOTTESVILLE REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTH.): Sixth street, I think, is a really good example. We have a partnership with UVA, to have a clinic in that facility. We're also talking to another organization about setting up a food bank or a food hall where folks can come and get fresh produce from that little market, we're looking at bringing in the service providers to the site and having dedicated spaces as we do the redevelopment at other sites.

ANGIE MILES: And mixed income—meaning people with varying levels of income are living in the same community—some, perhaps, through the use of government subsidies... like vouchers... to cover a portion of the rent or mortgage.

STEVE MORALES (CHIEF COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT OFFICER, NORFOLK REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTH.): And that's one of the biggest issues that we face is just having basic services, drugstores, grocery stores, services for the families, is because there's not the income essentially, in order to support all, you know, that's that amount of commercial space.

ANGIE MILES: And so that's a benefit then of mixed income?

STEVE MORALES: Huge benefit of mixed income, not just supporting commercial space, but instead of everyone in poverty, it's more of a mix, more opportunities. And just that interaction between families, i think it just broadens, really broadens the thought process overall.

TOM FLEETWOOD: There are examples all over Fairfax County, communities of opportunity in mixed income, mixed tenure type intergenerational housing, that we are extraordinarily proud of The Residences at North Hill. It was a 33-acre property on the historic Route 1 corridor owned by the Redevelopment and Housing Authority. And we redeveloped it through a public-private partnership to deliver 279 affordable rental units including 63 affordable senior units, 175 for sale market rate townhomes and a 12-acre Fairfax County park. That's the wave of the future. That is how we deliver affordable housing here in Fairfax County.

SUNSHINE MATHON (CEO, PIEDMONT HOUSING ALLIANCE): I have myself have heard people directly say, “If you're born poor in Charlottesville, you die poor in Charlottesville.” So, if all we are doing is building housing affordability, while that is in and of itself a good thing to do, but if that's all we're doing, we're potentially just creating the condition where people are poor better. We need to be investing in those economic opportunities for pathways to upward mobility, services to help people get a leg up.

ANGIE MILES: And this is the model for affordable housing—including what used to be known as public housing—all over the state and all over the country. The lack of federal funding—at its lowest point in nearly a quarter century—is forcing new approaches, including a move to more public-private partnerships.

SUNSHINE MATHON: And that historic underfunding has created a situation where the only solution for public housing authorities to really to redevelop or grow is in partnership with private organizations and to use the capital that is available in the private market to redevelop public housing properties.

ANGIE MILES: Private partners, such as piedmont housing alliance, say that as federal funding shortfalls alter the footprint of public housing, they are among the private entities who are fully committed to keeping housing affordable and livable for the many who need reliable safety nets for the long-term.

SUNSHINE MATHON: Private nonprofits have been a crucial part of building affordable housing stock for the last 30 or 40 years and work sometimes hand in hand with local public housing authorities, sometimes separately. In our case, we try to do a balance there. We're working on the redevelopment of kindle wood formerly known as friendship courts. We're just wrapping up phase one and about to start phase two. And planning for phase three. We are working on a project in Southwood, which is a region just outside the city in Albemarle county, building 121 apartments down there in collaboration with our local habitat chapter, we are working on planning a number of projects in the city as well in various stages of planning, including a project in the Fifeville neighborhood at 501 Cherry, which is a location of a former now defunct grocery store where we're going to try to bring back that grocery store, but also at affordable housing. We're working with a church in north downtown, trying to build on their vacant lots that they have on sites, trying to address a whole range of issues.

ANGIE MILES: Not everyone is convinced that these partnerships and visions for redevelopment will truly serve those who live far below the poverty line... And who’ve relied on public housing. Community organizer and housing advocate Omari Al-Qaddafi points to the thousands of residents in Richmond alone, displaced during the demolition of aging public housing units — presumably through temporary, planned relocation — But for him, the math that works for mixed-income success doesn’t add up for protecting the vulnerable.

OMARI AL-QADDAFI (HOUSING ADVOCATE): With the Creighton Court development, you know, the Housing Authority signed that agreement with the city that restricts the amount of extremely low-income people to no more than 25% of the new redevelopment. You know, when the entire Creighton Court, all 502 units had an average income of like $12,000 a year, you know, so people with that was types of incomes, you basically be limited to like about 180 of the units that are going to be in the new development.

TOM FLEETWOOD: Displacement is always a concern. I can say that in our own developments, at the top of our priority is ensuring that our existing residents are able to return to their homes, post redevelopment. In the case of one university, we had 46 units of former public housing on that site, and it was a requirement as part of the redevelopment that those 46 families had a right to return. So, we put a real premium on that for redevelopment on our own property.

STEVE MORALES: We had a community called Tidewater Gardens. It was 618 units. And so, using a combination of funding we relocated the residents. We tracked the residents. The city actually brought in a contractor group that does the case management services, mobility services, and continues to work through the residents through what we still consider temporary relocation. We then demolish the units. And now we are rebuilding. The total number of affordable units and replacement units is less. But more importantly, all the units that would be built on a project would be open to our families that are using a housing-choice voucher. We want them to come back. So, you know, provide the services provide the, the mobility counseling, the funds to move. We even have lease breakages fees. So, if somebody's living somewhere else, but they want the opportunity to come back and it's made available, we will pay that breakage fee. Our intention is not to displace, our intention is to just transform the community and make it a place instead of a place where you have to live. Make it a place where you want to live.

ANGIE MILES: Housing managers admit that volatility in rental and ownership pricing impacts protections they are able to provide for residents.

TOM FLEETWOOD: It is a major concern. What happens to low- and moderate-income residents in the case of redevelopment driven by the market. We are seeing you know we are seeing significant threats to our existing market of affordable rental housing, by owners renovating and repositioning within the rental market, just the upward pressure on rents. That's the biggest threat.

JOHN SALES (CEO, CHARLOTTESVILLE REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTH.): We also have a new zoning in that is shaking up the market a little bit, because we have some new some properties that have transitioned less than a year ago. And their prices have doubled compared to what they acquired the property for and so, there's a lot of speculative listings and buys at the moment. And so, the market is really shaky. But I'm hoping the market will level out a lot.

ANGIE MILES: The primary goal, of course, is to move individuals receiving assistance to self-sufficiency, if possible. One avenue may be through home ownership. In Richmond, that may mean using an innovative program that bypasses credit scores, relying instead on rental history and downpayment assistance.

STEVEN NESMITH: Statistics show that the best tool for wealth creation in America is homeownership. And the equity that you can build in that and how you then leverage that equity, to send your kids to college to send them to a trade school to send them off, to to realize life in a better way.

ANGIE MILES: For now, the path to a better way is built on what can seem like shifting sands. Decades-old buildings are being demolished, sometimes on an uncertain timetable. In the interim, housing authorities rely on shrinking subsidies, tax credits, and ingenuity to repair and update, sometimes slowly.

JOHN SALES: So, we have about 87 units that are not in our plan to get full redevelopment, last year, we did windows, siding replacement roof replacement, and this year, we're doing HVAC. And so, for the first time ever, these public housing units will have ac and won't have to use window units, which some will say wow, that should have happened a long time ago. But we are just making that a reality.

STEVE MORALES: If you have older properties, your main systems, the stuff that residents don't necessarily see the stuff under the ground, the heating and ac systems, which are usually centralized, not individual. A lot of those things begin to fail, over time. And so that's where a lot of the money seems to end up going.

ANGIE MILES: Housing authorities are tasked with maintaining the old while working to find new partners and approaches to deliver affordable living that is workable and worth the wait.


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