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RRHA pulled draft plan from website during public comment period

RRHA sign
A sign for the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/VPM News)

Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority is preparing to submit its annual plan for federal approval. Before that happens, the public has until September 30 to comment on the plan — but after a site redesign earlier this week, a draft version of the plan was pulled from RRHA’s website until VPM contacted the agency.

“Posting things in an obscure way is, across the board, the engagement strategy of a lot of these agencies."

- Omari Al-Qadaffi

It’s only the latest misstep in the agency’s outreach efforts. Omari Al-Qadaffi, a housing organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said he and other advocates are concerned that the agency may still not be considering its tenants’ best interests when implementing its policies. 

“I can’t say that I’ve seen any improvement as far as their engagement with residents around policy,” Al-Qadaffi said. “The housing authority pretty much just comes in, tells what’s going on and there’s really no opportunity for residents to really meaningfully give any input.”

Last summer, advocates criticized RRHA for failing to engage its residents in the review process — and for turning the documents in to HUD before the end of the public comment period. HUD rejected RRHA’s plans last September, cautioning the housing authority “to ensure that it is considering the identified housing needs of applicants and residents when making plans to redevelop its housing projects.”

“Last year we saw [RRHA’s] director of public safety close the door on people and lock people out of board meetings,” Al-Qadaffi said. “When me and other organizers found out about the public input period last year, we went to different communities to tell people about it. No one was aware of the plan, and they definitely weren’t aware of the input period.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) sponsored legislation during this year’s General Assembly session that requires housing authorities to give their tenants a minimum of 12 months’ notice of any plans to demolish or sell their properties. This came after her constituents voiced concerns after learning that RRHA planned to carry-out its plans to demolish their community, Creighton Court, only one day before the agency moved forward with its plan.

And even then, the housing agency had submitted its application to demolish Creighton Court a week prior. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law, despite protests against the measure from RRHA’s former CEO Damon Duncan. It goes into effect in January, 2021.

This Year’s Plan

RRHA initially posted a draft plan and supporting documents under the “news” tab on its website last week. But sometime between Monday and Wednesday morning — they were taken down. 

“Posting things in an obscure way is, across the board, the engagement strategy of a lot of these agencies,” Al-Qadaffi said. “The fact that it’s no longer there keeps residents from participating in the democratic process.”

VPM reached out to RRHA about the missing documents on Thursday, and the agency’s spokesperson Angela Fountain said they wouldn’t be uploaded until HUD approved them.

“We haven’t posted them on the site yet until they’re approved by HUD, because they’re still in draft form,” Fountain said. “But we did, on the old site we did post the press release that had the links.”

When VPM asked how community members can participate in the public comment period without any documents, Fountain blamed the error on a technical glitch resulting from RRHA refurbishing its website. They were reposted a few hours later.

“It should be on our site, but for some reason, I’m looking at it, we just haven’t posted those yet,” Fountain said earlier.

An archived version of the draft plan captured by VPM before its deletion shows that there is a significant need for housing to serve residents making 30% or less of the area median income. That’s most of RRHA’s residents and applicants. As of July 24, nearly 85% of families on the waiting list fall into this income range — the same goes for 84% of elderly applicants.

This graph breaks down what that looks like in terms of income by household size:

In the plan, RRHA lists ways that it aims to serve that need. They include maximizing the use of vacant public housing with a goal of occupying 98% of units. The housing authority was under fire last winter for ‘ warehousing,’ or leaving vacant, more than 100 apartments in Creighton court, despite having thousands of people on its waiting lists.

Other ways RRHA plans to serve low and extremely low-income residents include applying for voucher subsidies and other incentive programs to increase access to affordable housing for current tenants and those on its waiting lists. 

The housing authority outlines converting all of its existing public housing into a voucher-based system — something the agency has already done with some of its properties. 

According to the draft plan, the city’s largest public housing properties are slated for demolition, including: Gilpin, Creighton and Mosby Courts — as well as the three remaining “Courts,” some senior developments and other scattered sites — comprising a total of 3,618 units. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has already approved RRHA’s applications to demolish three locations, including the 200-unit Fay Towers. The agency plans to move residents of the senior apartments (in red on the map below) to three locations (in purple):

  • Highland Park Senior Apartments — 1221 E. Brookland Park Blvd. (Green Park/Highland Park)
  • Baker Street Apartments — 100 W. Baker St. (Gilpin)
  • The Rosa Apartments — 744 N. 2nd St. (Jackson Ward)

In the plan, the housing agency said it chose the locations because they would support its efforts to deconcentrate poverty, and because they’re projected to be up-and-coming areas. 

However, according to data collected on analysis website Niche, only two of the proposed locations have higher income levels than that for Fay Towers, which is right across the street from Gilpin Court. But even still, they’re only slightly above poverty level, which is defined by a median income of $25,000 in the city. 

Thad Williamson is a professor at the University of Richmond, and previously the director of the City of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building. He said that while there isn’t much difference between the areas economically, the new locations would still provide residents with better living conditions than Fay Towers.

“This isn’t moving people to the suburbs by any stretch of the imagination — it’s like a small hop to slightly different parts of the city that more likely will have better growth and future development happening,” Willamson said. “Whereas, the current area where Fay Towers is, it’s basically been stuck in place for decades.”

However, Williamson also raised questions about the transition process, asking if the agency can move that many people in an organized fashion, and also if this will be one-for-one replacement, or if some residents will end up without a home. VPM reached out to RRHA for comment, but did not hear back from the agency before the story’s deadline. 

Demographic information from on three new locations RRHA says factor into a "poverty deconcentration" strategy.

It’s unclear what the agency has planned for thousands of its residents who live in the other properties that RRHA plans to demolish. Although the agency has not applied for demolition yet, they’ve previously said some residents would be able to return to redeveloped apartments, while others will be given vouchers to live elsewhere. 

Angela Fountain said in an email that the agency intends to involve its residents in the planning process and take their comments into account if and when the agency makes any changes to the plan.

“RRHA will consider the issues and concerns raised in those comments along with other key issues which influence our long-term agency plans, such as: RRHA’s priorities as they relate to the urgent need to revitalize public housing; the requirements of all laws applicable to our housing programs; RRHA’ staff and operational capacity,” Fountain said. 

Fountain added other key issues the agency will weigh when considering resident comments include funding availability and the “the overall wishes of [RRHA] housing program participants at large.” 

The public comment period began on August 10, and Fountain said that the agency is making an effort to include its residents in the planning process this time around. She said that includes social media posts on Facebook and Twitter made on August 11 and 14; and announcements in the classified sections of the Richmond Times Dispatch and Richmond Free Press that ran on August 9 and 13.  

Fountain said RRHA’s resident outreach includes flyers, sending emails to residents whose email addresses the housing agency has on file and by including a bill insert in tenants’ September rent statements. The agency will hold a public hearing on September 23 for residents to voice their concerns, and the comment period closes on September 30. 

Public housing residents and other community members can review the annual plan and accompanying information through the links below. They can submit their comments and concerns to the agency by emailing them to [email protected].

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