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UPDATE: RRHA responds to public concerns about annual plan

public housing duplex
Residents in public housing have complained that their homes are poorly maintained for years. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority submitted its annual plan for federal approval, following a 45-day comment period. But advocates have criticized the agency over its outreach efforts. 

RRHA issued a statement on Thursday, dismissing public concerns about the plan. In it, the agency spokesperson, Angela Fountain said she’s hopeful that RRHA’s response will, “Help correct the various inaccuracies and untruths held by some.”

The plan proposes the demolition of all existing public housing, and would give tenants subsidized housing vouchers that expire after four months. But advocates have long called for one-to-one replacement of units instead of vouchers. 

In the statement, Fountain said residents, “overwhelmingly want vouchers.” But at a September 23 public hearing, advocates disagreed. 

Candice Turner, a transition coach with Richmond Opportunities Inc., works with RRHA residents. She said the limited window tenants will have to use housing vouchers could lead to homelessness

“If someone does not find a property or somewhere to relocate, what happens to them? And I'm mentioning that because, as we know, there are more people than housing opportunity,” Turner said. 

The Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, Legal Aid Justice, and Virginia Poverty Law Centers make up the Virginia Housing Justice Program. The coalition submitted a letter with feedback about the plan —  raising alarm about the possible disenfranchisement of the city’s most vulnerable residents. 

“While no one disputes the dire need for capital improvements in RRHA’s Public Housing stock, the vision set out in the annual plan fails to ensure that residents will not be  displaced and that the supply of housing to those most in need,”  the letter read. 

Although advocates and many residents have asked for one-to-one replacement of public housing units, the agency has rejected the idea. RRHA said one-to-one replacement would, “Continue decades of segregation and poverty in Richmond.” In the statement, Fountain said the proposed redevelopments would give tenants the opportunity to thrive.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected RRHA’s 2019-2020 plan, citing the housing authority’s failure to consider “the identified housing needs of applicants and residents when making plans to redevelop its public housing projects.”

The Virginia Housing Justice Program’s letter echoed a shared concern among both public housing tenants and advocates that RRHA’s outreach efforts were lacking. It also highlighted a period of time when the draft plan went missing from the agency’s website during the public review period. 

“Although we understand that the COVID-19 pandemic makes public engagement especially  challenging, resident input is essential to creating a plan for RRHA’s future that reflects tenants’  needs,” the letter read. “Many residents are unable to  meaningfully participate due to challenges including lack of access to remote meeting platforms, inability to review RRHA’s documents, and being unaware of public hearings.”

The agency’s statement defended its outreach efforts — listing the various announcements it had published in newspapers and via social media platforms.

During its planning process, RRHA proposed changes to its admissions and occupancy policy that transition billing and waitlist notifications to a fully-virtual platform. This went into effect on Thursday — one day after the comment period ended. 

Advocates criticized the measure during last week’s public comment hearings, and the Virginia Housing Justice Program said it creates new barriers to accessing affordable housing. 

“We are concerned that these changes may exclude applicants who do not have internet access  and those who are not digitally literate, potentially in violation of the Fair Housing Act,” the letter read. “These families would  lose access to public Housing and housing choice vouchers unless RRHA employs additional forms of communication.”  

The housing authority statement contradicts the released policy changes, which state families must apply online. Fountain said they are “undertaking efforts to offer additional access and conveniences for [its] residents,” but no such efforts are described in the publicly available documents. VPM reached out to Fountain for comment, but did not hear back before our deadline.

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