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Mayoral candidates on solving Richmond’s housing crisis

moderators and mayoral candidates during forum
Mayoral candidates participating in a recent forum. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM)

Richmond landlords have filed more than 3,500 evictions since the start of the pandemic. And advocates say it’s worsening the city’s eviction crisis. At a recent election forum, Richmond’s mayoral candidates shared what they would do to tackle this issue.

In 2016, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University named Richmond the second-highest evicting city in the country. Since then, officials have tried to improve the city’s standing by launching an eviction diversion program. It aims to mediate between landlords and tenants to keep people in their homes. 

Mayoral candidate Alexsis Rodgers, Virginia state director for the nonprofit Care in Action, said she’d increase funding to the program. 

“Folks are literally at the courthouse getting arrested for protesting evictions in our city. That is the crisis,” Rodgers said. “I would make sure that we are fully funding the eviction diversion program. I would make sure that we are opening up more affordable housing so that folks can get ahead and not fall behind.”

Nearly 50,000 Richmonders have filed for unemployment during the pandemic. Without work, many are struggling to make rent. While economic hardship is one of the root causes behind evictions, housing advocates say it’s also about equity. And this is a key issue in November’s mayoral election.

Researcher LaToya Gray Sparks is a graduate student in Virginia Commonwealth University’s urban and regional planning program. She recently published a project on the city’s history of land ownership and development. And how Richmond’s first comprehensive plan, created during the 1940s by Harland Bartholomew, laid out the groundwork for redlining, a racist practice that displaced Black residents.

“What he was doing was pretty much locating where Black people lived and making sure that those [locations] were marked on maps,” Gray Sparks said. “And then they would be designated as places that were redlined, or eligible for slum clearance, which meant that they could be demolished.”

Gray Sparks said plans to redevelop Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods is essentially history repeating itself. She added that, while the jury’s still out on the efficacy of mixed income developments, the disruption that ensues is irreparable. 

“A lot of people were displaced in certain areas, but then you also found a lot of Black people concentrated in certain areas,” Gray Sparks said. “It leads to generations of isolation and people not being able to thrive because they won’t be able to engage, and they’re not going to be able to make enough money to stay in the changed communities.”

The city public housing agency, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, is proposing the demolition of all existing public housing. Instead, they’ll issue subsidized housing vouchers that expire after four months. Public housing residents and advocates have long called for one-to-one replacement of units instead of vouchers, and candidate Alexsis Rodgers agrees.

“What they're not thinking about is the fact that a lot of these families have built a safety net in the community around them,” Rodgers said. “While many of them would like to have an HVAC and a better housing unit — the fact that they know their neighbor next door and that if they're coming home late from work, or if they’ve got to leave early to get to school, that there's a neighbor that can watch their kids. That's important too.”

Incumbent Mayor Levar Stoney echoed that institutional racism is responsible for Richmond’s housing woes.

“We need to increase Black home ownership in the city of Richmond by moving blighted properties, tax-delinquent properties to the Maggie Walker Land Trust, and getting those in the hands of Black residents and brown residents to create generational wealth,” Stoney said.

He recently proposed creating new revenue from expiring real estate tax exemptions to support the city’s affordable housing trust fund. He predicts this will generate about $2 million each year. However, City Councilmember Ellen Robertson proposed a resolution last month, asking for $10 million annually to meet the increasing need for affordable housing.

However, when faced with a question about the future of public housing, he blamed RRHA’s shortcomings on its turbulent leadership, and not the planned demolition of its housing stock.

“We need consistency that actually drives some of the change that's necessary,” Stoney said. “Working with the City Council as well, since they are the ones who will appoint the members of the RRHA commission that we've worked with — people who actually are going to force the staff there and the leadership there to be more transparent and be as helpful as possible to make sure that our residents there have a pathway to economic mobility.”


Another mayoral contender, attorney Justin Griffin, said city operations would need restructuring. His approach would include stricter code enforcement, cracking down on slumlords and fast tracking city processes he says stand in the way of developers.

“I've had conversations with people who are unable to get the permits and inspections that they need to build a building or renovate a building. And that adds cost and that adds delays,” Griffin said. 

Andrew Clark is a lobbyist with the Home Builders Association of Virginia. He said the permitting process is just one of several hurdles to building affordable housing for residents making 40% or less of the area median income. That’s a total household income of $35,760 for a family of four in Richmond.

“It's extremely difficult, if not impossible to get there without some kind of incentive for either the nonprofits or the private sector,” Clark said. “You hear a lot about the rising cost of construction, the price of land, the shortage of labor, the increase in the cost of labor, and those are all really important. And they’re not just impacting the city of Richmond, but the region as a whole.”

Another mayoral candidate, City Councilmember Kim Gray, blamed property taxes.

“I live in a historic neighborhood, Jackson Ward, where I only have four neighbors remaining on my block. They’ve been pushed out due to high taxes,” Gray said. “I think we need to protect long term residents with tax deferrals. And I think we need to incentivize affordable housing through our abatement programs.”

Clark said Richmond is running out of space — so one of the solutions is to build up. 

“Increasing density is essentially the best way of ensuring that you're able to provide more affordable housing stock, more mixed income communities,” Clark said.

But Gray’s city council voting record shows a pattern of opposing zoning changes in historic neighborhoods. Those changes would allow high-density, affordable housing, instead of the single family housing built by real estate speculators who were trying to expand the city boundaries in the early 1900s.

When it comes to RRHA, Gray said the issue lies within its lacking tenant engagement. She also voiced her support for one-to-one brick and mortar replacement of existing public housing.

“I think that can be accomplished when we are operating at the highest efficiency. Many of the units that we're seeing built in the East End developments cost more than high end apartments being constructed in Scott’s Addition,” Gray said. 

Eviction Lab data shows filings in Richmond have dropped since the start of the pandemic. But, it also shows filings increasing, even with a federal, Centers for Disease Control-mandated moratorium in place through December 31.

Eric Dunn, director of litigation with the National Housing Law Project, said that could lead to another crisis.

“If there's not something else that comes along to replace [the moratorium], then we could be right back facing the eviction tsunami again in January with more than 20 million evictions nationwide,” Dunn said. “I don't know exactly how many Virginia would be looking at, but probably hundreds of thousands.”

And that could lead to a public health crisis during a pandemic. Dunn said there are a few things local officials, like mayors, can do to stave off evictions in the absence of state and federal protections. 

One approach would be to pass an ordinance prohibiting landlords from evicting residents who may be behind on previous months’ rents, but can make current and future payments.

“Enabling landlords to evict tenants over rent arrearage just gives landlords an unfair collection tool. The ability to make somebody homeless to get them to pay a debt,” Dunn said. 

Another is to make it illegal for landlords to turn applicants away for having been evicted during the pandemic. But, he added that both of these measures would need to have equivalent state laws for local officials to enact them.

The last option would be for a local health district to mimic the CDC freeze — something within the direct power of a mayor. 

Editor's Note: A line in an earlier version of this piece may have been unclear concerning Rodgers' views on the pandemic's role in the housing crisis. It has been removed.

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