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Richmond housing authority practices, transparency under fire

Creighton Court
Creighton Court, a public housing community the Richmond housing authority plans to demolish despite objections from residents and advocates. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s board of commissioners voted to approve an application for the next phase in demolishing Creighton Court last night. 

But the agenda for this meeting wasn’t posted to RRHA’s website until yesterday morning, leaving just a few hours for the public to register to speak.  An agency policy requires speakers to register by noon on the day of a meeting.

Only one person was able to participate. Omari Al-Qadaffi, a housing organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said RRHA is failing to meaningfully engage residents in processes that affect their futures. 

“We should think about regulations, the first amendment and due process as more than just checkboxes and see them as the real constitutional protections against oppression,” Al-Qadaffi said.  

Earlier this year, the agency pulled plans from their website during a public comment period. And when the agency sought federal approval to demolish Creighton Court in January, it submitted its application before public comment or a vote by the Board of Commissioners.

HUD rejected RRHA’s five-year plan last year, for failing to consider the needs of public housing residents.

“It might look like these are unrelated and isolated incidents, but to me it seems to be repetitive behavior and rooted in a lack of commitment to transparency and compliance,” Al-Qadaffi said. “And it's a pattern of disenfranchisement of Black people.”

RRHA’s board chair Veronica Blount disagreed with Al-Qadaffi, and the 2019 HUD rejection letter, and said the agency has always complied with federal requirements — which include keeping residents informed and soliciting their feedback. 

“It is part of [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s] regulations that we let people know, and we do follow the regulations — we’re in good stead with HUD. We've done everything we're supposed to do.”

Before HUD rejected RRHA’s annual and five-year plans last year, the agency faced in-person protests at public meetings for failing to engage residents. HUD said the agency should  “be cautioned to ensure that it is considering the identified housing needs of applicants and residents when making plans to redevelop its housing projects.”

RRHA’s plans entail the demolition of all public housing communities in the city to make way for mixed-income developments, some of which will include market-rate units. In exchange for units lost, the agency would hand out subsidized housing vouchers that have a two month expiration date. But advocates have long argued that this will displace a lot of the city’s most vulnerable residents and further concentrate poverty. HUD approved those plans in July of this year. 

But the federal agency still hasn’t approved the most recent annual and five-year plans, which were resubmitted this October. The federal agency said the documents would be under review until January 1, 2021, but added that the agency could still get the green light to demolish Creighton Court if plans for the property had been outlined in previous years and approved. 

Two recently-appointed commissioners echoed advocates’ concerns and pointed to the importance of public engagement. Basil Gooden, formerly the state’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, was appointed to RRHA’s board in September. “In the interest of full transparency,” he asked Chairperson Blount how far in advance the agency posted meeting agendas, notices and minutes to its website. 

The only  meeting minutes available for 2020 on the agency’s website are from one meeting in July, but Blount said, “There's usually at least three days notice in which we post our agenda, and if we have citizens that want to speak, they have an opportunity to register in a certain amount of time as well.”

Although the agenda for yesterday’s meeting was only posted yesterday morning, Blount went on to claim it was “well known” that Creighton demolition would be discussed at the meeting.

Marilyn Olds is a longtime Creighton Court resident and president of its tenant council. She formerly served as a commissioner on RRHA’s board and defended RRHA’s practices. 

“The residents do know and those who are going to be involved will always be involved. You’ll always have the naysayers,” Olds said. “We know what we need to know. Sometimes you don't need to know everything that ain't good.”

Iyeshia Sessoms, a former resident of Creighton who now lives in Mosby Court, was registered to speak at Wednesday’s meeting. She dialed in, but the commissioners were unable to hear her due to a problem with their phone system.

She disagreed that the agency has kept her in the loop, and said RRHA has long dismissed resident concerns. 

“They're constantly speaking on behalf of the community and that's not how we feel,” Sessoms said.  Her experience calling in to the meeting was like her other experiences reaching out, she said.

“When you constantly reach out to the same source over and over again, you try every different avenue like emails, writing, in-person, over the phone, and you don't get any progress. It's like they're blatantly telling you that your issues don't matter,” Sessoms said.“There are times where I have been talked to like I was less than human by people from RRHA.” 

Sessoms said the trust between residents and RRHA has long been broken. She added that the only possible way forward is if the agency completely changed its approach.

“It's gotten so bad to where people have really lost hope,” Sessoms said. “They need to actually sit down with the people, come out in the community and talk to the people and find out what we want, not what they want for us.”

One commissioner, Gooden, tried to find out the concerns of members of the public who couldn’t be heard over the call-in line. He asked Blount to share the comments they left when they signed up to speak; she said they could speak at a future meeting instead, to let the commissioners could move forward with their agenda.

RRHA will now apply for federal approval for the second phase of demolishing Creighton Court. HUD is still reviewing the agency’s first application, turned-in prematurely last January and resubmitted after an initial rejection. 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), a candidate for Virginia’s governor, said RRHA “fails to uphold [its] mission,” in a letter earlier this month. She’s meeting with the agency today to ask them to wait for new legislation that would require more notice for residents before  applying to demolish their homes.

 

McClellan's letter:

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