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Coalition Offers Framework to Solve Richmond’s Housing Crisis

A coalition of housing experts and advocates presented a series of solutions to Richmond's housing crisis on Monday. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A coalition of housing experts and advocates gave a presentation on their new affordable housing platform today. The Partnership for Smarter Growth, Richmond for All, and the Virginia Poverty Law Center released the platform last week.

It calls for a wide range of mostly local policies that members say would protect Richmond’s most vulnerable residents. They want the city to help tenants defend themselves against eviction filings, provide more financial support to renters, and build more affordable housing.

“The idea is that we wanted to lay out some values, some policies, and a strategic framework for really thinking about affordable housing in Richmond,” said Stephen Wade, vice president of PSG.

Wade says the housing crisis in Richmond has been a reality for people of color and people with low or no income for a long time - but as the problems spread to people and communities with moderate incomes, the crisis has become a local priority.

“We’re at this point particularly focused on local policies,” Wade said. The proposals are designed to be applicable on the city level, and Wade says they could be acted on by the mayor or city council today.

Guiding those policies are a series of principles identified by the coalition. They say no one should be without a home, the city should foster equity in planning through centering community members, and evictions should be as rare as possible. The coalition also calls for public funds to be targeted by need and for a focus on wealth building in communities.

Eviction Reduction and Diversion

Richmond has made national headlines in recent years as research from the VCU Douglas Wilder School’s RVA Eviction Lab illuminated the extent of the city’s housing crisis.

From 2000 to 2016, Richmond had an eviction rate of 11%. That’s the second-highest rate nationally.

Laura Wright is an attorney with VPLC whose work focuses on the Richmond area. She says quality housing is the basis for so much of daily life: it should provide access to food, employment, schools, and much more.

“Housing isn’t simply the roof over your head,” Wright said. “It’s your community, it’s your personal safety for you and your family.”

The coalition says that a shortage of affordable housing - considered to cost less than 30% of the tenant’s pre-tax income - is one reason so many Richmonders get eviction notices. An average of 40,000 are sent out each year in the city. So they say more housing is needed soon, along with immediate protections for renters behind on payments.

Wright says the coalition is calling for the right to legal counsel for those facing eviction. After New York City established this measure in 2017, 86% of families represented by counsel in eviction cases were able to stay in their homes. In that time, the filing rate for evictions in the city has fallen 30%.

“If they really want to deal with our high eviction rates, they should have a serious investment in providing attorneys for low-income tenants,” Wright said. She calls this the “defensive” approach.

A proactive fix they’re proposing is a rent supplement program. These are even rarer than right to counsel programs, but there are some, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program. Wright says Section 8 doesn’t provide enough support, leaving localities to cover the many people left unserved by federal aid.

“It’s a way to bridge that gap between the private housing market and the public housing stock,” Wright said.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority is planning to transition to a model based on privately owned affordable housing. That plan includes demolishing the city’s existing public housing.

Quinton Robbins spoke for the advocacy group  Richmond For All, which formed a grassroots coalition against the now-defunct Navy Hill proposal. Robbins says RRHA’s plan  doesn’t do enough. Robbins says it won’t include one-for-one brick and mortar replacement, and cautions, “these plans can often go awry when funding has dried up.”

In addition, some Richmond redevelopment projects, such as replacement housing for the to-be-demolished Creighton Court, don’t have any funding allocated.

Wade also detailed calls for new zoning and land use policies. The coalition says the city should consider dedicating 30% of its publicly owned lands to affordable housing development, and rework its Master Plan to allow for more density in affordable areas.

The group ended their presentation with a call to action, asking attendees to call city officials and advocate for their proposals.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.