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Richmond set to redevelop its public housing neighborhoods, raising old questions

Brick buildings
Richmond's Mosby Court, one of several public housing neighborhoods slated for redevelopment. (Photo: Angie Miles/VPM News)

Denise Winfree has lived on Coalter Street in Mosby Court for the past 10 years. Known affectionately to her neighbors as Ms. Dee, this vivacious and friendly grandmother of six is gracious enough to give us a tour of her home.  The space is quite small, with a living room and a kitchen on the first floor.  Tucked here and there are culturally significant pieces of art, cozy throws and other comfort items and placards on her cinderblock walls with sayings as positive as what she wears on her shirt, which proclaims “Good Vibes Only.” 

Winfree’s demeanor is energetic, even joyful, as she describes her tiny kitchen with a half-sized stove. “I enjoy having all the family over,” she says, “so we can have big family dinners,” but the stove is a problem. “It’s so small. It cooks good, but it takes a lot for me to have to keep cooking and cooking.” 

Winfree is one of about 10,000 public housing residents preparing to put Richmond’s aging public housing units behind them.  Over the next several years, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority intends to demolish the six largest public housing developments and replace those with mixed-income units. Living on a fixed income, Winfree says she’s willing to pay a little more for the premiums she most wants, but those premiums are things that most people take for granted.  She has a washer, but not a dryer.  Upstairs, she has two bedrooms and a bathroom that most would describe as tiny.  And she has two closets without any doors. 

“I am very hopeful for the new plan that Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority is going to have … when they're going to tear it down and put up the new, I want to be a part of it. I want to be a participant involved in what they're going to be doing. And I want to give full input. I believe I have some good ideas.” 

Housing communities that have become synonymous with violence, drugs and crime were touted as a bright, new beginning when they were first built.  An outgrowth of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the first federally subsidized housing in Richmond was Gilpin Court in the Jackson Ward neighborhood, started in 1941 but not finished until 1943, because of complications brought on by World War II.  A decade later, on the Southside, Hillside Court opened for white people only.  Then, in the East End, came Creighton, Whitcomb, Fairfield and Mosby courts.  

The genesis of public housing in other Virginia localities was similar.  Between the early 1940s and the early 1960s, Charlottesville and communities in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia created housing developments for the lowest income, usually Black residents.  Sometimes, these urban renewal schemes involved demolishing mostly Black neighborhoods, which were deemed substandard housing or even slums … and then rebuilding or even relocating residents to less visible but still poor parts of town.

In fact, in Richmond, the task of building these communities was initially referred to as “slum clearing”, according to city records and the headlines in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. When Mayor Gordon Ambler struck the first ceremonial blow that would demolish homes of more than 300 families, he did so with John Riis by his side. Riis was the son of Jacob Riis, famous for documenting the misery of New York slums in his book How the Other Half Lives and motivating the nation to do better for the poorest among us. 

The younger Riis, incidentally, was a reporter for the Richmond News Leader for 20 years.  As he stood with Richmond’s mayor and civic leaders at the commencement of this massive urban renewal project, it appeared to most that they were doing a great thing for Richmond’s poor and working-class citizens, mostly Black people.  However, many of the supposed slum dwellers became homeless or ended up living with relatives in quarters that were much too small for many years after.  The promise of new housing for hundreds was delayed by the need to house defense department workers and then by the final project being large enough for only a fraction of those who had been evicted from the area that had been called Apostle Town. 

One of the goals of public housing, nationwide, was to put willing workers in close proximity to jobs and economic opportunities in the city. In Richmond, as in most of America, over the decades, urban employment opportunities moved elsewhere.  That exodus to the suburbs, often referred to as white flight, and many decades without public transportation to reach well-paying jobs created economic dead ends for many public housing occupants.  In this way, an outsized share of city crime problems took root in public housing communities. Those who managed to earn enough to escape areas of high poverty were legally barred from buying or renting in higher income areas if those individuals were Black. Current social problems in Virginia’s public housing communities have clear connections with systemic racism in Virginia’s past.

It was only with the passage of civil rights laws, including legislation related to fair housing, that economic and social mobility has become more possible.  In more recent years, many of the descendants of whites who fled urban centers have begun to return to America’s cities, including those in Virginia, bringing with them concerns about gentrification, of displacing lower-income residents who cannot afford to live in increasingly affluent neighborhoods.  But public housing has remained a kind of refuge, albeit not always a desirable option, for those who don’t earn a great deal.  Unlike affordable housing, government-owned and operated public housing caps the amount of rent a tenant pays at no more than 30% of income, no matter how low the income.  In Virginia’s cities, much of the public housing stock has become outdated and problematic for a number of reasons.   

For decades, Richmond leaders have talked about wanting to re-envision and recreate these neighborhoods.  And it appears that the time may have come. In the past two years, RRHA has won substantial grant funding to begin the makeover of public housing, following a trend set by the federal government’s Housing and Urban Development to demolish public housing and replace it with mixed-income communities. In the blueprints for these improved neighborhoods, public housing tenants live alongside wealthier neighbors with little perceptible distinction in the way the units appear.  

Interim RRHA Director Stacey Daniels-Fayson shares a vision of how good life might be for thousands of public housing tenants once these mixed-income units are complete.  She says, "I would like to see our families have the amenities that we have in terms of, you know, Wi-Fi washer, dryer, 21st century stoves, refrigerators, appliances. And, you know, some people may think, well, that's not really a lot. But I think it is.” 

In stages, the Housing Authority is engaging residents to hear what they want in new homes — elsewhere or rebuilt on the current sites, assisting with temporary relocation and providing credits or vouchers to allow current tenants to rent or purchase new homes and in time, to return to their rebuilt communities if they choose.   

Daniels-Fayson says, “It's very important for us to work strategically with the city, as well as our stakeholders and others to ensure that any project that we have any redevelopment efforts that we have, is appropriately funded, and is completed, it may not necessarily be completed on time just because of the nature of the business and in terms of construction. But we want to be very responsible and intentional. And in terms of how we redevelop.”  

RRHA is one of more than 3,000 public housing authorities funded by HUD which is making wholesale moves nationwide towards community partnerships and mixed-income communities.  In Charlottesville, it was residents who campaigned for improvements.  Following the 2017 Unite the Right rally, racial inequities fueled an aggressive quest to abate some of the systemic racism that had led to poor housing opportunities.  And now, Charlottesville is diversifying ownership of public housing and renovating more of its properties. In Norfolk also, plans are underway for mixed-income communities created by partners. 

One of Richmond’s partners, the Better Housing Coalition, has used its nonprofit resources for more than three decades.  Currently, BHC provides affordable housing for more than three thousand Richmonders.  BHC’s President and CEO Greta Harris says she is excited to be among the partners bringing a needed change for public housing tenants.  She says, “There was a single dad with two young kids who formerly lived in Creighton Court public housing, and he moved into our one of our newer development In Church Hill call the Goodwyn that's on Venable Street. And when one of our teammates was showing him around the new unit that he would be in, he started crying. Because some of the public housing units, the interior walls are cinderblock. That's what you see. There's sometimes questionable heat, no air conditioning.  When you have dirty clothes … you have to pick them up and take them to a [laundromat]. When he walked in, he had an open space plan, big windows with wonderful light coming in, granite countertops, pendant lighting and full-size washer/dryer and a thermostat that he could control. And it's wonderful to be able to see it, see people have hope that their future can be better than their present.” 

Armstrong Renaissance is one of the new communities where RRHA, Better Housing and several others are partnering for a mixed-income development with both rentals and homes for purchase.  It’s right across the street from Creighton Court, and some of its first residents came from Creighton.  Residents of the new development preferred to remain anonymous, but several expressed great satisfaction with their homes.  One woman was heading to her job but stopped to share that “this is something totally different from over there in Creighton. ... It’s more spacious.  I have three floors.  Everything in here is brand new.  It’s a lot of things that you can’t do over there that you can do here.  And my kids love it.”  She goes on to tell me that when she lived in Creighton, she didn’t go outside or allow her children to play outside, because of the threat of crime.  But here, as the security guard passes on patrol, she says she feels safe and it’s no problem for her children to play outdoors.

Harris says she believes that living in an upgraded space improves people’s mental and emotional outlook in ways that most might not appreciate.  “I think over time, you become more willing to take risks, and to step out of your comfort zone in order to achieve the dreams that you may have for yourself or your family. … I think when you have a good place to call home, and what we offer is not luxury by any stretch of the imagination, but it's safe, it's clean, it's quality. And you build community. And so you feel like you have wind under your wings in order to take a step forward and try to accomplish things that may be just out of reach.”

Some longtime public housing residents are skeptical that the change will be good for everyone.  Shakima Broaddus grew up in Gilpin Court and is now in other public housing, but she is in the process of buying a first home for her family.  She says there are a few people who prefer to live on the system rather than pushing to own more and be more self-sufficient.  

Broaddus says, “I think people don’t like to hear that you’re living off the system, but you have some people that really are, because you have folks that can go out and get a job.  And they choose not to, because they’re getting assistance.  And if you apply for assistance and you work, you get denied.”

Broaddus says public housing is better as a temporary solution, and that while she enjoyed the sense of community at Gilpin Court, she thinks it’s time for something new in its place. 

Omari Al-Qadaffi is a community organizer and housing activist.  He has focused for years on what’s best for low-income residents in Richmond.  Even now, he tends a green space he helped create next to Mosby Court.  And he warns of the danger of giving too much control to private partners, even well-intentioned nonprofits.  

He says, “I would much rather see public housing renovated and not turned over to a private developer or a private landlord. … It's, it's a public resource that really needs to stay in the public sphere...You know, there is no data that shows that this large group of people, you know, they moved over to mixed use mixed-income housing, and then their lives just were so improved, of course, I mean, of course, it's going to happen to, you know, a small amount of people … but I, I'm not sure that there's data that really shows that it's because they you know, someone moved to another place.” 

History does support some of what concerns him.  In the 1990s, as HUD implemented its HOPE VI program to revitalize America’s urban centers, results were not universally positive.  In Richmond’s Blackwell neighborhood, the demolition of more than 400 public housing units, with a promise of hundreds of new, mixed housing units translated into only a few dozen new homes. And 25 years later, most of Blackwell’s former public housing residents are scattered — some became homeless — and HOPE IV is still unfinished.  Also, there is research suggesting that families who relocate from public to mixed-income housing have not necessarily found a better quality of life.  In a 12-year Duke University study, many of those who relocated reported feeling isolated and far away from some of their most essential services.  For Black boys in particular, studies showed great difficulties readjusting and finding a sense of well-being. 

Al-Qaddafi's skepticism extends to concerns that dissolving pockets of poverty might also dissolve concentrations of Black voting power. He says that by scattering so many Black families, including those with many children, it’s likely that we will begin to see school closures and less political representation for Black residents in the city of Richmond and in other urban communities.  

Al-Qaddafi says, “I think that the promises of public housing haven't been realized yet, you know, advocates, including myself, we like to look towards the ... the opportunities that are in like the Section Three program … that is the mechanism that gives priority for contracting and employment opportunities, wealth, building opportunities for low-income residents and a much higher priority for public housing residents. And, you know, there's been so many studies about the missed opportunities to inject wealth into the communities through those mechanisms, you know, and I really think that those are real ways. Using the Section Three program. That's that's a real way where you're not just giving money over to nonprofits to deal with people in a paternalistic way. You're actually, you know, because that's, that's, that's not empowerment, you know, that's not sustainable.” 

Section Three of the 1968 Housing and Development Act earmarks money for wealth-building opportunities for people living in public housing. It is not a part of this revitalization project. Al-Qaddafi and other advocates have voices concerns, including what happens to rent when the tax credits and vouchers expire, loss of access to services like public transportation and the potential of a net loss of public housing units. 

RRHA’s Daniels-Fayson says many of the potential pitfalls are being addressed, as the region learns from past mistakes and as RRHA works hard to gain and keep the trust of residents.  She says it’s a priority. 

Harris also highlights the many services provided for those who make the move, so that even if their rent increases slightly, they find supports in terms of job training, access to transportation and educational opportunities so they get a genuine chance at a life makeover that is more than a surface change. 

Denise Winfree says she is ready.  While she doesn’t claim complete trust in the system or the process, she is willing to take a chance, and this is why she is answering the surveys and attending meetings sponsored by RRHA.  

She says, “It was about six of us, I believe on the Zoom meeting. It may have been eight, but everybody was hopeful. We all were putting in good, good information. And it was recognized and it was accepted. So they are going to have more meetings with us. I'm hoping that other people will join.” 

And she believes that by investing her time and ideas as an active participant in the planning process, she is more likely to get what she wants, including doors on her closets, a dryer and a great big stove so she can finally host big Sunday dinners. 

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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