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Activists question City Council over affordable housing fund

City Hall in summer 2020 weather
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Activists from Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities (RISC) flooded City Hall and took up the majority of public comment slots on Monday.

RISC wants to know where the Affordable Housing Trust Fund money is. The City of Richmond won’t say. 

City officials and a large grassroots activist group are at odds over where affordable housing funding should come from. And several questions remain unanswered about the final destination of millions of taxpayer dollars set aside for affordable housing.

At a City Council meeting Monday night, activists from Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities (RISC) flooded City Hall and took up the majority of public comment slots to demand the city transfer $2.4 million to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. It was not on the agenda that night.

The AHTF was created in 2008 to provide loans and grants for developers and nonprofits to build affordable housing in Richmond. In 2021, council adopted an ordinance to set aside revenue from expiring real estate exemptions that would go into a special reserve for the AHTF.

This money was instead replaced by funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a city spokesperson said.

“The Mayor and the City Council decided for FY22 and FY23 to use $20 M in ARPA funding to increase the amount of funds available to fund affordable housing development and rehabilitation in lieu of using the dedicated source of funding,” Petula Burks wrote in an email.

It is not clear whether the funding would eventually go into the AHTF, and city spokespeople did not answer detailed questions about the affordable housing funding.

VPM News asked which city agency or official is responsible for moving the money from the trust fund for the AHTF, the amount of money in the trust fund and the amount of money in the special reserve.

At Monday’s meeting, members of RISC and a member of the AHTF’s supervisory board said the city wasn’t following its own laws by not funding the AHTF with its dedicated funding stream.

“Developing several hundred units of affordable housing in a city with historically low rental vacancy rates and historically high rent increases awaits your action to move that $2.4 million into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund,” said Martin Wegbreit, a member of the AHTF’s supervisory board. “Follow your own law.”

In the Richmond Region, which also includes the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico, 39,000 affordable homes are needed to eliminate the rent burden for low-income renters, according to the Partnership for Housing Affordability.

About 45% of households in Richmond are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing, Sharon Ebert, deputy chief administrative officer for planning & economic development, wrote in a September 2020 memo to City Council.

Mayor Levar Stoney pledged $20 million in COVID-19 related aid from the federal American Rescue Plan for affordable housing — $10 million for fiscal 2022 and $10 million for fiscal 2023.

Emily Small, RISC’s lead organizer, said in an email that those funds were not put into the AHTF.

Burks said the city is already building 1,000 new housing units with the first traunch of $10 million.

But RISC is pushing for the dedicated funding stream to fund the AHTF. Those funds come from certain properties that were exempt or partially exempt from real estate taxes and are returning into the tax base.

The program was created to incentivize investment and “eliminate concentrations of blight.” But the program came under scrutiny after a 2019 study found it primarily fueled development in wealthier communities. Council decided to cut the program back that year.

RISC was founded in 2002 and is made up of about 20 church congregations in Richmond City, Henrico and Chesterfield counties. RISC has been outspoken on housing and gun violence in particular, even receiving grants to implement gun violence intervention programming.

The action at Monday’s meeting marked RISC ratcheting up pressure on policymakers about the city’s housing issues. It was in line with RISC’s combative, sometimes uncompromising approach, to interacting with city leadership.

“You are not the mayor. You are your own body. You have your own power. While the administration has broken his promises, you can make things right,” said the Rev. Derek Starr Redwine of First Presbyterian Church.

RISC sent a letter to Stoney on Feb. 13, saying city leaders had ignored their requests for meetings on the topic.

Jim Nolan, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in an email that suggestions that the mayor is not committed to the pressing issue of housing is “misguided and misleading at best.”

Burks listed other funding for affordable housing that totaled $36.5 million dollars, noting that it was more than 20 times the amount that would go to the AHTF.

The AHTF is able to leverage its own funds. In fiscal 2020, 16 awardees were able to leverage $1.9 million in funds for $24.5 million in leveraged funds — about 12 times as much.

Ralph Hodge with RISC encouraged City Council to “speak truth to power” to its interactions with the mayor's administration.

The only councilmember to address RISC’s comments on Monday was Reva Trammell.

“All that money is in a trust fund,” she said. “We do not write those checks.”

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.
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