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Vouched Out

As the city undergoes a real estate renaissance, a public housing crisis looms.

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The only way you know these are low-income neighborhoods, says City Councilman Marty Jewell, is by the older cars parked outside. "Yet nobody talks about cooperative housing in Richmond," he says.

The time is now, Jewell insists. As more and more people move back to the city amid Richmond's real estate resurgence, a severe shortage of housing assistance for low-income families — such as government-subsidized housing and rent vouchers — has left more and more of Richmond's poorest struggling to find places to live.

Almost 10,000 families are on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers through the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. These vouchers allow low-income families to rent homes they could not afford otherwise; families pay up to 40 percent of their income for rent and utilities, and the voucher covers the rest.

Those 10,000 have been waiting since May 2003, when the Section 8 waiting list last accepted new applications. Valena Dixon, a spokeswoman for the housing authority, says RRHA doesn't know how many were on the list previously; Jewell says it was around 3,700.

About 200 families move off of the list each year, says Dixon. But it's not nearly enough. At that rate, it will take 50 years for every family in line to get a voucher.

"One could surmise that, yes, there is clearly an interest" in housing vouchers, Dixon says. But RRHA can do little, she says. The number of vouchers the authority receives — 2,900 annually — is determined by the federal government and is not expected to increase anytime soon, Dixon adds.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Congress began cutting back on the Nixon-era voucher program because not all the money allocated was being used for vouchers, says Lee Jones, spokesman for the Richmond office of Housing and Urban Development. Today, annual increases in funding for the program are small and may be diverted to evacuees of Hurricane Katrina and other recent natural disasters. Vouchers, Jones explains, are "a little bit like M&Ms at a Halloween party — they get eaten up pretty fast."

So what happens to the 9,938 families — plus the hundreds if not thousands of others who are waiting simply to put their names on the voucher list?

Families have few other options. They can apply for public housing. About 350 applicants are currently waiting for a spot in one of Richmond's 16 public housing developments.

Increasingly, local governments are turning to mixed-income housing. But few agree on how best to provide it. Build more or raze public housing? Eliminate vouchers? Subsidize developments like Oakland Village and The Woodlands?

Councilwoman Ellen Robertson recently suggested a partial solution: an ordinance that would dedicate 1 percent of all real estate tax revenue to a "community reinvestment fund" to support the development of mixed-income housing and the replacement of public housing.

For fiscal year 2007, 1 percent of real estate taxes would equal $1.91 million. "It's not a lot of money, but it's a beginning process," Robertson says. The fund could be used to encourage affordable residential development by paying for new sidewalks and pipes or to pay fees for those developers, she says.

The ordinance matches what public housing tenants have said they'd like to see: "no more cinder-block buildings," "mixed-income/mixed-use communities," and housing options, from rental to homeownership.

But some affordable-housing advocates are dubious about the idea of mixed-income housing — wherein developers also receive subsidies to include lower-income housing units in higher-income neighborhoods. "What is a mixed-income housing development?" asks Marcel Slag, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center who works on housing cases. "I mean, do we get a lot of Section 8 in Windsor Farms?"

Robertson's ordinance, which is still stuck in City Council's finance committee, stirred plenty of emotion Oct. 19. Jewell spoke passionately against the ordinance because he believed it called for tearing down existing public housing. He said doing so was akin to "terrorism" because it left the poorest with nowhere to go.

Robertson, however, fired back. She said Jewell had misread the ordinance. "You are being deliberately deceived," she told the finance committee, her voice rising. "This is not what this paper is about." It simply creates a separate fund the city can use to "support the development of mixed-income housing."

The idea of mixed-income communities sounds nice, says Slag, but the blending of subsidized apartments with middle-class homes is hard to execute. A better solution, he suggests, might be building small public housing apartment complexes all around the city — and in the counties too — to avoid creating epicenters of poverty.

"In principle, I support the concept" of the ordinance, Jewell says.

However, he adds, "we need to know what kind of affordable housing are we talking about, because again, that's a code word."

For instance, he says, a condominium project in Highland Park, which was championed by Robertson until a deal with the city fell through, was called affordable housing although each house was valued at $220,000 or more. That's "way out of reach of the people who need the housing the most," Jewell says.

The meaning of "affordable" changes for families subsisting on low incomes, very low incomes and extremely low incomes, Jewell says. In redevelopment efforts, "rarely are they talking about those latter two."

Jewell fears that families with very low incomes — by RRHA's standards, less than $33,800 for a family of four — could even lose their safety net, the city's 16 public housing developments.

Given the city's rising home values — the average assessed value for a single-family home in 2005 is $156,176, an increase of almost $42,000 since 2002 — and a wave of residential renovations in areas previously considered undesirable, Jewell believes "developers are drooling at the lips to get to some of these properties."

RRHA says otherwise, but Jewell, Slag and others feel there's a move under way to demolish public housing and replace it with vouchers or other alternatives. Jewell recalled the warnings of Alma Marie Barlow, a longtime advocate for public housing tenants' rights who died more than a decade ago. When tenants are given some autonomy in managing public housing, she said, they must be cautious. "Because if you stumble or fail or fall, look out for the bulldozers."

Dixon, the RRHA spokeswoman, said comments like these have created "fear and distrust" between the housing authority and residents.

"That is not true," she says. "There is no plan to demolish public housing and to displace all public housing residents." The plan for creating more affordable housing for Richmond's poor, however, has yet to be written. S



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