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Better Homes

Sheila Hill-Christian, new chief of the city's housing authority, says public housing as we know it is about to change.


It's also asking why, particularly in Richmond, there has been a spike in recent years of homicides occurring in or near RRHA neighborhoods. The agency tried to privatize its streets and augment trespassing enforcement. But the effort has stirred controversy and a lawsuit struck down last year by the Virginia Supreme Court.

Shelia Hill-Christian is the face at the helm of what could become a very different kind of housing authority. The former chief operating officer of the Greater Richmond Transit Co. also has served as assistant city manager and director of the city's Department of Juvenile Justice Services. Hill-Christian took charge of the RRHA in March 2004, upon the retirement of then-Executive Director Tyrone Curtis.

Style caught up with Hill-Christian to discuss her still-new role in working to turn the authority's thorny past into future blooms.

Style: As executive director for the state's largest housing authority, what's the hardest part of your job, your biggest frustration?

Hill-Christian: The hardest part of my job right now is moving forward, setting direction, being strategic about what we're going to do in the future while dealing with the past. The audit situation that we faced a few years ago, the FBI visit we had a few months ago — all of that takes time because what you have to do is focus and refocus and also answer the whys and overcome some history that has put a slight blemish on us, but nothing that we can't overcome.

How important is it to change public perception of public housing and RRHA?

The perception of this agency is going to have to change over the next few years. I think in the minds of many we are a social services agency, and that's not accurate. We are the community development arm for the city; we're involved in revitalization. We are part of the economic engine. And as it relates to public housing, we're a landlord. We provide affordable housing to low-income people. What's happened over the years — because there have been grants offered and opportunities — is that we have morphed in some ways to providing social services. But that's shifting. The funding and grants are drying up. So we are really going to have to change our mindset and understand that we are, in reality, a business.

Our business has several prongs — not one of them is social services. Our people in public housing deserve the same services as any other city resident. But what I'm working hard to do is begin the shift by not only educating the employees but also the public and elected officials and the citizens about the business that we're in. Through agreements and education, we need to not treat public housing as if it's a separate city within the city of Richmond.

RRHA has been criticized for [keeping] sloppy books and in April [2004] was the target of an FBI probe. What's the status of that investigation, and has it obscured — at least in the public eye — the day-to-day community work you do?

It has not obscured the work we do at all. I communicate with the employees and they know what's going on and that we couldn't let it slow us down at all. As far as I know, the investigation is ongoing. I haven't heard anything new since the initial [FBI] visit. We're just going to continue processing vouchers, turning over vacant units and taking care of what we're charged to do every day.

With the purse strings and reigns of some federal programs like HOPE VI [for severely distressed public housing] being tightened, money is more competitive and coveted. When vying for resources, what program or example do you cite as RRHA's greatest success?

There are several, actually, involving our residents. Self-sufficiency and moving toward home ownership are our success stories on the people side. And then on the revitalization side, all you have to do is ride through Carver or Randolph or Blackwell to see the results of our efforts. I think our work speaks for itself.

I lived in Blackwell in the late '80s. Not long before we moved out, we had our front door kicked in — someone broke in Christmas Eve. There were just places you didn't go. And now, to ride through there and see the kids outside and see the new school and the community center — talk about transformation. What people forget is we're just the housing authority. We're catalysts for change, but when you have the school system willing to put in a new school and [the city's department of] recreation and parks willing to kick in for programs and facilities — all of that is what makes a community.

What new things can we expect to see from RRHA?

Right now we're in the strategic planning process and it's exciting. HUD realizes that they don't have enough money to give all the housing authorities throughout the state what they need to either rehab or modernize or rebuild public-housing communities. But it has opened up opportunities that allow us to use the money that it gives us to leverage private financing. There are things we need to do to do that. We need to do an assessment of our stock — how old it is, what condition it's in, what it'll cost to maintain it, whether we should demolish. We need to find out what the stakeholders believe and what the needs are here.

We'll put this together into a plan of what we want to look like in the next five to ten years. It's not going to be, I believe, what you see now. It's not acceptable to create an urban ghetto — that thing that takes people who are economically distressed and puts them into pockets and sets them off apart from the city. If accepted by HUD, our plan should create mixed-use housing that shouldn't be recognizable as low-income.

Our public housing complexes are relics, most [of them] utterly rundown havens for crime. What impressions are you left with when you drive through, say, Gilpin, Fairfield, Mosby, Hillside, Creighton or Whitcomb?

My impressions are of bleakness. I see a lot of unemployed young African-American males out on the street, in the middle of the day. Sometimes I see children out on the streets, during school hours. And I see segregation at its worst. I also see people who are struggling — mothers who are single parents just trying to get out there and make a living and provide for their family. They'd like to move outside the area, but there are so many barriers. I see opportunity, too, to change this. S

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