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Commentary: What if public housing was gradually spread across the city with the help of private developers?

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A good friend reminds me frequently that all evil does not come to harm us.

Case in point: the recent suffering of dozens of tenants in the Creighton Court public housing community who had no heat for many weeks even before temperatures plunged last month to teeth-chattering lows. Eventually, space heaters were provided as Band-Aids and residents were offered refuge in a hotel. Now, apartment-by-apartment, baseboard heaters are being installed.

The episode also forced the departure of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority' executive director, T.K. Somanath. He had fanned the flames by rationalizing in the media that maintenance of the city's aging housing projects was putting funds into a "sinkhole."

On the positive side, however, the debacle has invigorated public discussion on improving government-assisted and highly regulated housing here. And quite a conversation it is since there's no simple remedy with 10,000 residents living in six deteriorating developments built a half century ago. Reportedly, $150 million in deferred maintenance awaits.

With public housing funding coming from the federal budget, local authorities are limited in what they can do, and when they can do it, to ameliorate long-festering conditions. Currently, the former 22-acre Armstrong High School site in the East End is being redeveloped for eventual resettlement by Creighton Court residents. Despite best intentions, however, are we simply replacing one public housing monolith with another? And just as many African-American communities were decimated by urban removal from the 1950s to '70s, caused in part by highway construction, the same could happen if Creighton Court is drained of the sense of community that exists there.

Its residents may fall outside the realm of many middle-class norms, but Creighton Court, like all American communities, has established its own subtle and not-so subtle economic and social systems. In economically challenged Creighton, for instance, I know of an elderly woman who runs a busy candy business from her apartment and a man who sublets his living room for extra dough. Then there are well-known nip-joints, not to mention drug dealers. Often and sadly, when crime and violence occurs in Creighton, there is code of silence. Too many folks are working an angle just to get by — living in glass houses.

The outside world accepts the parallel universe of the projects so long as it is contained and isolated within well-defined borders.

Among the many tragedies of the isolated public housing projects is that residents —especially children — are denied exposure to the economic, educational and social opportunities of the mainstream culture. A child can grow up disconnected from nature with no knowledge of planting a vegetable or a flower, or enjoying a private outdoor living space (gardens aren't allowed). Forget pets. And these often single-parent communities have no male spaces — spots for a makeshift workbench of two sawhorses and a board, for instance, to clean fish, do carpentry, or simple auto work.

In contrast, as the authority grapples with heating the projects, not to mention ongoing maintenance, an orgy of privately financed apartment construction sweeps the city. This is taking place downtown and in Church Hill, Manchester, Scotts Addition and Randolph. Not only do we know how to build housing, Richmonders are embracing urban living.

One long-range solution to providing low-income housing might be to build government-assisted housing units gradually and spread across the city. What if clusters of 10 to 20 apartments or town houses were inserted into existing and emerging neighborhoods? In these areas the poor would not be uncomfortable or intimidated, but relatively safe and allowed healthier opportunities for community interaction.

In mixed-income neighborhoods, low-income residents could be a part of something bigger. These housing pockets might be inserted into — or on the edge of — residential neighborhoods where former dead zones are being pioneered by young people and "come-heres" looking more to the future rather than clinging to the past, often characterized by racial prejudice.

In addition to the fast-developing East End, these neighborhoods include stretches along Belt Boulevard and Midlothian Turnpike and in Manchester along Semmes Avenue and Hull Street. Scott's Addition, where a former Quality Inn at 3200 W. Broad St. might be converted into a mixed-income complex, offers terrific opportunities for real economic integration. Importantly, each of these areas is well served by GRTC bus routes.

And what if these envisioned pockets of public-assisted housing were developed by — and in partnership with — the developers and homebuilders currently responding to, leading, and benefitting from the current housing boom. In return for their investments, commensurate acreage of the city's public housing projects would be theirs for future redevelopment. That should be attractive: Richmond's mainstream residential redevelopments are lapping at the edges of, and in some cases surrounding these challenged communities.

If one friend insists that all evil does not come to harm us, another pal maintains that everything in life is a trade-off. In these boom times, public housing officials and private developers might do some horse trading. S

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