January’s meeting of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority Board of Commissioners opened as an opportunity to hit a reset button after acrimonious proceedings in December when it voted to continue the move toward demolition of one of its Big Six housing projects.
That vote came with less than a day’s warning and two weeks before a new law would have mandated a year’s notice. Within half an hour of the board’s Jan. 20 meeting, held over Zoom, the public comment period made clear that a new board would face the same calls for transparency that it has dodged for years.
A jilted RFP contractee aired grievances. A contractor asked for payment for work performed during the agency’s 2018 heating crisis. And residents decried years of mistreatment.
“I’ve had issues with heating, issues with billing,” resident Mamie Heard told the board in her allotted three minutes. “I’ve had retaliation from staff and I have fear of eviction. Many nights I have to sleep in my car.”
Iyeshia Sessoms said the agency needs to better communicate with would-be residents about its waiting list.
“It’s kind of hard when someone has the key, literally, to whether you have a roof over your head,” she said. “It’s hard to exercise your rights as a human being. RRHA needs to do better when it comes to how it communicates with their residents. It’s a slap in the face to working class people. We work the jobs that make America run.”
“Stop hiding and stop lying and saying you’re informing the residents, when you really aren’t.”
The board has moved toward universally observing a once-every-three-months limit on individual speakers. Legal Aid Justice Center community organizer Omari Al-Qadaffi spoke in December about the lack of public notice related to RRHA’s moving ahead to demolish Creighton Court in favor of a voucher-based, privately owned development that may push out some residents.
Although barred from speaking at January’s meeting, he remains concerned that the December vote was timed to escape a law that took effect in January that would have required a yearlong notice period.
In a series of emails, RRHA Communications Director Angela Fountain says that RRHA has kept residents informed of Creighton’s demolition since 2011, including an April 2020 “Bill of Rights” for Creighton residents -- signed by Mayor Levar Stoney and then-CEO Damon Duncan -- that stated demolition was a necessity.
The author of the notice law, State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), describes the vote as “a bombshell right before the holidays.”
“The whole point (of the law) was if you’re going to demolish someone’s home, they should be included in that decision making process,” McClellan says. “Each step along the way, the timeline should be extremely clear.”
McClellan met with RRHA Interim CEO Stacey Daniels-Fayson a day after the vote.
“A big part of my conversation with them was, ‘Look, whether someone else’s understanding or your understanding is accurate or not is beside the point. The point is [residents] don’t trust you. To rebuild that trust, you need to clearly communicate with them and be welcoming of their input.”
At the Jan. 20 board meeting, Chair Veronica Blount called the new year a chance “to get more residents engaged in what we do.”
Blount was often prosecutorial in response to the resident's concerns. She told Sessoms she wasn’t aware that “anyone was forcing you” to live in RRHA housing, adding, “I don’t want you to say the agency is lying to you.”
The interaction saw other board members furrow their brows. At one point, new board member Basil Gooden chimed in: “Might I suggest, in the interest of fairness, we just hear individuals out.”
On Facebook, Al-Qadaffi says he was happy to see the new board listening.
“And I'm so glad that people in that organization can’t help but demonstrate the toxic culture of that organization even with 40 strangers watching on a Zoom meeting,” he adds. “Now people know more and more every day that the community is not lying.”