The city has six large public housing communities. Four — Creighton, Mosby, Whitcomb and Fairfield courts — are within 1 square mile of one another in the East End. A mile and half west, near Belvidere and Interstate 95, lies Gilpin Court. The sixth, Hillside Court, a South Side outlier intended for whites, but now an African-American community just as the others, sits off Commerce Road. These communities are home to about 9,100 residents, a little more than half of whom are 17 and younger.
This is the highest concentration of public housing south of Baltimore, says T.K. Somanath, chief executive officer of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Here, as elsewhere in the country, public housing is home to very poor women and children.
This was not what the creators of public housing had in mind.
Public housing was born of New Deal idealism, a Great Depression-era public works program to replace slums and provide workforce housing. Over time, that vision was gutted by changing federal, state and local policies influenced by Jim Crow sentiment and a powerful real estate lobby that wanted no government competition in the housing market. Income thresholds dropped. Maintenance budgets were gutted. Working-class whites, wooed by home loans, left for suburbia. Working-class blacks, penned in by restrictive covenants, and redlining, had no such option.
By the late 1960s, “after a little more than 20 years in existence, public housing in the nation’s largest cities had become the housing of last resort to an increasingly impoverished and isolated African-American population,” writes Ed Goetz in his 2013 book, “New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy.”
Public housing did not come easily to Richmond, a city leery both of federal meddling and the potential incursion of socialism. The housing authority was created in 1940, and a year later, then-Mayor Gordon Ambler stood in Apostle Town, hammer in hand, to trumpet the rise in its place of a new community called Gilpin Court.
“The area on which this slum stands will blossom out and always be a symbol of the sympathetic interest shown by those who are willing to help the other fellow,” he said. “Here in Richmond, we are conscious of how the other half lives. All of this is a part of a social program for the uplift and benefit of our people.”
For all the lofty rhetoric, public housing in Richmond quickly became a tool to reinforce segregation.
“You cannot separate the history of public housing in Richmond from race,” says the Rev. Ben Campbell, who writes about this history in his book, “Richmond’s Unhealed History.” “It is the white establishment deciding what they want to do with predominantly black neighborhoods and using language that suggests they are trying to help improve them, while the actual fact is much darker than that. And that set the stage for what we are dealing with now.”
By the end of the 1950s, Campbell writes, the city had destroyed 4,700 housing units in black neighborhoods, including its largest, Jackson Ward, which was gutted by the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike.
In their stead arose the projects. Only Gilpin predates World War II. The rest came online from 1952 to 1962. It was not long after that the federal government stopped funding the construction of projects that concentrated the poor in single, large-scale complexes.
As in other cities, the concentration and isolation of low-income African-Americans contributed to lower educational attainment and employment rates, as well as higher crime rates. That isolation has been worsened by the city’s inability to annex land, no regional integration of the schools, a limited public transit system, and the decline of the local manufacturing base, says University of Richmond associate professor Thad Williamson, who, until recently, was the head of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building.
It took more than 60 years to create the deprivation that now exists. It may take decades to undo, he says. These changes must be led by residents as well as city leaders, by nonprofits as well as schools, by business and government.
“A majority of the people living in public housing are children,” he says. “You have to ask what opportunities they will have to succeed in a 21st-century economy. They will not thank us 30 years from now if we don’t do anything, if we don’t try.”