Richmond’s most expensive real-estate redevelopment project doesn’t concern Shockoe Bottom, but the East End, where city officials hope to spur a transformation with an overhaul of long-maligned public housing communities.
If all goes according to plan, the barrack-style brick-and-mortar buildings will be torn down, and their inhabitants moved to a new, mixed-income community where homeowners, renters and Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority (RRHA) tenants will share streets. For city officials, improved housing is the linchpin of a larger plan to provide amenities, attract investment and create jobs for a part of the city that has long lacked forward momentum.
“We’re talking about transforming a community. It’s not just about housing,” says Cynthia Newbille, Councilwoman for the 7th District. “It’s about families. It’s about green spaces. It’s about education. It’s about infrastructure.”
As envisioned by the city, RRHA and its Boston-based developer, The Community Builders (TCB), a mixed-income East End would cost somewhere in the $230 million to $240 million range over the next 10 to 15 years, according to Peter Chapman, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for economic development and planning. Similar TCB projects in Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Norfolk have garnered praise for turning blight to beauty, and de-concentrating poverty in the process.
The redevelopment starts with Creighton Court, home to more than 1,300 RRHA residents. The 504-unit housing project lies in one of the city’s poorest census tracts, where nearly 70 percent of people live in poverty, and where promises for something better are met with a skepticism hardened by prior broken promises. “People don’t believe it,” says Sheila Goode, a Creighton resident of two years. “In the past, [the city] said to people [that redevelopment] was going to happen, and nothing happened. It’s like now, they’ve got to dig up an apartment building for anyone to believe it’s going to be real.”
Goode is one of 18 residents whom TCB enlisted to go door-to-door in late July and August and gather community input about the project. She and about 50 people packed the Woodville Elementary School cafeteria on a rainy July night for the latest in a series of community meetings about the project. Renderings lining the back wall showcased multi-level townhouses with manicured lawns fronted by sidewalks bustling with children at play. The message: This could be your neighborhood.
“We’re not here to fail,” says Willie Jones, a senior vice-president of TCB. “We’re not here to give you a plan that’s going to sit on a table somewhere. We’re here to complete a transformation.”
That transformation will hinge on multiple funding sources, Chapman says. The city has set aside $5 million for capital improvements to the East End. Funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the form of a Choice Neighborhoods Grant could net developers as much as $30 million. Housing tax-credit financing, a commonly used method for affordable housing projects that can cover up to 70 percent of project costs, is an option; bank financing is yet another. Charitable donations would help, too.
Officials are eyeing the 22-acre former Armstrong High School site for the first phase of construction. If the city finds funding, shovels could be in the ground by early 2016, Chapman says. A major HUD grant could fast-track phase one, making it a six-year project. Without one, the build-out could take as long as 10 years, he says. The city and RRHA whiffed on a $500,000 HUD planning grant this past January. “If we don’t get all the financing that we hope we get,” Chapman says, “we’ll look at amending the plan so that our goal of getting started in earnest is more achievable.”
Improved housing is a top priority for the city’s newly formed Office of Community Wealth Building, too. The office is tasked with coordinating Mayor Dwight Jones’ anti-poverty initiative, which aims to create jobs, improve the city’s schools and public transportation, and expand opportunity for the 26 percent of Richmond residents living below the poverty line. Of the office’s $3.4 million budget, $1 million was put into an affordable housing trust.
Chapman insists a funding shortage would not change the city’s commitment to what’s called a one-for-one replacement — building a replacement unit for all 504 Creighton units, so no current residents are displaced.
One-for-one replacement is key to garnering community support for the project. It’s a commitment to assuage fears of another bungled public housing redevelopment project like that at Blackwell, which saw 440 subsidized units demolished in 2001 and 75 built back up by 2008, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center. In 2012, construction began on the mixed-use, mixed-income Highland Grove community, a replacement for the Dove Court public housing project demolished in 2008. Three hundred units are planned for the $100 million project poised on 50 acres in Highland Park, but only a fraction will be reserved for RRHA tenants, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Adrienne Goolsby, CEO of RRHA, says the housing authority and its partners are actively seeking community feedback about East End redevelopment “to make sure everyone has a chance to participate in the planning and implementation” of the project. “Public housing development programs are extremely difficult to manage,” she continues. “While we cannot pinpoint every perceived misstep with the prior [Blackwell] redevelopment strategy, we are confident that all prior RRHA leadership had a common goal in mind to provide a quality, revitalized community and self-sufficiency opportunity for our residents.”
Brian Koziol, director of research for Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, cautions that while the project could have positive results, a mixed-income development alone won’t solve the systemic problems plaguing the East End. “It’s broader than housing. It’s access to jobs, bad public transportation, underperforming schools, and each of those categories is immensely vast,” Koziol says. “Mixed-income housing is not a cure-all.”