Ashley Meekins, 25, has lived in Creighton Court for six years. She was one of 24,000 people hoping for a shot of one of 750 available Sec. 8 housing vouchers. Ten thousand people were chosen at random for the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority wait list. She was not one of them. "If I had my choice of where I could live, it would be Henrico County," she says. "It's quieter there and the schools are better." Here she poses with her four-year-old son, Jamarie. (Photo by Tina Griego)
In April of this year, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority opened its waiting list for what officially are called “housing choice vouchers” but are commonly known as Section 8 vouchers.
They allow a person living in poverty to move to an apartment or a house and rent at the same government-subsidized rate as someone living in public housing. (The tenant pays 30 percent of income, generally an average of about $200 to $300 a month; the rest is subsidized. The average subsidy is about $700 a month, but varies depending upon the number of bedrooms.)
In the hierarchy of government-subsidized public housing, vouchers are prized. Public housing communities — and they are communities — nevertheless come with a stigma, with density, lack of privacy and all the issues created by packing people in hardship into several blocks of a neighborhood systemically drained of investment.
Qualify for a voucher, spend one year living in Richmond, then, as long as you remain qualified, you can move anywhere in the country that accepts Sec. 8. “A golden ticket,” says Carol A. Jones-Gilbert, RRHA’s new chief operating officer. “Like bricks of gold,” says T.K. Somanath, the agency’s chief executive officer.
RRHA had not opened its wait list since 2003. It waited until March 2014 when it had whittled down the previous list of more than 10,000 applications to zero. Then it waited some more. In the waiting, the agency eventually forfeited more than $2 million in subsidies, enough for at least 300 vouchers. It waited until Somanath came on board in February and, alarmed, asked, “Why haven’t we opened the wait list?”
The bureaucratic negligence here demands its own inquiry, but let’s look at what followed:
RRHA reopened the list on April 20 at 9 a.m. By 1 p.m. 15,000 applications had flooded in. When it shut things down at the end of the week, then weeded out the duplicates, it had 24,000 applications.
Wait, there’s more. The 24,000 households were entering a lottery to win not a voucher, but one of 10,000 spots on the new waiting list. Once on the list and approved, they lined up hoping to receive one of the vouchers that had been left sitting on the table. And how many of those were there? About 750.
Somanath, who says he cannot explain why the wait list had not been reopened earlier, focuses on this bottom line: 24,000 households were competing for 750 available vouchers. “It just speaks to the pent-up demand,” he says. “Not just in Richmond, but in the region.”
With this point in mind, I invite you to The Valentine's next Community Conversation on housing Nov. 3. Richmond magazine is a partner in hosting these conversations. This is also the RRHA’s 75th anniversary, and the panel will include a presentation from Somanath, as well as from The Better Housing Coalition and Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity.
A conversation about affordable housing, in general, isn’t just a conversation about housing. It’s a conversation about the city’s tax base and, therefore, its economic prosperity. It’s about improving the quality of neighborhood schools. It’s about the suburbs, where the poverty rate is outpacing the city, and how the region connects three vital lynchpins of opportunity: “Jobs, transportation and housing,” says David Herring, director of real estate for the Better Housing Coalition. “It’s an interconnected web.”
And the first thing you should know about housing patterns here is the first thing you should know about housing patterns in most cities: They are not accidental.
“The ugly truth of history is that high density poverty exists largely because it was designed that way.”
That’s from page 26 of the Mayor’s 2013 Anti-Poverty Commission report. The research came from John Moeser, senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Community Engagement and a professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. He will tell you of the federal housing and lending practices that discriminated against African-Americans, of the transportation and zoning policies that destroyed thriving communities, of the white flight that created the neighborhoods we have now.
The maps you see with this Sunday Story? (See above.) They come from the fair housing organization Housing Opportunities Made Equal. They tell the story of patterns repeated in Richmond. The neighborhoods redlined by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s are the same neighborhoods disproportionally targeted in the mid-2000s for subprime loans, the same neighborhoods, then, vulnerable to the subsequent foreclosure crisis that gutted personal wealth and overall property values.
In the meantime, the population living in public housing has become poorer and poorer. RRHA has 4,000 public housing units occupied by roughly 9,600 people living in households where the average annual income of $9,693. Nearly all of its tenants are African-American. Half are under age 18, one in five is elderly, and nearly all the households are headed by women. Half will move within five years, creating a constant churn, which has its own negative consequences. Public housing, too, has a wait list of more than 3,000 households.
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“1950 Richmond Population and HOLC Neighborhood Bourndaries” These maps come from the fair housing organization Housing Opportunities Made Equal. They tell the story of patterns repeated in Richmond. The neighborhoods redlined by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s are the same neighborhoods disproportionally targeted in the mid-2000s for subprime loans, the same neighborhoods, then, vulnerable to the subsequent foreclosure crisis that gutted personal wealth and overall property values. (Photo courtesy of Housing Opportunities Made Equal)
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This map depicts “White Flight in the Richmond Region 1960 – 2010”. (Photo courtesy of Housing Opportunities Made Equal)
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"Where You Live Makes All The Difference: An Opportunity Map of the Richmond Region" (Photo courtesy Housing Opportunities Made Equal)
Poverty that was designed to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods is, by definition, designed to be hard to undo, Thad Williamson, the head of the Mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building, once told me.
And this is the city’s challenge.
In December, the old Armstrong High School near Creighton Court is scheduled for demolition. In its place will rise an equal mix of public, workforce and market housing. In phases, over time, a similar mix will replace the 504-unit Creighton Court. The goal is economic integration both in the Creighton neighborhood and in neighborhoods throughout the city and region. For every unit of public housing that disappears at Creighton, Somanath says, another will be created, through a subsidy voucher attached to another dwelling in another neighborhood where greater opportunity may exist. HOME is working right now to bring landlords in more stable neighborhoods online.
This is the new housing pattern that has been adopted by the federal government and in cities across the country. It is not without controversy. Deep skepticism of the plan exists within the city’s public housing communities. For good reason. Little in the city’s history suggests that anything it has claimed to do in their best interest has proven to be so.
“It will take time and money to achieve, not just from government but private and philanthropic investment. It will require the building of trust, which is hard to do, because so many promises have been made and broken,” Somanath acknowledges. “We just have to walk the walk.”
But this kind of economic integration should have begun 20 years ago, he says. People too long have been denied hope and opportunity, he argues, and the issue is not whether the city can undo failed policies. It must.
Jones-Gilbert says RRHA is authorized for 3,363 vouchers and has more than 2,800 under lease. Roughly a dozen turn over every month and are fed back into circulation. Staff continues to work its way through the list. As of last week, 9,075 households were waiting.
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