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RRHA banned 10,000 people from public housing over the years. Here’s what it cost one of them.
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RRHA banned 10,000 people from public housing over the years. Here’s what it cost one of them.

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Life on the list for Travis Green began with a knock at the door of his sister’s Whitcomb Court apartment.

Green, about 18 at the time, found a Richmond police officer outside. Sign this paper, the officer ordered, or you’ll be arrested for trespassing.

The threat confused Green. He had grown up in the East End public housing community, tucked off of Mechanicsville Turnpike. When his mother moved to a different Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority neighborhood, he wanted to finish earning his diploma from John F. Kennedy High School. The school was walking distance from his sister’s apartment on Bethel Street, so he’d return to Whitcomb in the afternoons until he could get a ride home.

The paper was an official notice informing Green he was permanently banned from all RRHA properties under a policy that housing authority and city officials established in 1997 to crack down on outsiders, whom they said were responsible for a scourge of violent and drug-related crime in the neighborhood. Green was neither an outsider nor a criminal. He was a teenager who was within a year of becoming the first in his family to graduate high school.

“How are you going to tell me I can’t go home?” Green, now a 41-year-old father, asked in an interview recalling his reaction at the time.

Green wouldn’t sign the notice, he told the officer. The officer arrested him. After he was searched, cuffed and taken downtown, Green faced a misdemeanor charge that could carry up to 12 months in jail. A Richmond General District judge soon convicted him; he received a suspended sentence, meaning he avoided jail, but he had to pay a fine and court costs.

Green was one of thousands of people swept up in an RRHA policy enacted in the late 1990s aimed at keeping the city’s public housing communities safer. Under the original policy, anyone on an RRHA property whom management or the Richmond Police Department deemed an “unauthorized person” could be stopped, searched, charged with trespassing and added to a registry, known as the no-trespassing or barred-persons list, for life.

As many as 10,000 people have been put on the list over the years, so many that RRHA admitted in August it was “unmanageable and ineffective” — impossible to enforce in any consistent manner. Accompanying the admission were changes to the long-standing policy that included shorter bans and automatic removal of most names that were on it. But who remains on the list is unclear. The housing authority did not notify those who were removed and police say they will not release it. Critics and some members of the housing authority’s Board of Commissioners say the policy changes do not go far enough, and its enforcement moving forward must be monitored more closely to avoid repeating the same outcomes.

***

Back when the policy first took effect, Richmond had one of the highest murder rates in the country, with the number of homicides in the triple digits annually. Proponents said it would give the police another tool to tamp down crime in public housing neighborhoods, where violence was common and often carried out by people who did not live there.

“It is not intended to infringe on rights ... but when you hear about a situation where kids are sleeping in their bathtubs to avoid bullets flying through the windows, you have to take extraordinary means to address those issues within the law,” Tyrone P. Curtis, the housing authority’s former executive director, told The Washington Post in 2003. Police and RRHA officials pointed to initial reductions in violent and drug crime at the properties as evidence the policy was working as designed.

The number of murders sharply declined in 1998 and 1999, and again in 2007 and 2008, after which homicides citywide leveled at about 40 per year. Historical data from those periods specific to RRHA properties was not immediately available, police said.

To institute the policy, the Richmond City Council granted RRHA’s request to privatize the streets and sidewalks in public housing. With no public right of way, police could stop anyone they encountered and check to see if their name was on the list. If it was, police could charge them with trespassing. If it wasn’t, police could ban them on the spot and arrest them for trespassing if they couldn’t prove they had a reason to be on RRHA property.

Originally, RRHA promised residents the policy wouldn’t hinder their visitors from coming to the neighborhood or result in tenants or their guests facing harassment or intimidation, according to a flier circulated on the property at the time.

Green and others directly affected by the policy’s enforcement experienced the opposite.

“They’d search you aggressively, pat you down, shaking your pants, rubbing their fingers up to the side of your crotch,” Green said. “And I’ve seen them, at certain times, make people pull their pants down in the street.”

Reggie Owens, who was banned as a teenager for smoking marijuana, has experienced and witnessed similar treatment.

“The wrong officer might see you, hop out and violate you, right there in front of the kids and all,” Owens said. “You’ve got some people’s kids who are scared, who don’t like the police because of all of the stuff they done seen.”

Critics say some of the same people the policy was supposed to protect suffered as a result of its enforcement, and it infringed on the constitutional rights of those who became its primary targets: young Black men.

“It was a device to legalize random stop and frisks,” said Steven Benjamin, a Richmond defense attorney who represented Green when he faced a subsequent trespassing charge that carried jail time and heftier fines. “The effect was that people who grew up in the housing communities weren’t allowed to return to visit their families, their friends. This was all they knew, whatever housing community they grew up in. The mothers of their children lived there. They couldn’t see their children.”

Another one of Benjamin’s clients, Kevin Lamont Hicks, was arrested for trespassing while taking diapers to the mother of his children in the neighborhood. He served jail time after his third arrest under the policy.

Benjamin and his law partner, Betty Layne DesPortes, challenged the constitutionality of RRHA’s policy in the early 2000s in a case that temporarily halted its enforcement and drew national attention.

The Virginia Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. It ruled that police and Whitcomb’s property manager had unlimited discretion to decide who was trespassing as a result of the overly broad policy, which compromised individuals’ First Amendment rights.

The state appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously rejected the basis of the lower court’s initial decision and sent the case back for review on different grounds. The policy ultimately survived, and was back in force by late 2003. Officials called it a “win” for residents of public housing.

A 2019 version of the list — the most recent RRHA turned over in response to a Freedom of Information Act request — had 2,000 names on it, along with the race and gender of each person. Three out of four were Black men.

“They were trying to fix a systemic and huge problem with a Band-Aid. It was an immediate fix that was no fix at all, but at what cost?” said Sa’ad El-Amin, who represented the 6th District on the Richmond City Council from 1998 to 2003. The area, which includes Whitcomb Court, has the highest concentration of public housing in the city.

“When you look at the cost to the people on the list, those were not costs that were considered as important by the city, the cops or the housing authority, because they were Black lives.”

For Green, who is Black, the ban had cascading consequences. He was arrested a second time when police saw him sitting on his sister’s porch about six months after he was initially barred. His presence there put her at risk of eviction for violating the terms of her lease. When he could no longer stay with her and get to school easily, he dropped out and never earned his diploma. He regrets it daily.

A previous revision of the policy permitted people to petition for their removal under certain circumstances. Since 2018, 17 people have sought to remove their names from the list. Of those, 10 remained barred after an administrative review process, according to figures RRHA provided in response to an open records request. The records did not specify why the appeals were rejected.

Among the changes the housing authority announced in August was the automatic removal of a person’s name from the list after three years, and the elimination of a provision at the crux of Benjamin’s legal challenge. It enabled the police to ban and arrest anyone who could not demonstrate a “legitimate business or social purpose” for being on RRHA’s property.

However, another open-ended provision remains in the revised policy, granting police unilateral authority to ban anyone for “non-violent activity or crime committed which affects the health, safety, welfare, or quiet enjoyment of the public housing residents.”

“It’s light years better than it had been, but there’s an opportunity to do even better,” said Barrett Hardiman, who sits on the nine-member board that’s responsible for overseeing the agency in charge of more than 3,700 units of public housing in the city.

In addition to striking that language, he suggested shortening the three-year ban and adding an exception for people to visit relatives if they’re on the list. Closer monitoring of the policy’s enforcement needs to take place, too, he said in an interview, so the housing authority can measure whether it’s an effective way of curbing crime in its communities.

In 2015, Richmond recorded a 40-year low in crime. That same year, RRHA’s six largest properties had 13 homicides, more than four times the year before. The city’s deadliest year in a decade was 2017, when 16 people were killed in public housing, and that death toll has been matched or exceeded in 2019 and 2020. Shootings and aggravated assaults have also risen, coinciding with a nationwide trend of escalating violence.

Brian Swann, RRHA’s director of public safety, said banning people from the properties has made public housing safer, but he stopped short of crediting reductions in crime within the communities to the policy alone.

“You can’t look at a [no trespassing] policy or any particular policy and say as a result of that crime went up or down; there’s too many variables involved,” Swann said. “There is no panacea.”

But, he adds: “The previous policy had a benefit to public safety, no doubt about it in my mind.”

Others remain skeptical. If banning people is an effective way to reduce crime in the areas, said El-Amin, the former councilman, there should be data to back up that claim.

“Either the statistics don’t exist or they don’t support the program or purpose,” El-Amin said. “Either way, it’s their burden to show that this disruption of people’s rights, that the benefits outweigh the costs. They won’t show you that because the statistics can’t show you that.”

***

Neither Green nor Owens had heard of any of the changes to RRHA’s policy before a reporter for the Times-Dispatch contacted them. Neither had received any notification from RRHA or RPD of whether they are still on the list, either.

“How do we know?” Owens asked. “Certain officers know people won’t know what’s going on. They’re not going to say, ‘The rules changed.’ ”

Now 34, Owens said he has been arrested several times while visiting relatives and loved ones in public housing through the years. In spite of that, he has tried to give back to the Fairfield Court neighborhood. He coaches youth football, helps out with school supply and toy drives around the holidays and does what he can to support the work of the Office of Community Wealth Building’s Ambassadors Program, which has led outreach efforts in public housing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He wants to do more, he said, but each trip back is a risk.

The Richmond Police Department withheld the most recent version of the list, citing a discretionary exemption in state open records law. Tracy Walker, an RPD spokesperson, said 266 people were on it as of August.

“The RRHA [barred persons] list is criminal investigative information; the data can be used for a period of three years within an investigative nature,” Walker stated in an email. “RPD does not want to unduly prejudice people by releasing the list to the public since it may or may not result in criminal charges for an individual. RPD will not be making the [barred persons] list public.”

Swann, the housing authority’s director of public safety, said he didn’t think RRHA had any way of reaching people whose names were no longer on the list, but that it had publicized its policy changes with a news release. He said he was not aware of any instances where the old policy led to a person being wrongfully barred. The rewritten policy, which he called a “living document,” was more stringent, he added.

“We have to be more discerning when making those decisions,” Swann said.

Green’s second trespassing charge was dismissed, with help from Benjamin and DesPortes. His name remained on the list. For how long, he doesn’t know.

Returning to the neighborhood where he was raised meant looking over his shoulder and accepting the likelihood of harassment. Periodic stops, searches and charges stemming from the policy went on into his 30s, he said.

The initial conviction hung over his head on housing and job applications, too, costing him opportunities that could have benefited him and his five children. These days, he lives in Henrico County and makes a living doing home improvement work.

“Coming straight out of high school, in a low-income community, you’re trying to duck having a criminal record, and [the ban] started my criminal record off,” Green said. He seldom returns to the community now.

Green’s sister, Cassandra, moved out of Whitcomb not long after his second arrest. She felt management at the property was unfair, allowing some people to get away with whatever they wanted without repercussions while cracking down on others, like her brother. The family never got an explanation for why her brother was put on the list in the first place.

“To this day, no one can give a reason why [Travis was banned] — I think the reason why is because they said so,” Cassandra Green said. “It ain’t supposed to be like that. But once they gave them that little inch, they took it as a mile.”

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

Staff writer Ali Rockett contributed to this report.

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