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Robley Jones column: The 'Big Six' and Richmond's future
Affordable housing

Robley Jones column: The 'Big Six' and Richmond's future

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Commentary

As images of the first stages of the long-awaited demolition of Creighton Court appear on the front pages of Richmond’s newspapers, it’s a good time to consider what is next for public housing in the city.

The goal of the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority (RRHA) is to provide safe, clean and affordable housing to our residents and to be a part of making the city a better place to live for all, regardless of income or culture.

The biggest challenge facing RRHA is the need to replace the obsolete and substandard housing we call the “Big Six”: Creighton, Fairfield, Gilpin, Hillside, Mosby and Whitcomb courts. There are 3,039 housing units in the Big Six. All of these units are obsolete, and the cost of bringing them up to standards ($620 million) would exceed their worth once renovated.

Public housing is regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The funding provided by RRHA from HUD is not sufficient to maintain the Big Six, so the status quo is an unacceptable continuous decline in the quality of housing provided to families living in the Big Six.

The mixed-income strategy that HUD offers is a viable path forward. It is the path that RRHA is utilizing in the revitalization of the Creighton Court community. But funding is critical. Lack of sufficient funding limits the progress that could be made. Instead, we are restricted to moving at a snail’s pace.

In 2017 the city of Richmond made a significant investment of $13,240,846 in the infrastructure needed for the development of the Armstrong Renaissance project. This allowed replacement units to be constructed for families in Creighton.

One need only to drive through Richmond’s East End to see the hope embodied in the buildings of the Armstrong Renaissance development. The city’s money was well spent. Sadly, there has been no significant support from the city since then.

In 2020 the city funded only 0.41% of RRHA’s budget, providing $314,126. This year RRHA’s request from the city for $6.8 million in infrastructure needs for the Creighton project did not meet Mayor Levar Stoney’s approval in the city’s 2022 budget.

If affordable housing in Richmond is a sincere goal, RRHA needs the financial support of the city. The agency cannot do what it must do without this critical support.

Richmond has two choices:

1) Continue accepting abysmal housing conditions, concentrated poverty, areas of high crime, shortened life spans and low educational attainment for those living in the Big Six; or

2) Transform the Big Six into desirable vibrant mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Cities across America understand these challenges and are making the choice to support affordable housing for their families. We can look at tier-one cities like Atlanta as an example of what can be done.

In Atlanta, not only did the city step up to help its poor residents by helping its housing authority, but corporations — led by Coca-Cola — partnered as well.

The Creighton Court project train has already left the station. Richmond must be willing to step up and look at the resources needed to complete the Creighton transformation as well as the remaining five properties of Fairfield, Gilpin, Hillside, Mosby and Whitcomb.

What I offer here are ballpark figures:

The remaining five public housing communities have 2,535 apartments. Based on the mixed-income strategy, the cost per unit for transformation, at $250,000 each, would be $634 million. This figure includes demolition, needed infrastructure and redevelopment.

Sources that will be used to finance this massive endeavor might include:

  • 40% from private equity from low-income housing tax credits, which would be $300 million;
  • $100 million from loans from banks and gap financing;
  • $118 million from HUD; and
  • $116 million from Richmond, which would break down to $23 million a year for five years.

The concentration of Richmond’s federal housing projects is the legacy of the segregationist era and a desire on the part of those in power then to confine Black residents in the corridor that runs from Gilpin to Creighton.

The status quo is holding our city back. If Richmond wants to outlive and outgrow its segregationist past, and offer a seat at the table to all of its citizens, it has to fund affordable housing. Any vision of a better Richmond must include the transformation of the Big Six public housing communities.

Robley Jones serves as a commissioner on the board for the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority. Contact him at: robleyj@aol.com

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