Earlier this week, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA), the housing authority for the city of Richmond, held a board meeting to discuss its budget for next year. Sounds routine, doesn’t it? It wasn’t. The RRHA:
Quietly added budget approval and bond issues to their meeting agenda in an apparent attempt to avoid scrutiny from the public
Doubled down on secrecy by restricting access to the meeting room, supposedly due to size-related “safety reasons,” despite never doing so in recent memory
Hired a new “crime czar” who acted as if he was the meeting’s bouncer, including threatening a community activist during the meeting for posting “negative” stuff online
What the hell is going on at RRHA?
First of all, some background: the RRHA is a “single-purpose government” or “special district.” In local government terms, this is a separate government body created for a special purpose, like a school board. The main purpose of RRHA has historically been to provide housing for the city’s low-income residents - although, as we’ll see, that may be changing.
A broad problem with single-purpose governments like the RRHA is that while they bring specific expertise to a particular public problem – it helps a locality to have experts running their airport or updating their building codes – the locality’s residents lose some democratic accountability.
Technically the RRHA answers to the City Council, since the Council appoints the members of its board. But our overworked, part-time Council has little interest in what goes on at RRHA. We saw this last year after decades of neglect brought widespread heating issues to the public housing complexes RRHA oversees. The then-head of the RRHA, TK Somanath, was forced to resign over the issue. (The previous director also was forced out.)
The Board hired the head of a small housing authority in Illinois, Damon Duncan, to replace Somanath earlier this year. Duncan immediately conveyed what might be the two hallmarks of his tenure: privatization and secrecy.
Even before this week’s rushed and restricted meeting, the agency was less than transparent about its meeting schedule; released public comments in response to an FOIA while excluding negative ones; and solicited public comments on a plan it had already approved.
Why the secrecy? Possibly because they don’t want anyone to realize what Duncan’s privatization plans actually mean.
In Illinois, Duncan implemented a federally-funded program that is increasingly becoming the model for public housing authorities across the country: tear down aging public housing projects and rebuild as “mixed income” developments, possibly even selling them to private developers.
Is this better for the city’s bottom line? Sure, because more rent = more income and less cost for public housing. RRHA’s budget will look a LOT better once these mixed-use developments are online. The only problem? The city’s poor won’t have a place to live, which is supposedly the mission of the RRHA.
There’s a number of reasons why this mixed-income model is problematic:
Mixed income developments literally reduce the housing stock for low income people. Typically only a minority of newly developed apartments set aside for low income people, because the housing authority and their developer partners want to maximize income. Very few of the housing projects that have been implemented nationally require a one-for-one replacement.
Even if low income housing is mandated in the developments, these are often segregated and discriminatory, with “poor doors” and other limits on lower income residents that make them second-class compared with full-income renters or owners.
The redevelopment destroys existing communities. While public housing projects obviously have their problems, the existing communities at least have longstanding networks of care and social capital, as well as a history of political organizing.
Then there’s the G-word: gentrification. This is a wider and thornier problem, because cities should want to encourage new development, but no one wants to deal with the displacement and economic pressures on low income people that come with it.
Underlying the RRHA’s new direction is the same kind of thinking that some in the city object to in the city’s proposed Navy Hill development. Is the single goal of a city to increase revenue? What is a government for, if not to help support the city’s most vulnerable residents?
Make no mistake: the RRHA is proposing to do away with the very idea of public housing, and they are doing it under the cover of night. My hope is that it’s because they think they are trying to get away with something, and that if the city’s residents actually knew what they were up to, they might object. Otherwise the city’s low income residents will find themselves where, unfortunately, they usually do: on their own, with a big middle finger from the city’s elites.