Updated: Sep 20, 2018
Public housing is an issue that affects much more than those who live in the housing units. It is an issue that overflows into public safety, public education and more. It is a concentration of poverty that finds its way into neighboring streets and communities. Communities that are resource poor which makes any upward mobility difficult. Public housing is a people issue and not a property issue. Public housing is a conversation that goes beyond slab apartments with center block walls.
The housing authority conversation equals the public housing conversation and that leads us right into the “projects” conversations. In the Richmond area that means conversations centering around Gilpin Court, Hillside Court, Whitcomb Court, Creighton Court, Fairfield Court and Mosby Court. Every conversation and every debate about this issue you hear words like transformation, redevelopment and elimination. Those aren’t strength-based words, especially if they are talking about you. Those word sounds like people once again making choices for you based on what they assume you to be.
In America there are over 1 million public housing units spread throughout every state and several territories. As of 2016 around 60% of public housing units were in low income areas. In total, Public housing developments provide affordable homes to 2.1 million low-income Americans with nearly 11,000 living in Richmond.
Those numbers sound costly. In fact, the 2018 fiscal plan for Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority list available funds at $73 million. That is a big budget with only 2% support coming from the Us Dept of Housing. Couple that with rent income only being around $11million, that leaves an expense of $65 million.
The winter of 2017-2018 with temperatures in the single digits, proved that even with a budget of $78 million families were living in substandard apartments. With a yearly federal allocation of $750 a year per unit for upkeep and maintenance, it was of no surprise to have children sleeping in cold homes. We can’t keep thinking this is okay for our families to be living this way.
We need to begin looking at public housing as a pit stop and not a permanent solution. What if we started looking at the housing authority as a forward mobility generator and not a multigenerational lease holder? Is it possible we have been looking at housing authorities from the perspective of where the have nots live? A place where opportunity escapes its residents? A place where we could place people and keep them away from everyone else. Isn’t that why they were created in the first place?
It is time we stepped away from looking down from our peaks and begin looking up from the valley. It is time we stop thinking every solution must come in the form of a voucher and promise of section 8. It is time that we stop contributing to the generation cycle of poverty for so many able body young families. It is time we think in the now and not in the years when Federal Housing Administration choose housing units over mortgages for blacks and the less desirable.
We spend so much time getting caught up in location, cost and how to maximize section 8, that we forget about the human capital living in those units. Excluding the elderly and handicapped you have younger families that can work, buy homes and pay property taxes. The time has come for us to think of transformational steps to end the public housing trap.
The time is come to create a pipeline to property ownership.
Step 1: Apprentice Program
Richmond Public Housing only has a budget for $750 of repairs and maintenance for unit. Not only is this not enough to keep properties in living condition, it adds up when there isn’t much rent being collected. The apprentice program can utilize residents to make needed repairs and offset cost. The program can cover everything from painting to landscaping and plumbing to cleaning. With many units being 50-60 years old, this can be a cost-efficient way to maintain properties as well.
Step 2: Job Training
Participants of the Apprentice Program can participate in specific workforce training for careers. Here, they will gain real time on the job training. Training will focus on both interpersonal and industry specific skills.
Step 3: Job Placement
As a component for working with the housing authority, vendors must create pathways to employment for apprentice program participants. Each job must pay them a living wage. Both are stipulations for being awarded any RRHA contract.
Step 4: Ownership Plan
Participants work to become self-sufficient home owners. They will take part in specific education where they will create spending plans, saving plans, credit management and complete home ownership education.
Step 5: TANF Reprieve
Food Stamps, child care, housing and more will still be provided to them at current levels while they are participating in the Apprentice Program. Participants shouldn’t have to worry about food stamps being cut the moment they begin to make a wage.
Step 6: Sell homes to participants
Housing authority will sell homes to participants instead of investors and organizations. Homes that need repair can be updated using the Apprentices.
I’m not sure how viable this idea is or even if Richmond is willing to try something different. I do know that it is time we change the narrative of public housing. It is time we stop penalizing people for trying to remove themselves from poverty, it is time we believe in our families and it is time that projects become things of the past.