Mayor aims to dissolve Richmond’s low-income-housing agency, but critics call plan ‘simplistic’ and ‘reckless’
on September 27, 2017
The Richmond Housing Authority, a longstanding public-housing agency that manages the city’s low-income options, is on the chopping block after years of rocky relations with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Last week, Mayor Tom Butt presented a resolution to dissolve the RHA, which he says suffers from years of funding shortages and a contentious relationship with the federal government.
The resolution would eliminate the RHA and give away its assets, including the developments Nystrom Village and Nevin Plaza, leaving the city of Richmond without an official public-housing agency.
“The bottom line is that HUD just doesn’t provide enough money to operate the housing agency, and the city is having to make up the difference out of the general fund,” Butt said.
He estimated RHA’s debt to the city at $4 million, a figure he said is rising at a rate of $1 million a year.
But city budget documents tell a different story: HUD granted approximately $22.5 million to the housing authority every fiscal year since 2014, and provided $24.5 million to the agency in 2017.
Nikki Beasley, the executive director of nonprofit housing-advocacy group Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services, criticized what she called the “simplistic” reasoning used in the mayor’s proposal to dissolve the RHA.
“We didn’t get here overnight. This has been ongoing,” said Beasley at a special meeting of the housing authority last week. She reiterated that Richmond should be responsible for the poor management of its housing program.
Incorporated during World War II to house the thousands of shipyard workers pouring into the city, the RHA was once the largest housing agency in the country, at its peak, operating more than 16,000 units.
In recent years, however, it has struggled to live up to HUD’s standards— receiving two audits in 2016 alone— a situation the mayor and RHA administrators say is directly related to a dwindling budget, which is historically underwritten solely by HUD.
The mayor is a fan of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, a HUD initiative that promotes public-private partnerships in the affordable-housing sector. He said RAD could help fund properties currently owned by the RHA in the event that the agency is dissolved.
Applications for the program are managed by HUD. However, HUD recently turned down a proposal from the RHA to bring Nystrom Village and Nevin Plaza into the RAD program.
Councilmember Melvin Willis criticized the RAD plan, citing reports from residents of RAD properties that involved mismanagement and poor living conditions.
Willis was also opposed to making a “reckless” decision to shut down the housing authority without taking time to consider potential outcomes or alternative solutions.
“This actually becomes a racial-justice issue, because low-income people-of-color are the ones that mainly depend on these services that the city is providing,” Willis said. “I don’t think it’s incumbent on us to pull the trigger.”
With the Trump administration proposing $6 billion in cuts to HUD and also the elimination of the Housing Trust Fund, which earmarked an additional $174 million for states’ affordable-housing initiatives in 2016, Butt believes it’s unlikely that the RHA could see a significant cash infusion from the feds moving forward.
In June 2017, Tia Ingram, former head of the Berkeley Housing Authority, was brought in to RHA as a special consultant. She was hired to help RHA revitalize programs recently audited by HUD, including the Section 8 Housing Voucher program, which Ingram said was underutilized. Some 250 housing vouchers, out of 1,800, went unused in 2016.
The Contra Costa Housing Authority (CCHA) could potentially absorb the city’s housing-voucher program, but finding an agency to take over properties traditionally overseen by the RHA is expected to be difficult.
Joseph Villarreal, executive director of the CCHA, said that federal funding for housing programs has been shrinking for more than two decades. “I don’t want to make it sound like housing authorities are closing their doors left and right, but it is something that’s been happening for a little while, and financially it’s hard,” Villarreal said. “We have a tough time just making ends meet.”
In the meantime, Councilmembers said last week they would review potential dissolution of the housing authority, and Butt said a vote will be shelved until October.
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