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A new lease

T.K. Somanath resigns from the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority amid criticism regarding heating crisis

Jeremy Lazarus | 1/26/2018, 12:01 p.m.
Battered by criticism over his handling of a heating crisis in the Creighton Court public housing community, T.K. Somanath abruptly ...

By Jeremy M. Lazarus

Battered by criticism over his handling of a heating crisis in the Creighton Court public housing community, T.K. Somanath abruptly resigned Sunday as chief executive officer of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Brought out of retirement to guide the housing agency, the 72-year-old civil engineer has left behind an array of still incomplete projects and an agency that has yet to regain public confidence.

Robert J. Adams, a housing and development consultant who chairs the RRHA’s Board of Commissioners, expressed gratitude for Mr. Somanath’s service “and notably his accomplishments in beginning the critical work of replacing RRHA’s aging public housing portfolio.”

Mr. Somanath came to RRHA’s leadership with a long track record in low-income housing.

The India-born emigrée had spent 16 years at RRHA working on housing development, followed by 24 years leading the nonprofit Better Housing Coalition to develop hundreds of homes and apartments for low- to moderate-income families.

He came out of retirement three years ago with high expectations that his long experience could aid RRHA after the board removed the previous director, Adrienne Goolsby, in early 2015.

He only expected to stay six months, but then took the job permanently.

Mr. Somanath remained highly regarded until recently, when he received blistering criticism for failing to address non-working heating systems that left many RRHA residents in the cold. Most notably about 50 families in Creighton Court, where furnaces in 12 buildings where shut off, were without heat as bitter cold hit Richmond.

While RRHA quietly jumped to replace broken equipment and to restore heat in the Gilpin Court and Whitcomb Court communities, Mr. Somanath and his staff drew fire after admitting they had known since October that the Creighton Court buildings had no heat. RRHA did little more than distribute space heaters to residents while seeking a more permanent solution.

Confidence in Mr. Somanath eroded amid a drumbeat of media reports about the issue, including a Free Press report published in the Jan. 11-13 edition about residents in Creighton Court, Hillside Court and other public housing communities using ovens and wearing extra clothes to try to keep warm. Some residents left their apartments and moved in with relatives, while a local hotel operator offered free rooms to help end the misery.

Advocates for residents stepped up their call for Mr. Somanath’s resignation, while officials, including Richmond area Congressman A. Donald McEachin, began demanding that RRHA correct the “intolerable living situation” that would have led private landlords to have their buildings condemned.

Congressman McEachin did not comment on Mr. Somanath’s departure this week, but stated Tuesday that “inadequate space heaters was never a reasonable solution” for residents during dangerously cold temperatures.

He also stated that he would “continue to be vigilant and be a partner (with RRHA) to ensure all residents have decent, clean and healthy shelter” as the housing authority moves forward.

Ahead of Mr. Somanath’s departure, the RRHA board chairman appointed a special committee to focus on such issues and to ensure better responses to emergencies.