New housing honcho

RRHA’s leader Damon Duncan outlines priorities that will impact city’s 10,000 public housing residents

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/10/2019, 6 a.m.
The new chief executive officer of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority is vowing that the agency will move “expeditiously” ...
View of Creighton Court where some residents are struggling to keep warm in unheated apartments where radiator systems failed. The landlord, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, is facing sharp criticism over its failure to move swiftly on repairs. Sandra Sellars/Richmond Free Press

Mr. Duncan apparently will use the same model he followed in leading Elgin, Ill., to eliminate its public housing and replace it with remodeled, largely privatized Section 8 properties in which tenant rents are subsidized. Under that model, the housing authority retains a minority share of the ownership and accepts and reviews applications for housing while leaving much of the management to the private owner-operator.

RRHA has used that model in replacing its former 60-unit Dove Court property in Highland Park with modern apartments and is employing it in replacing the Fay Towers senior high rise in Gilpin Court with three developments, including a new development underway at 1st and Duval streets in Jackson Ward.

The RRHA also is engaged in transferring control of 11 smaller properties with 553 units from government ownership to a private company that, as majority owner, will remodel and manage them.

In addition, RRHA is working with a nonprofit partner to create new housing in the Creighton Court area to replace much of that public housing and also has begun transferring some residents to other private, newly built Section 8 apartments in Richmond and Henrico County.

Mr. Duncan said that Gilpin Court is likely to be the next large public housing community to be converted. That would support the private development of apartments in the historic St. Luke Building and the impending private conversion of the former Baker Elementary School building into senior apartments for additional residents of Fay Towers. That work is expected to begin in June.

Since arriving in Richmond, Mr. Duncan also has put maintenance of existing units high on his to-do list. On Wednesday, two days after his news conference, Mr. Duncan announced that RRHA has hired a pest control company and will be working with public housing residents to prevent rodent infestation.

He noted during the news conference that heat finally had been restored to all units two weeks before the RRHA turned off the heat on May 1. He noted that 40 percent of RRHA’s boilers have been replaced and that 60 percent would be replaced by next October when the heat gets turned on again.

He promised more preventative maintenance, and noted that RRHA has brought in experienced people to support that effort. That includes former city Public Works Director Emmanuel O. Adediran, who since December has served as RRHA’s director of capital improvement projects and facilities.

On the crime front, Mr. Duncan said that he had breakfast recently with interim Police Chief William C. Smith and plans a more extensive meeting to discuss a strategy to continue reducing crime.

Mr. Duncan said he wants RRHA to allocate $300,000 in unused funds left since the RRHA police force was disbanded five years to help pay for any changes. The city police department now has at least eight officers dedicated to public housing.

While overall reported crime in public housing has dropped more than 20 percent, Mr. Duncan said that there are still challenges, particularly from non-residents. He cited the example of a shooting last month in Hillside Court that left two dead and one wounded.

While he again expressed condolences to the families, he noted that none of those shot lived in the South Side complex. He called it a familiar story in which residents are neither the victims nor the perpetrators of the crimes that grab media attention.

“Whereas crime and tragedy are not good any way you look at it,” he said, “it just seems that some people feel that they can go to the public housing communities and commit their atrocities and get away with it.”