Housing advocates threaten to sue RRHA for keeping public housing units vacant

George Copeland Jr. | 11/22/2019, 6 a.m.
The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has been warned that it would face a federal lawsuit if it refuses to ...
Creighton Court

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has been warned that it would face a federal lawsuit if it refuses to start leasing units that deliberately have been kept vacant in the Creighton Court public housing community.

A group called the Virginia Housing Justice Program that includes the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society issued the warning Monday during a meeting of the RRHA Board of Commissioners that was moved to Gilpin Court’s Calhoun Center to accommodate the public.

Mr. Duncan

Mr. Duncan

The VHJP also includes the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the Legal Aid Justice Center and several community advocates and organizers.

In a letter delivered to RRHA commissioners during the public comment period, the advocacy group cited the decision of Damon E. Duncan, RRHA’s chief executive officer, to keep Creighton Court apartments vacant in preparation for future redevelopment as a violation of federal housing regulations.

That decision, the letter noted, has reduced the number of available public housing units and deprived low-income families who have applied to live in public housing the opportunity to do so.

The letter also stated that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which owns the public housing and provides funding to RRHA to manage it, bars Mr. Duncan’s action.

A key HUD regulation states that local public housing authorities “may not take any action to demolish or dispose of a public housing development or a portion of a public housing development” without HUD’s approval and must operate the property as normal until such time as a plan of development is approved.

“If we are unable to mutually resolve the issue within the next few weeks,” the letter by housing advocates states, “one or more of the undersigned organizations will likely take legal action to enjoin RRHA’s policy.”

The VHJP has requested a written response, and the board did not discuss the issue as part of its agenda.

The letter was matched with a public display of intent. Along with representatives of the VHJP, about 40 people attended the commission meeting, with several addressing the issue during the public comment period.

Speakers included Richmond For All member Kristin Reed; former state NAACP Executive Director King Salim Khalfani; Bernice E. Travers, president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters; and others from across the city and beyond sharing their concern for those seeking public housing.

“Home is the foundation for life,” said the Rev. Mary Anne Glover, interim general minister of the Virginia Council of Churches. “Give everyone a solid foundation for having a good start. Do what’s right.”

The meeting was the first the Board of Commissioners has held since Mr. Duncan halted the eviction of tenants who have fallen behind on rent and utility payments following a public backlash against the increasing number of tenants RRHA was taking to court. Mr. Duncan announced earlier this month that all evictions would be suspended through December.

Board Chair Veronica G. Blount acknowledged the speakers’ concerns about the Creighton Court vacancies and welcomed any suggestions on improving public housing. However, she challenged the idea that RRHA is operating out of step with HUD guidelines. She pointed to the work that Mr. Duncan and the staff are doing to “keep our assessments at a place where we can still expect HUD to support us and what we do.”