Affordable housing or slavery memorial park may be next funding question for City Council

9/17/2020, 6 p.m.
Beef up funding for affordable housing or shift $1.7 million from a previously undisclosed pool of dollars for a memorial ...
Mayor Stoney

Beef up funding for affordable housing or shift $1.7 million from a previously undisclosed pool of dollars for a memorial park to the untold thousands of enslaved Africans bought and sold in Shockoe Bottom before the Civil War?

That’s the tough call that Richmond City Council is about to face.

Mayor Levar M. Stoney has put City Council on the spot by submitting an ordi- nance that calls for starting the memorial park’s development using $1.7 million the city gained from unclaimed proceeds from property auctions held by the city to collect back taxes.

The paper was introduced during Monday night’s City Council meeting, putting the question squarely on the council’s agenda at a time of growing concern over the rising number of evictions and soaring housing costs.

The ordinance’s introduction came as the council postponed action on a pro- posed major rezoning along Broad Street to allow for taller buildings, and voted to reduce funding for Richmond Public Schools by $5 million to reflect reductions in revenue from the state and federal governments, including a projected cut in sales tax receipts.

Mayor Stoney announced the slavery memorial park plan on July 28, just a day after City Council voted to steer any extra dollars into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to support development of lower-cost housing.

A month later on Aug. 31, the mayor joined several members of the council in promising a faith group to put $10 million a year into the housing trust fund, if possible, to help create more affordable housing for people on the lower end of the income scale.

Taking her promise seriously, 6th District Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson introduced her own resolution Monday that calls on the mayor to include $10 million for the housing trust fund in the next budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year and for each year thereafter.

One problem for the mayor: The $1.7 million is only half of the initial funding needed to get the $38 million slavery memorial park project underway.

Mayor Stoney said in August that $3.5 million would be available, but in the detail he submitted with the ordinance, he confirmed a Free Press finding that the city did not have that amount.

Mayor Stoney stated that the $3.5million would begin design work and to buy 12 privately owned parcels in the footprint of the park. He estimated $2.4 million would be needed to buy parcels that stand in the way of the development of the projected $17 million memorial park campus and a $15 million, 665-space parking deck. He has said he would propose borrowing $35 million of the $38 million total projected cost.

The $1.7 million with which he proposes to begin this initiative has been a closely held City Hall secret.

So far, city Budget Director Jay Brown has not responded to Free Press questions about the money, which does not appear to show up in any public financial documents.

The Richmond Circuit Court turns the money over to the city after it remains unclaimed for 24 months following a completed tax sale, and apparently is held in a special fund in the City Attorney’s Office.

However, no evidence of the money can be found in any public financial reports received by City Council over the past three years, nor has any budget that the council has approved, including the current 2020-21 fiscal year budget, mention such funds.

Documents obtained by the Free Press indicate that the city currently has at least $2.7 million accumulated from money the court has turned over. The information Mayor Stoney has provided to City Council states that using money from the fund would leave a sufficient amount to enable the City Attorney’s Office to continue to pay for its tax sale operations.