Changing the trajectory

RRHA ushering in new initiatives for jobs, health and safety

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 8/17/2023, 6 p.m.
Steven B. Nesmith promised to transform the operation of Richmond’s public housing and the opportunities for residents when he assumed …
Mr. Nesmith

Steven B. Nesmith promised to transform the operation of Richmond’s public housing and the opportunities for residents when he assumed leadership of the authority last fall.

Nine months after becoming CEO of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Mr. Nesmith is introducing initiatives that he believes will change residents’ lives for the better.

Just a few weeks ago he announced a new program that will launch by early winter to help residents buy homes.

Now he has announced “Hope, Jobs and Security,” an initiative that he and his staff believe will improve the outlook for the nearly 10,000 people who call RRHA communities home. The plan already is drawing approval from some residents.

“This is great,” said Marilyn Olds, president of the Richmond Tenant Organization, the umbrella group that represents the residents, which includes representatives from RRHA’s communities.

Ms. Olds

Ms. Olds

Among key elements is a robust workforce training effort to enable unemployed youths and adults to secure jobs in factories, retail stores, restaurants and offices with wages to help lift them out of poverty.

The program also is to include health and wellness services, after-school activities for school-age children and training in nonviolent conflict resolution.

In addition, Mr. Nesmith said RRHA is contracting with a private company to patrol communities to improve safety, something that Ms. Olds said residents have long requested.

No mention was made of one critical component, child care, which can be one of the most difficult barriers to employment for single mothers who make up a majority of adults in RRHA communities.

To be launched at the end of August following a series of town hall-style briefings for residents beginning Monday, Aug. 21, the bundle of programs takes a holistic approach to “change the trajectory of our public housing residents,” Mr. Nesmith said.

“We’ve tried to think of it all,” he said, in seeking to create a package that deals with the physical, mental and emotional needs of residents.

On the workforce training front, RRHA is partnering with nearly a dozen government, private and nonprofit entities to provide residents “opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency through job and workforce training.”

The workforce effort would offer opportunities in areas such as forklift operating to construction trades, entry level health care, retail sales and administrative posts.

The authority, he said, also will team up with the Virginia Health Department and the Richmond City Health District to promote resident health and wellness through the restoration and expansion of services that were located in RRHA sites before being disrupted by the pandemic.

To upgrade security, RRHA is bringing on board Fairfax-based Sentry Security Force, which has served other public housing authorities, including Charlottesville and Norfolk. RRHA has signed a contract to pay the company up to $1 million a year for its services.

This would be the first RRHA security force since the authority disbanded its police force nine years ago and began paying the Richmond Police Department to patrol its communities. The arrangement has fallen off as a result of a shortage of police officers.

For Ms. Olds and others, having an internal RRHA security is seen as a necessity to restore a sense of safety that has been lacking.

Ms. Olds said RPD cars mostly just drive through with officers having little connection to residents. Dedicated security, she said, would allow officers to get to know the residents.

“We want to be able to sit on our porches and have children be able to play outside,” Ms. Olds said, but that requires a police presence, she continued, to deter people who are out to make trouble.

She also said that senior residents also need regular patrols of their buildings to prevent break-ins and prevent them from other dangers.

Mr. Nesmith said that the company would provide nine officers to work in RRHA’s six major communities and its senior citizen developments, work with RPD officers, and be a resident-led initiative that would rely on the input and feedback of residents of the communities they patrol.

RRHA has not disclosed the contract or the potential cost of the company’s services, which the Free Press was told still needs formal approval from the authority’s board.

Ultimately, he said, having security officers will increase the ability to spot problems and hopefully reduce potential violence that disrupts residents’ safety.

What “we are trying to do is create the kind of change that people who live in our communities can believe in and take part in to change their lives,” Mr. Nesmith said.