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Hampton Roads Community News

Norfolk’s St. Paul’s Project – Will Public Housing Vouchers Insure Better Housing or Continued Poverty?

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

By the end of summer, the first 187 Tidewater Gardens residents will be moving out of the huge public housing community near downtown Norfolk. This will be part of the first phase of the city’s St. Paul’s Redevelopment Project.

Within the next decade, the St. Paul’s Project is designed to move all of the 4,193 residents from Tidewater Gardens, Calvary Square and Young Terrace public housing communities.

These communities will be replaced with smaller ones, where residents will buy or rent homes based on market rates.  Some Tidewater Gardens residents have been given the option to return to the new community.

Once redevelopment begins,  current and eligible  residents will be given  federal vouchers to seek new homes in remaining public housing units   or  private housing units throughout Norfolk or in other locales.

The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) and the city have already launched a People’s  First initiative which is designed to provide residents with not only new housing options, but other forms of personal assistance to put them on the path to economic self-sufficiency.

NRHA which handles the housing communities and the city are waiting to see if the  St. Paul’s Project  will be one of similar efforts in other U.S. cities to win a competitive   $30 million dollar Competitive Choice Neighborhood Initiative (CNI)  Grant. The grant and funds set aside by the city will fund  “People’s First.”

But the biggest concern of the residents, city officials orchestrating the redeveloping plan and those who oppose the development project is not only the quantity and quality of housing options for the residents but where they will be able to use their housing vouchers.

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Once the CNI Grant is approved, NRHA  officials said the city will receive additional Tenant Protection Vouchers from HUD to enable all eligible residents to move.

A recent  NRHA report indicates less than 5 percent rental housing stock inventory is available citywide, and landlords in many private housing units have appeared uneasy or unwilling to accept people with vouchers who are displaced from the  St. Paul’s area.

NRHA officials say that families and individuals with  vouchers are not limited to the city of Norfolk and may use them in other locales in the region.

Another concern of advocates is will residents be  “steered” from one area of high poverty and low economic opportunity to another one in Norfolk or other locales.

This claim was  outlined in a recent report by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC). The study found out that in  50 of the nation’s largest metropolitan locales, including Hampton Roads,  poor families using federal housing vouchers  moved from one impoverished community to another.

The report which was released in January said  the neighborhoods where the families and individuals moved to were  racially segregated,  with little economic opportunity.

The study indicated this trend exists despite the existence of affordable rental units which may be available in neighborhoods with higher income areas, with less poverty and crime and more opportunities to get off public assistance and uplift the fortunes of their children.

The GUIDE received a report  from NRHA which showed, by zip code and U.S. Census tracts,   where families using  55 Housing Choice Vouchers currently live, after exiting the public housing communities.

Thirty-nine of them were used  in census tracts/zip codes with high concentrations of poverty, notably the 23504 zip code area.

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Sixteen were used in areas of the city of Norfolk with relatively low levels of poverty.

The area code 23504 is in the heart of the city’s  urban core, skirting a slice of Park Place, facing Granby Street, to Villa Heights, Lindenwood, Old Huntersville, eastward to Central Brambleton to Broad Creek and Norfolk State University.

It has been reported since the redevelopment was announced that landlords of private units across the city are  “looking out” for residents displaced by the St. Paul’s redevelopment and may refuse to accept their vouchers.

More than 93 percent of the 23504  population is African-American and 36 percent of the residents report a yearly income of $10,000 and below.

“It’s going to be a wake up call for a lot of housing authorities that their programs are quite concentrated  and do not  necessarily reflect where families want to live,” said   Philip Tegeler, President and Executive director of the PRRAC (Poverty & Race Research Action Council).

“In concept, People First sounds reasonable,” said  Rodney Jordan, who sits on the Norfolk School Board and is a critic of the St. Paul’s plan.

“However, the people defining what’s ‘first’ and who is ‘first’ are in large measure, not the current residents and historic stakeholders from the CNI/St. Paul’s area,” he said. “People’s First, as defined in the resolutions passed by the City and NRHA and as included in the CNI grant application, is 80 – 90 percent of the same process and approach promised for Roberts, Bowling, and Moton redevelopments. Top-down paternalism with the bulk of funding going to pay for government workers and vendors without performance contracts failed too many people in the past; it will do so again unless redirected or scrapped and rebuilt.”

The PRRAC  study devised an index of opportunity using HUD measurements of school quality,  level of  poverty, labor market engagement, access to employment and public transit.

Only five  percent of metropolitan families using vouchers lived in high opportunity neighborhoods even though those areas account for 18 percent of all affordable rentals, according to the study.

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Pamela Jones Watford  is NRHA’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program director.

Watford said that a high number of people who chose to use vouchers in parts of the city  designated as “high poverty” is not due to the NRHA deliberately steering them into these areas.

Watford said when families and individuals apply for HCVs for privately owned units, NRHA provides  information, including maps indicating Norfolk with  low concentrations of poverty, effective public schools and low incidents of crime.

“But there are people who are the creature of habit and familiar environments,” said Watford. “They have family, church connections, friends, babysitting options, the availability of public transportation,  and other factors which make them want to live in a certain area. It is a safety net for them, no matter how much information we provide for them. But it is their choice.”

Jordan questions the NRHA view of the housing choices of HCV users.

“To be candid, on the first read, the ‘creature of habit’ assertion caused me to re-read the 1963 ‘Statement by Alabama Clergymen’ to Dr. King which resulted in the ‘Letter From A Birmingham Jail,’”  Jordan said. “These notions of habits have been used to justify government-sanctioned segregation for over a century.”

Jordan, who served on the  NRHA Board of Commissioners from 2002-2009, said “this same assertion was utilized to justify public housing units and affordable housing being excluded from low-income, in predominately Black neighborhoods.”

Watford said that ahead of the exodus of the residents from the three public housing communities due to the upcoming redevelopment, the NRHA is seeking to secure more landlords of private property to accept individuals and families with HCVs.

She said   NRHA will be hiring a liaison to work with  members of the Tidewater Realtors  Investment Group to entice  them to accept more people with vouchers.

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She said  NRHA housing operatives have already engaged  them to “dispel”  the many concerns and prejudices they may have about public housing residents who use vouchers.

Also, she said that with annual inspections, the NRHA will assure the value and structural condition of their property will not be eroded by irresponsible and destructive tenants.

Watford said that 65 percent of the individuals and families who qualify for Housing Choice Vouchers, work. Others are either disabled or elderly.

She said such efforts are designed to provide a broader range of HCV options in the future.

Watford named four new HCV friendly housing developments the city has approved with three of them in the 23504 census tract.

Also, once the new redevelopment of the Tidewater Gardens area is done, current residents will be able to use a voucher to return to the site.

The 80 new units will be a mix of rental and owner options units.

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