A resolution recently approved by Norfolk City Council could launch one of the largest modern urban renewal projects on the East Coast.
According to city officials, the resolution authorizes the Norfolk’s City Manager to seek permission from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to demolish three mostly Black public housing communities where over 4,000 low income and working class families and 2,200 children live. The cleared sites of Tidewater Gardens, Young Terrace and Calvert Square would then be replaced and redeveloped.
The process will not begin immediately, but within the next decade, according to the wording from the resolution.
The council’s 7-1 vote came seven months after the measure was tabled after activists and residents from the three targeted communities emotionally voiced their opposition and concerns that the city did not alert or educate them about its contents or aims.
The Mayor and the City Manager’s offices organized a series of public hearings to allow residents and the public in general to express their concerns, and ideas for the project’s design.
The resolution passed last Tuesday (Jan. 23) will be orchestrated by the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for the St. Paul’s Area, co-chaired by Councilman Paul Riddick, the longest serving member of the panel, and Superward 7 Councilwoman Angelia Williams-Graves.
Riddick’s Ward 4 has most of the city’s public housing communities.
The panel also will consist of other “stakeholders,” including the NRHA’s Executive Director, two members of the Tenant Management Association teams (TMA) from the three public housing communities, leaders from neighboring churches and civic organizations.
According to the resolution posted on the city’s website, the three public housing communities were built during the mid-1950s to replace horrid slums, most of which were tar paper shacks, with “safe, sanitary and affordable housing to thousands of low income.”
But despite the development and growth in Norfolk and regionally, the resolution noted residents of the three public housing communities are isolated economically and are vulnerable to recurrent flooding due to sea level rising and low lying terrain.
While money for moving the existing residents, demolition and reconstruction has not been identified, the city has begun setting aside $3 million each fiscal year, starting with the upcoming city budget, to pay for the various aspects of the project.
According to the resolution, considerable investment will go to “develop a human services transformation plan that provides supportive service programs.”
Once the NRHA applies to demolish the communities, HUD will provide additional housing vouchers via the Section 8 housing assistance programs. Residents may use them to acquire housing in the private sector.
The plan also calls for support in financial education, securing adequate employment and health issues. City officials say they recognize that many public housing residents who are subsidized because they live there, will be unfamiliar with paying utilities and other costs associated with living in private dwellings.
Early reviews from the Black civic and political leadership has been mixed.
Many said they will be keeping a watchful eye on the process as the city moves forward.
Most council members, including Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander, have expressed a cautious, but optimistic tone to the media and constituents.
Some Black activists are being more critical, noting the city’s past urban renewal efforts which razed many portions of blighted sections of the city and dispersed Black residents, notably in the city’s East end.
Old digital news clipping have been appearing on social media revealing past urban renewal projects in Norfolk which activists called “Negro removal projects.”
Rev. Anthony Paige, the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Lambert’s Point, remembers arriving in Norfolk in 1972 when Ghent was being rebuilt after hundreds of Black families were removed. “I have concerns about the impact of the residents,” he said, “particularly the 2,200 children. That is troubling.”
“If this is handled properly,” said Paige, “this could be a very progressive move for the city and the region. Unfortunately, the city’s track record on urban renewal and how they treat poor and Black citizens is not a good one.”
One of the clearest voices of dissent came from the councilmember who voiced the lone no vote for the measure.
“This is a sham,” said Riddick. “The city is not ready to proceed. We do not have any plans. NRHA has been given permission to seek permission to begin a process which will not begin in September or December. There are so many issues to be resolved.
“We must be careful that the needs of the people are addressed first,” said Riddick. “We should identify what will be demolished, who will stay, who will be relocated and where. There are so many moving parts.”
Riddick said Norfolk does not have enough affordable housing to absorb the large number of residents who said they would like to move out of the public housing communities.
He said the city and NRHA own large tracts of vacant land throughout the city which could be redeveloped with local developers to build new housing for low income and working class residents.
Riddick said as co-chair of the advisory committee assigned to oversee the implementation of the plan, he and the co-chair will take a slow and deliberate approach.
“We have to move forward,“ said Co-Chair Williams-Graves. “I know people have concerns and there are many things to work out. There is no perfect scenario, but we have to make the first step.”
Rodney Jordan, the current Norfolk School Board Chair and former member of the NRHA Board of Directors, was critical of the proposed plan, and has made his views known to city and NRHA officials.
He is also an official with the St. Paul’s Development Corporation, a group of civic leaders who have proposed an alternative to the St. Paul’s Plan which the city and NRHA have sought to launch over the past two decades.
Mr. James Watson, a member of the same organization, will be named to the Advisory Committee, Graves said. The corporation’s plan is based on ones undertaken in Baltimore and Atlanta. He said developers of those plans respected the views of residents of impacted communities, had diverse housing stock, commerce and minority developers involved in the planning and development.
Jordan said his group is concerned that traditionally the city’s development plans do not treat the residents of the city’s East side with the same level of respect and considerate that the ones on the West side.
With a swipe and the Black members of council, Jordan said that in January of 1968, the Norfolk City Council, which had no Black members, adopted an urban renewal plan which shortchanged poor and working class Black communities by dispersing the residents after razing the communities.
Jordan’s uncle Joseph Jordan was the first Black person elected to council since Reconstruction in the spring of 1968.
“It seems the council has not grown up,” said Jordan. “This plan has the vestiges of the generation, of 1968 and not 2018. We cannot say we do not know any better.”
Joe Dillard, President of the Norfolk NAACP who was recently appointed to the NRHA Board of Directors, said the agency will take a vote in April on an application to be submitted to the HUD to demolish Tidewater Gardens.
Dillard said although he supports the resolution, he does not support demolition of any of the public housing communities until there is a clear plan to prepare, relocate and stabilize the families impacted by the St. Paul’s Project.
Dillard said an NRHA survey indicates that two-thirds of the current residents in these communities said they want housing vouchers to move into privately owned dwellings.
But Dillard said a recent study indicates the city does not have the capacity to absorb all of those individuals or families applying for them, especially in neighborhoods adjacent to the targeted areas, which he described as “filled to the brim.”
“Even if they get a voucher, it does not mean they will be able to stay in Norfolk,” said Dillard. “That resolution is part of a plan to develop a plan. I am not supporting any effort to demolish anything until we have a plan to help the people make a good transition.”
Michelle Cook is the President of the Tidewater Gardens Tenant Management Association (TMA). Composed of residents, it is tasked with being a voice, or assisting residents in securing various services and resources from NRHA and other agencies.
TMA from each of the public housing communities will have a seat on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee.
Cook said she and other residents of the housing communities met with Mayor Alexander, the Norfolk City Manager and city operatives who will be involved in the project.
She said the meeting focused on the various services and options which could be devised by the advisory committee and agencies, including mental health support services and educational development.
“But my main concern is housing … where will the people go, “ said Cook, who has lived in Tidewater Gardens since 2004. “We are parts of a city where many people do not want us.”
Cook said that like her, many people have fixed incomes, various emotional and physical disabilities “but the city is not ready to meet their needs and right now does not have a plan.”
“People have to realize that we are human, too. and whatever plans are developed, we deserve to be respected,” she said. “We are not all criminals, diseased, drugged up or looking for a hand out. The city, NRHA, the business community and people who do not live in public housing must realize we work, pay taxes, and contribute to our community. And deserve respect, as well.”