The final public hearing in Norfolk to allow residents of three public housing communities to voice their concerns has been held. The three communities are targeted for razing and residents were asked to tell how they feel about being relocated and about the changes to the communities as they are rebuilt.
Norfolk is proposing to redevelop Calvert Square, Tidewater Gardens and Young Terrace into mixed income communities, with rental and mortgage-based housing.
On Sept. 9, residents of the Calvert Square Community were hosted by city and NRHA officials and allowed to give input into the redevelopment, receive information on relocation options and other issues for about an hour.
While two of the six meetings were held at churches, the other four were held at facilities inside the impacted neighborhoods starting August 8.
The series of hearings were scheduled after Norfolk City Council encountered vocal opposition and fears from residents living in the communities and their supporters about the proposed redevelopment plan.
Elements of the plan were detailed in a document crafted by the city and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA), their respective roles called the “The St. Paul’s Project.”
Concerns about the timing of the removal of the residents from the targeted housing projects, how and where they would be relocated and other issues were vented July 27 at council members.
This came about after activists and residents got wind of the agreement via social and traditional media.
The Mayor, Council and NRHA officials, caught off guard, admitted the inadequate effort to educate, specifically, residents of these three communities and the general public, about the plan’s content, goals and purpose of the proposed plan and its impact.
The NRHA Board of Directors has approved the plan. But during the series of meetings, Norfolk Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander, who hosted them, emphasized that the Norfolk City Council has put its consideration of the plan “on pause,” due to the city’s public relations missteps.
The Mayor said he wanted the residents to have their say on the city and NRHA’s plans. He said before the council will proceed on looking at voting on the plan, the agencies must devise a suitable and fiscally responsible redevelopment plan for the public housing communities which will meet the needs of the residents.
This must include strategies to assist and coordinate the relocation of the residents from the existing projects or ways to allow them to return, if they so choose.
He said now that the public hearings with the residents have ended, the next step is talking with the other stakeholders who will be affected by the massive redevelopment. This includes members of the communities’ Tenant Management Associations, leaders of historic churches located in the area, and business owners.
Critics of the proposed plan, including the mayor and council, have said there was concern about a proposed limited public corporation which would administer the plan under the leadership of the Norfolk City Manager and NRHA Executive Director.
“This is so important I want to listen to the citizens and other stakeholders who have lived in the community for a long time,” Mayor Alexander said. “The buck stops at the (Norfolk) council. This has to be linked with city council and NRHA. This agreement should not have come to my desk without citizen participation.”
“I think this is a great opportunity for the city and NRHA to hear from the people,” said Rev. Calvin Durham, Pastor of New Hope COGIC, just miles away from project area. “So many times, decisions are made without actually talking to the people who are being affected.
During the Sept. 9 meeting at the Family Resource Center at Calvert Square, most of the 20 residents who attended the hour-long meeting were female members of the community.
Along with Mayor Alexander, Norfolk City Manager Doug Smith, NRHA Executive Director John Kownack, that agency’s board chair Barbara Hamm Lee, and Deputy City Manager James Rogers were in attendance.
Also attending the meeting were technicians and other professionals of the Norfolk Department of Neighborhoods and Space, and NRHA officials dealing with housing and other services provided by the agency.
After the opening remarks by the mayor, the attendees were separated into two working groups. Given 30 minutes, the participants were instructed to give input on three specific areas:
1. What constitutes a safe, healthy neighborhood for you and your family;
2. What assets should be considered, such as after school programs, security, and parenting skills;
And third, what information do you want?
Meeting organizers handed out a three-page document revealing 131 responses on these three areas from residents who participated in the previous meetings.
Many of the responses provided by participants at the Sept 9 gathering were similar to them.
For instance, residents agreed a safe and healthy neighborhood would include better grocery stores, diversity of home stock, a drug and crime free community, more civic engagement, mental health counselors, addressing flooding, reduction in crime, more role models, employment, and space between dwellings.
Residents also listed as “assets” after school programs and camps, landscaping (trees), walkability, schools, and a recreation center.
Under ‘What Information’ do you want?,” the residents said more social media, information about the events and programs in the community, town hall meetings, transparency from the NRHA and city about any new housing redevelopment, help for residents to establish financial stability and credit, more details about the proposed (St. Paul’s) redevelopment projects and relocation of residents, information about qualifications and vouchers, and accessibility to all public support resources.
One resident who was selected to report on the second group’s contributions on these areas, said many of the items listed on Sept. 9, already existed. They included periodic meetings scheduled for residents, after school programs and counseling for youth, financial education assistance, job training and a library; but, she said residents did not take advantage of them.
Nearby city-run programs such as Norfolk Works or Norfolk Community Service Board are providing services requested.
After the meeting one resident who participated in the meeting complained that there was not an opportunity for residents to pose questions to city or NRHA officials.
Another said while they appreciated being able to submit their ideas for what they would like to see in a revitalized, area, there were questions about timing of the demolition relocation and assistance she wanted to ask.
During the six hearings, city and NRHA officials have reinforced to the residents that they would be provided assistance to either return and continue living in the revised community or receive assistance to move to a privately owned dwelling.
According to Board Chair Barbara Hamm Lee and other NRHA officials, ongoing surveys of the residents in the three targeted public housing residents indicate most want options, such as Section 8 vouchers to relocate to other parts of the city.
The proposed St. Paul’s Project says the revised communities will accommodate a mixture of income level. There will be subsidized and market rate units as well as those for sale for individuals and families.
But NRHA Executive Director John Kownack said that will depend on the availability of private, affordable housing stock in the city, which is in short supply.
One option is to expand the development of affordable private single family housing around the city in the coming years to absorb those residents of the three public housings who do not wish to return to the redeveloped area.
NRHA administers the city’s housing programs for economically vulnerable residents, such as those in these three communities.
Individuals and families eligible for the Section 8 vouchers must have some form of employment unless they are elderly or disabled.
While the voucher subsidizes a part of the recipients’ rents in private housing units, based on their income, other expenses such as utilities are the responsibility of the residents to pay.
The NRHA Executive Director said that once the St. Paul’s Project plans are in motion, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would increase the number of Section 8 vouchers to help relocate residents, if they so desire.
By Leonard E. Colvin