Man is first to move out of Creighton in RRHA effort
Ramon Byrd had been waiting for the call, but when it finally came, he couldn’t believe it.
“Really?” he asked the person on the other line. Really, they assured him.
He hung up the phone, thanked God and wept.
Byrd was the first person in line at the Creighton Court recreation center when the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority opened its project-based voucher wait list on a sweltering August morning. The occasion marked a highly anticipated step in what has been a slow process to move residents out of the public housing complex in the city’s East End and into new housing.
The huge undertaking,
central to the city’s antipoverty push under former Mayor Dwight C. Jones, has inched forward since a groundbreaking two years ago this month at the site of the old Armstrong High School on North 31st Street. While work at the site on 256 units is the most visible part of the effort to revitalize the neighborhood, opening the wait list was just as significant, if not more so, for Creighton residents and families.
Byrd had hoped to move into the development at the old Armstrong site, but the prospect seemed distant as construction at the site crawled along. He opted for the wait list instead, joining more than 130 other families who signed up on the first day to vie for one of 24 two- and three-bedroom apartments available at two new mixed-use housing developments.
Byrd signed up for a two-bedroom apartment in Kingsridge, a new 82unit building opening in eastern Henrico County. About a month passed before he received the call that brought him to tears: He had been approved to move.
On Friday, the man whom Creighton residents affectionately call “Pops” was signing the lease for his new apartment, getting his keys and moving out of his one-bedroom unit on Creighton Road. He had lived within its concrete block walls and listened to its laboring AC unit since 2012.
Byrd is the first Creighton resident to relocate as part of the neighborhood’s transformation, an effort that city and housing authority leaders believe is essential to connect residents to new opportunities, provide access to better services and ultimately lift them out of poverty.
The Kingsridge apartments are the first of 173 units across 11 new developments where RRHA has reserved slots for residents to move as it prepares to phase out units in Creighton and ultimately demolish the 504-unit complex.
To be chosen for one of the housing vouchers, RRHA residents have to pass two screenings: one by the RRHA administration and another by the private management of the new development. To qualify, residents must have a record of paying their rent and utilities on time, keep their apartment in good shape and not be involved in any criminal activity.
Creighton residents were given preference in the screening process because of the transformation. Three more families from the community will move into Kingsridge this month, said Orlando Artze, the RRHA’s interim CEO. The housing authority hopes to fill 14 remaining apartments it reserved in the development by the end of November, and is in the process of screening 20 families to do so, Artze added.
Residents chosen for a voucher will receive assistance from the housing authority to pay for the security deposit in their new apartments, as well as other moving expenses. The sum the residents will get is based on the size of the apartments they are moving into but is roughly $1,000 to $1,200, Artze said.
Three days before the move, Byrd had little packing left to do. Pillows in trash bags were piled on his sectional. His family photos and mementos were in plastic tubs by the door. As he packed, he had given away dishes, curtains and a bed set to neighbors.
Generosity is in his nature, so during his time in the neighborhood he has helped neighbors when they have needed extra money for groceries. More regularly, he’ll share words of wisdom or encouragement, especially to some of the young men in the community.
“They say, ‘Hey, Pops’ and I’ll say, ‘How are you doing?’ and let them know I love them. Their face will just light up like a Christmas tree,” he said.
Sonvannitta Trotter, a neighbor, said Byrd is “like the neighborhood grandfather.”
“He understands people make mistakes, and he won’t look at you like a bad person. He tries to encourage people to keep moving forward with life. No matter where you been, it’s where you going. That’s what he tells us,” she said. “That, and keep prayer in your heart.”
His best friend, Jack Witcher, dropped by a few days before the move. The two have forged a bond during tough circumstances they have faced.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Witcher said.
When Byrd was hospitalized for three months, Witcher checked on him and his apartment every day. Since Witcher was diagnosed with cancer, Byrd has encouraged him to stay positive and not lose hope.
The perspective is hardearned. Byrd struggled with a cocaine addiction as an adult but has maintained his sobriety for 26 years after growing closer to God, he said.
He worked for the Richmond Department of Public Works as a trash collector for 23 years until a series of strokes and heart problems forced him to retire a few years ago. They also forced him to relearn how to speak and walk. He relies on an oxygen tank to breathe and a cane or walker to get around. Despite his Medicare coverage, he pays roughly $300 out of pocket each month for prescriptions.
A disability check covers his rent and other expenses. The voucher he received will cap the rent he pays at Kingsridge to 30 percent of his income.
“With my medical expenses, I couldn’t afford to live in a high-priced place,” he said.
Over the past two years, Byrd has grown close with Scott Andrews-Weckerly, a transition coach working in the community. Weckerly is one of three coaches the Richmond City Health District has planted in the neighborhood to help Creighton families prepare to transition out of public housing.
Byrd calls Weckerly an angel. His father, Roosevelt Byrd Sr., said Weckerly has been a beacon on his son’s journey. “Scott gave my son hope,” his father said.
The transition coaches will continue to work with residents after they move out of Creighton, providing support as they adapt to their new homes.
To Weckerly, Byrd’s move represents a milestone for the neighborhood’s transformation, one that may signal to other residents that the work initiated years ago is starting to come to fruition.
“Whether conscious or not, there will be a switch in people’s minds of ‘that which I have previously regarded as a hypothetical is now a concrete reality,’” Weckerly said.
Thankful as he is, the move is bittersweet for Byrd because of the community he’s leaving behind.
“I know when I pull out with the moving truck, I’ll drop a few tears,” Byrd said Tuesday. “I love my neighbors.”
He’s looking forward to meeting his new ones, though.
When he does, he’ll introduce himself as Pops.
Residents will receive assistance from the RRHA to cover the security deposit in their new apartments, as well as other moving expenses.
As the first on Richmond’s voucher wait list for new housing, Ramon Byrd moved Friday to a new apartment complex.
Ramon Byrd says goodbye to his friend Jack Witcher, who was visiting Byrd in Creighton Court. Byrd had lived in the complex for six years but moved out Friday as part of a revitalization effort that aims to phase out — and demolish — the 504-unit community.
Byrd says that while he is thankful to be moving out of Creighton Court, he will miss his neighbors in the community, where he is known as “Pops.”