Man is first to move out of Creighton in RRHA ef­fort

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARK ROBIN­SON

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.

SHELBY LUM/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

As the first on Rich­mond’s voucher wait list for new hous­ing, Ra­mon Byrd moved Fri­day to a new apart­ment com­plex.

SHELBY LUM/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

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.”

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