Activists: Remove RRHA’s CEO
They blame ineffective management for rise of violence in public housing
A group of community activists and housing advocates on Thursday called for the removal of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s chief executive officer, T.K. Somanath, citing what they characterized as ineffective management and leadership atop the historically troubled agency in charge of the city’s public housing communities.
The group, which called itself “the coalition for better public housing,” held a news conference at the RRHA headquarters on Chamberlayne Parkway in response to a media briefing on crime in the city’s public housing communities that Mayor Levar Stoney called on Tuesday. At that earlier meeting, city employees attempted to bar community members, including several who spoke Thursday.
“In the interest of improving the lives of the residents of public housing, ... we are asking the state and or federal offices of HUD to remove the current management of RRHA,” said Arthur Burton, executive director of Kinfolk Community Empowerment Center, who was not at City Hall Tuesday. “We are asking the federal and state offices to stop overlooking the continued atrocities that are occurring in public housing.”
Somanath, who spoke at the mayor’s news conference Tuesday, said in an interview Thursday he does not believe his job is in jeopardy.
He feels he has the full support of city officials, and the housing authority’s nine-member board. City Council appoints its commissioners, who retain the power to hire and fire the authority’s CEO.
Robert J. Adams, a housing consultant who serves as the board’s vice chairman, said Somanath has the board’s support, and it is committed to working with him to improve public housing for its residents in spite of federal funding trending down.
“The board, (Somanath), and staff are all committed to a complete revitalization of this housing that is guided by the wishes of
the residents,” Adams said in an email.
Marilyn Olds, the lone RRHA tenant representative on the board, said in an interview Thursday she didn’t have any concerns about Somanath’s leadership. She declined to comment further on the calls for his dismissal.
The RRHA Board of Commissioners’ next meeting is Monday at 5:30 p.m.
RRHAmanages more than 4,000 public housing units and some 11,000 residents in the city, the majority of whom are concentrated in the city’s six, barrack-style housing projects: Creighton, Fairfield, Gilpin, Hillside, Mosby and Whitcomb courts.
“Public housing has really lived its life,” said Somanath, who was appointed as director of the authority about two years ago— first on an interim basis, later, though no one can exactly pinpoint when, permanently.
Stoney offered a similar sentiment Tuesday, calling Richmond’s housing model broken following nine fatal shooting in eight days citywide. Three
people were found shot to death in a Gilpin Court apartment on Sunday. Another man was killed a few blocks away within an hour.
Stoney, Police Chief Al Durham and Somanath laid out short-term fixes for the violence. Those included increased patrols, adding lights and cameras to the public housing buildings and instituting a car decal program so management could monitor who is on the housing
authority’s property. Somanath also threatened eviction for residents involved in criminal activity, saying: “We know who you are” and “we’re coming after you.”
A frustrated Durham called on residents to cooperate with police investigating the crimes, but offered little reassurance that his department could keep witnesses safe if they came forward, a point the activists seized on Thursday.
“People should not have to be forced to choose between reporting crimes to the police or themselves being victimized or fear retaliation,” said Lynetta Thompson, a former president of the local NAACP branch.
Stoney also announced a “housing summit” on Oct. 31 where representatives from various housing agencies and city leaders would work to develop a plan that includes a dedicated funding source for
the redevelopment of public housing, he said.
“The respectful redevelopment of public housing is not the only topic of this summit, but it will be the priority,” Stoney said.
Former Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ administration advanced a plan to overhaul public housing in the city, beginning with Creighton Court in the East End.
Leaders had hoped the Creighton project would win a $30 million fed- eral grant to jumpstart construction on a new mixed-income housing community it had promised residents of the neighborhood.
Burton and the other community advocates outside RRHA headquarters Thursday, such as Lillie A. Estes, of ALO Community Strategy Consulting and a Gilpin resident, criticized such housing strategies as the one officials were pushing in Creighton as “land-grabbing,” saying it would lead to the further gentrification of historically black neighborhoods.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development passed over the Creighton project last September. Without the grant, RRHA is facing a decade-long construction, demolition and relocation process, at least.
In the meantime, Burton and others are calling for greater state and federal oversight.
“In the absence of any concern by political leadership or management in this city, we are asking the state and federal governments to step in and save lives,” he said. “We are drowning here. We are dying here.”
Lynetta Thompson, a former president of the local NAACP branch, is among the community activists asking for the removal of T.K. Somanath as CEO of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Thompson spoke at a news conference Thursday outside the authority’s headquarters.