Lead­ers, res­i­dents need to re­build re­la­tions

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - METRO RTD - Michael Paul Williams mwilliams@Times­Dis­patch.com

In Rich­mond, these are the times that call for some­one’s head on a plat­ter.

Peo­ple are hurt, fright­ened and an­gry about what’s go­ing on. They’re im­pa­tient for an­swers and look­ing for some­one to blame.

Four peo­ple died early Sun­day in Gilpin Court, in­flict­ing an aw­ful new layer of trauma on Rich­mond’s pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dents. On Tues­day, a City Hall news con­fer­ence in­tended to an­nounce a path mov­ing for­ward be­came mired in con­flict. The re­stric­tion of the event to “cre­den­tialed me­dia”— be­fore it was ul­ti­mately re­laxed — alien­ated sev­eral ac­tivists who at­tended.

This dis­tress­ing week has folks in a mood to lash out. A few tar­gets came to mind:

We might start with the per­pe­tra­tors of Sun­day’s slay­ings, if only we knew who they were. But no ar­rests have been made.

You might ex­pect com­mu­nity ire to be di­rected at Po­lice Chief Al­fred Durham amid the wave of in­creased vi­o­lence. Or per­haps the res­i­dents of pub­lic hous­ing, who po­lice say aren’t co­op­er­at­ing. Or maybe even Mayor Le­var Stoney, in the af­ter­math of the afore­men­tioned news con­fer­ence and be­cause, well, he’s in charge.

But Thurs­day, about a half-dozen com­mu­nity ac­tivists as­sem­bled in front of Rich­mond Re­de­vel­op­ment and Hous­ing Author­ity head­quar­ters for a news con­fer­ence of their own. And they de­manded the res­ig­na­tion of T.K. So­manath.

“This is ... two years of con­tin­ued mur­der and slaugh­ter go­ing on in pub­lic hous­ing com­mu­ni­ties,

and for the mayor, the com­mon­wealth’s at­tor­ney and the RRHA head to come into a room and sug­gest that we’re go­ing to in­stall some light­ing and some cam­eras and is­sue some passes as a vi­able so­lu­tion to what we know is be­ing driven by a eco­nomic cri­sis in our com­mu­nity is un­ac­cept­able,” said ac­tivist Arthur Bur­ton.

Bur­ton cited a po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship that ha­bit­u­ally ex­cludes com­mu­nity voices. “The closed-cre­den­tial press con­fer­ence was just the most egre­gious ex­am­ple of a con­tin­u­a­tion of plan­ning and pub­lic poli­cies be­ing driven from the top down where we’re not given a voice.”

But the ac­tivists were at­tack­ing So­manath over trans­gres­sions dat­ing back a decade or longer, in­clud­ing the Hope VI re­de­vel­op­ment de­ba­cle in Black­well, which dis­placed a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of that pub­lic hous­ing com­mu­nity’s res­i­dents.

Bur­ton, for in­stance, cited “a longterm sys­temic dis­ease that is em­a­nat­ing out of this build­ing” and “ten years of mis­man­age­ment and mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion.”

So­manath, well-re­garded as the for­mer head of the Bet­ter Hous­ing Coali­tion, was lured out of re­tire­ment 2½ years ago to head the RRHA.

Not that So­manath’s RRHA stew­ard­ship has been per­fect, but no one should pre­tend the agency

he in­her­ited was in great shape. In­deed, the author­ity re­mains ham­strung by past short­com­ings that hin­der its ef­forts to move for­ward in rein­vent­ing pub­lic hous­ing in Rich­mond.

But if So­manath was be­ing pum­meled largely for the sins of his pre­de­ces­sors, he can also be a tad too blunt and de­tached for his own good.

Dur­ing an oc­ca­sion­ally edgy news con­fer­ence Tues­day, when asked by a re­porter what would hap­pen to the chil­dren of par­ents evicted for crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, he said “we have to en­force our lease” and that the fate of the chil­dren would be “up to the foster care sys­tems and the le­gal sys­tems.”

That’s not ex­actly a touchy-feely re­sponse. Asked Thurs­day if he re­gret­ted it, So­manath pretty much re­peated it.

You have to won­der why a guy would come out of re­tire­ment to head the RRHA. So­manath said Thurs­day that re­mov­ing the in­terim tag was es­sen­tial for him to lure the

em­ploy­ees needed to re­plen­ish and up­grade the author­ity’s staff.

It’s easy to see how he might be­come a tar­get. As a ful­crum of blight, poverty and vi­o­lent crime, the city’s pub­lic hous­ing em­bod­ies a Rich­mond we would like to forget ex­ists.

The rap sheet against RRHA dates back at least to the mis­be­got­ten scorchedearth de­mo­li­tion of Ful­ton in the 1970s, fol­lowed by a re­de­vel­op­ment so in­ept that frankly, it’s still a work in progress more than four decades later.

We can all ac­knowl­edge that the hous­ing project model is at best, out­moded, and at worst, a mis­take that never should have hap­pened in the first place. It hasn’t helped that the Department of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment as a fed­eral agency has his­tor­i­cally been buf­feted by mis­man­age­ment, cor­rup­tion, in­ad­e­quate fund­ing and politi­cians am­biva­lent about its very ex­is­tence.

But in Rich­mond, we’re stuck. There’s no im­medi- ate manna from heaven or Wash­ing­ton that will pro­vide the sort of pub­lic hous­ing fix we need.

Stoney’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is co­or­di­nat­ing a “hous­ing sum­mit” to be held Oct. 31 with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Bet­ter Hous­ing Coali­tion, the Rich­mond As­so­ci­a­tion of Re­al­tors and other hous­ing-fo­cused or­ga­ni­za­tions with the goal of draft­ing a “new plan for hous­ing in the city, “he said. That plan will in­clude “op­tions for a ded­i­cated fund­ing source for the re­de­vel­op­ment of pub­lic hous­ing.”

De­tails about a “crime sum­mit” to probe the root causes of vi­o­lence will be an­nounced at a later date.

If a city shows its true self in a time of cri­sis, our re­flec­tion in the mirror isn’t flat­ter­ing. We’re pulling apart at the very time we need to come to­gether. We’ve got to move be­yond grievance, fin­ger­point­ing, ex­clu­sion and de­fen­sive­ness.

Sys­temic prob­lems re­quire sys­temic so­lu­tions, in­clud­ing a change in a com­mu­nity cul­ture that’s far less trans­par­ent and in­clu­sive than it should be. We don’t have the lux­ury of ex­clud­ing any per­spec­tives.

These up­com­ing sum­mits must change our model for com­mu­nity en­gage­ment and prob­lem solv­ing. If they don’t, we can ex­pect more blam­ing, more sham­ing and more news con­fer­ences.


RRHA CEO T.K. So­manath ( left) spoke Tues­day along­side (from­left) Mayor Le­var Stoney, Po­lice ChiefAl­fred Durham and Com­mon­wealth’s At­tor­ney Michael N. Her­ring.

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