Leaders, residents need to rebuild relations
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.