Could Richmond finally get serious about its housing projects?

Posted at 12:07 AM, Apr 03, 2012
and last updated 2012-04-03 00:33:33-04

RICHMOND, Va (WTVR)- Seventy years ago, Richmond was finishing work on the vast Gilpin Court housing project in old Jackson Ward. It was the first of the city’s “slum clearance projects.”

The city still has six big housing projects, more than most cities in the East.

During last week’s budget summit, Mayor Jones spoke firmly about “the failed concept of concentrated poverty” while pledging to do something about it.

Forty, fifty and sixty years and seventy years ago, Richmond built these huge housing courts  for the poor; Gilpin, Hillside, Mosby. Creighton, Fairfield and Whitcomb. (Another city housing development, Blackwell, was largely demolished and re-developed five years ago.)

They were built mostly in out-of-the-way places, on the edges of the city, isolating and concentrating the poor as if they were criminals.

Initially, they housed the working poor. Husbands and wives, raising families. Now it’s virtually all women, single mothers with children and grandchildren.

“It’s turned into somewhat of a cyclical, generational kind of homeplace,” Mayor Jones told the crowd gathered to hear the mission of his budget.

Some of those residents are preyed upon by trespassing men. Perhaps the worst mass murder in Richmond was in  1994, when crack dealer Christopher “Pops”  Goins killed two adults, three children and a fetus, while wounding two other children  in Gilpin Court because he was mad a the juvenile girl he had impregnated.

The violence continues. Last year, 15 of the city’s 37 homicides happened in, or within  a block or two, of the projects.

It’s not just crime. This failed social experiment has hurt city schools and businesses. It’s the single biggest thing holding Richmond back.

Virtually every city – even Chicago and Washington DC - has recognized these places failed social experiments, poison for the people who live there, and for the surroundings areas. Atlanta and Norfolk have deconcentrated their poverty, building new mixed-income neighborhoods that have been proven to truly help those in need.

“The difference is so transformational,” the mayor told the crowd, “that one would wonder why we had not done this many, many years ago.”

Richmond hasn’t had the will to do the right thing for our poorest brothers and sisters. We continue to subsidize lives for children in neighborhoods that most of us wouldn’t dare to visit, largely because they are subsidized  by federal dollars.

We must do better. It’s an emergency situation, and has been for decades. Richmond’s housing authority is land and property rich. It could play a leading role in this transformation.

Reacting to questions from a reporter after his budget meeting, Mayor Jones acknowledged this will be a long journey.

“But we have to start,” he said. “A great journey starts with a first step, and the first step was putting money in this year’s budget that we can use for pre-development dollars, to leverage that with private dollars, tax credits, philanthropic dollars, the business community, to get it down. If it doesn’t start, it will never happen. We’re 10 years behind Norfolk.”

In 1942, when work was winding down on the city’s first housing project, a newspaper headline proclaimed, “Long ‘life’  expected for Gilpin Court.”

It has lived long past its promise, and people continue to die – and the city continues to suffer - because of it.