'This feels like a shakedown:' Frustrations intensify over Richmond public housing evictions

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Posted at 6:04 PM, Apr 16, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-16 18:04:35-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- A multitude of human services issues took the spotlight at Richmond City Hall Thursday, as citizens voiced concerns over families in public housing communities at risk of losing their homes.

It comes at a time when the city's homeless shelter is reducing capacity for the season.

“I think what’s about to happen is just a giant mess. It’s a human mess for [the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority] to evict all of these families," Brian Bills told a city council committee last week. "And that mess is going to redound on the Richmond Public Schools, where there's going to be students who are homeless. It's going to affect the shelter system. It's going to affect all of these services that Richmond City runs."

“I’m getting calls all day long of people being evicted and have been evicted. Right before I got here, I had a man with children living in a truck," said homeless advocate Rhonda Sneed.

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Rhonda Sneed

According to data from the sheriff's office, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) had nine evictions on the schedule for April 16 and four evictions scheduled for April 17.

Over the past month, RRHA has taken more than 130 families to court, according to advocates with the Legal Aid Justice Center who monitor eviction dockets.

At least 58 residents received judgments so far.

“Can we save everyone? No, we’re not going to save everyone," RRHA CEO Steven Nesmith told city councilmembers. "We understand that life brings us hard times. Life happens. At RRHA, we have been empathetic. For many years, we've more than bent over backward to help residents to avoid eviction, but we've done everything that we can."

RRHA said, as of March, that 1,300 residents had overdue rent of at least $51.

Nesmith said the housing authority is focusing on those with the largest balances, some that go into the tens of thousands. Not doing so would enable bad behavior, he previously said.

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Steven Nesmith

“The majority of our residents — they pay their rent. We’re dealing with that group, and yes I said it and I’ll say it again, who refuse to pay their rent because they can’t. Again, that's not our issue because we’re not the last resort for housing," Nesmith said.

Nesmith said the housing authority has a total of $3 million in delinquencies on the books, which he said were accumulated due to RRHA being "too compassionate."

“That is one of our goals— is to get that accounts receivable off our books as a result of being years and years of being too compassionate," Nesmith told councilmembers at a committee meeting on Thursday.

But Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch, who has previously referred to the $3 million figure as "budget fairy dust," disagreed.

“I don’t know that compassion is really how I would categorize RRHA," Lynch said. “This feels like a little bit of a shakedown. I feel that since we brought this to light, you have seen an opportunity to get your books cleared, and there is an expectation that the city is going to fork over the money to do that, and we're using family crisis funds to help assist some of these residents pay that rent."

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Stephanie Lynch

In response, Nesmith called Lynch's accusation "hearsay," adding, "so let's be very careful when you say what it seems."

Lynch cited stories that she's heard from RRHA residents, who she said are now at risk of eviction due to "no fault of their own" including:

  • A man is being charged $1,000 per month for rent despite losing his job and notifying RRHA that his income dropped to $0 almost a year ago. She said he was brought to eviction court and now owes more than $11,000 according to RRHA.
  • A woman with 7 kids who used to owe $50 a month in rent but was raised to $850 when her 18-year-old daughter got a job. She racked up more than $5,000 in late rent and was served a judgment.

Lynch said that RRHA's repayment plans, which require tenants to pay their current rent in addition to portions of their debt each month, are unsustainable for low-income families. The average family living in public housing makes about $12,000 annually, according to RRHA.

Lynch also claimed that RRHA is inaccurately calculating tenants' rents.

“I do believe that there are some discrepancies in the ledger and that the rent amounts that were being charged are not accurate commensurate to their income," Lynch said.

In response, Nesmith said he consistently trains his staff to ensure compliance with federal regulations pertaining to rent calculations but admitted to errors.

“We have a compliance officer that looks at how we calculate rent. Are we perfect? No. That's called human. Is there human error? Yeah," Nesmith said.

Additionally, Kenyatta Green, a senior vice president at RRHA, cautioned not to jump to conclusions that side with the residents.

"It is very easy to hear one side and just feel that that one side is correct. You can have a family who will say that [their] income is not calculated properly. But if you, with that family, are not communicating with the property management office and looking at the documents that we receive to calculate the income, then it's kind of difficult to determine that RRHA did not calculate properly," Green said.

Councilmember Cynthia Newbille again asked RRHA to temporarily halt evictions, and in the meantime, encouraged stakeholders to meet to come up with solutions to prevent families from becoming homeless.

“I know folks have gone to court and they have an eviction date, but you were going to check to make sure that we could press pause here until we can get our arms around that," Newbille said to Nesmith.

Nesmith concurred and promised to personally call every impacted family to let them know about the eviction pause.

In the short term, Lynch also asked RRHA to go through each eviction case with a "fine tooth comb" to ensure tenants were not charged an "inflated number that really and truly, they shouldn't be paying."

"That's the bigger concern here and a systemic problem and challenge that has existed within RRHA for quite some time," Lynch said.

Councilmembers are planning a joint committee meeting in the coming days to discuss more long-term solutions in preventing future evictions.

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