Southside Richmond neighborhood undergoes more than a decade worth of change
By Erika Wells
Blackwell, a historic city south of downtown Richmond known for its strong sense of community, is barely recognizable after experiencing a makeover.
The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) and the City of Richmond received a HOPE VI grant in the amount of $26.9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to modernize the urban area.
Blackwell, once part of the former city of Manchester, was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Richmond. The area was plagued with crimes such as drug trafficking, gang violence and illegal gun trade.
Removing the blight and deterioration improved the quality of life in Blackwell, said Dexter Goode, senior project manager for the HOPE VI program at the RRHA, which provides housing for low- and moderate-income families, the elderly and the disabled with affordable housing in Richmond.
“There’s no neighborhood that is crime-free,” Goode said. “But this project has drastically reduced the crime in the Blackwell area, which also had a very big impact on surrounding communities.”
Lt. John Beasley worked in Blackwell in 1994 when he joined the City of Richmond Police Department. At the time, violent crime was prevalent in the area. For the last 8 years, Beasley worked on a different assignment out of police patrol until being reassigned to Blackwell in 2010. Listen to learn about changes Beasley witnessed in crime trends in Blackwell. (Crime data was not available at the time of interview.)
Rebuilding Blackwell, funding change
HOPE VI is a major revitalization program under HUD that Congress created in 1993 to transform public housing conditions in communities such as Blackwell, the RRHA’s first HOPE VI project location. (HOPE VI is an acronym for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.)
In 1998, HUD awarded the grant to the RRHA, which began rebuilding in 2001. The authority purchased some property and demolished public housing units in Blackwell to make space for new privately- and publicly-owned homes.
The authority has helped everyone in the 440 public housing units find alternative housing such as apartments, homes or other public housing developments, Goode said.
“There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the program,” Goode said. “We did not throw folks in the streets. We made sure everyone had suitable housing. We paid for relocation, and made training programs available. We did a host of things when the project first started to help people become self-sufficient.”
The agency built the Townes at River South Apartments, which has 161 multi-family apartment units, for residents to relocate as part of the first phase of the HOPE VI program. Seventy-five of the units were set aside for “specific public housing use,” Goode said
Next, the single family home ownership phase, which is the current phase, was originally one large phase in Blackwell. However, after delays and “internal reasons,” the RRHA split it into eight parts, Goode said.
Seven of the phases actually involve construction done by the RRHA’s developing partners. Three of the phases are complete, and the RRHA is completing another three phases.
Another phase is the down payment assistance phase, which strictly deals with the distribution of funds to go toward the purchase of a home for people who qualify.
The RRHA has worked with other agencies, such as the Southside Community Development & Housing Corporation (SCDHC), a nonprofit community development corporation near Blackwell that provides various types of affordable housing across the state of Virginia. The SCDHC helped educate residents on the down payment assistance process.
“It is so important for people have some type of asset,” said Diana Herndon, executive director of SCDHC. “I would like to empower people who are not wealthy – especially middle- to low-income people because everyone that wants a home can buy a home.”
In total, 188 homes will be built in the Blackwell community as part of the HOPE VI program. Currently, 41 homes have been built in which homeowners reside, said Felicia McLemore, public relations and marketing manager for the RRHA.
The three- and four-bedroom homes offer modern amenities, and all of the homes have energy efficiency systems that moderate temperatures year-round.
“The homes are holding up just fine,” Goode said. “Because they’re affordable houses does not mean that there are short cuts in the construction process. These homes are built to withstand the test of time, and some homes far exceed some of the regular construction processes.”
Additionally, four of the projected 106 systems-built, or factory-constructed, homes have been brought into the area. These types of houses do not cost less, but they have shorter construction times and are built with higher standards since they go through more inspections than typical homes.
The Goose Creek Subdivision and the Townes at River South, two Richmond Redevelopment and Housing (RRHA) areas in Blackwell, were stops on the Affordable Housing Bus Tours as part of Affordable Housing Awareness Week, which takes place in late April each year. This is one of many events in which people got a behind-the-scenes look at what non-profit groups are doing in the area. Another event that kicked off the week was a symposium on mixed income at the University of Richmond. Listen to Channy Franko, housing director for the Partnership for Housing Affordability Housing, describe the week’s events. More than 500 corporate and community volunteers worked over six days on projects such as landscaping, painting, building and maintenance.
Take a tour of the Blackwell area on Google Maps.
Room for improvement
Initially, HOPE VI was a positive way to revitalize public housing, but the way the project has been implemented has negatively affected residents, said Sabrina L. Williams, executive director of Home & Community, Inc., the now California-based organization that was founded in Washington, DC to change housing policy and provide resources for low-income residents to improve their communities.
In the early 2000s, Williams worked with public housing residents in Virginia and Washington DC who protested HOPE VI in the nation’s capitol. Eventually, they got the opportunity to write part of the legislation for the Resident Opportunities and Self Sufficiency (ROSS) program, which provides public housing residents with resources about their communities.
“It was amazing but over time people got scattered and the powers that be – primarily the housing authorities that were very organized and had money and lobbyists – are the ones that stayed together,” Williams said. “The really sad thing about HOPE VI is that it had this potential for resident involvement until everything broke down on the residents’ side.”
When applying for HOPE VI funding, public housing authorities allowed conditions to deteriorate while residents occupied the housing, and once authorities received money to rebuild, residents were quickly displaced, Williams said.
“Over time, this has become a really bad deal for the majority of residents because there is no one-for-one replacement,” Williams said. “People aren’t getting back into their homes or neighborhoods.”
Under the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, Congress repealed a policy that required each demolished unit be replaced during redevelopment, an action that was separate from implementation of the HOPE VI project.
“In many cases, aesthetically, the new housing does not compare to the rest of the neighborhood,” Williams said. “The housing authorities may put up a brand new ‘row of boxes’ that adds nothing to the character of the neighborhood.”
Public housing authorities and developers focus on profiting rather than completely addressing the social needs of the community, Williams said.
“They rather have a ‘mixed-income community’ – and I use that term loosely – than a majority of low-income residents, who lived in those places before,” Williams said. “A lot of the new housing is larger and more expensive, so I think that it’s all about money. You can demolish housing but what you’re also demolishing is community relationships.”
Williams suggests that public housing authorities replace the old units with the same type of housing that would be affordable to the people with the lowest income, and give those residents that had their homes demolished first choice of the new homes.
“Then, authorities should do a sliding scale for other lower income people as they go below the median income,” Williams said. “There shouldn’t be any market rate in a HOPE 6 development because that’s not what was there before.”
Additionally, housing authorities should offer practical support services such as recovery or training programs, and provide essentials such as grocery stores to help residents become self-sufficient, Williams said.
“I would like to see housing opportunities for everyone as well as whole-community solutions,” said Williams. “Having opportunity for community exchange is how poorer communities thrive. They organize around issues so they can get things done. But when you scatter people or just re-segregate them with no opportunities, we all know what happens.”
The Blackwell Community Center was built in 1999 as part of the HOPE VI project, which was implemented by the Richmond Development & Housing Authority (RRHA). Located in the heart of Blackwell, the center includes a computer lab, gymnasium, kitchen, meeting room, multipurpose room and games area. In addition, the center offers recreation and other activities for the family. Watch as the center supervisor, Glynes Cheatham, shares information about “The Fun Club,” an after-school program that she has coordinated for more than a decade.
Buying a home in Blackwell
The economic downturn has affected the number of potential buyers because an increase in home foreclosure has created more options for home buyers in surrounding areas.
“People do not necessarily have to come to Blackwell,” Goode said. “People are looking for deals, but HOPE VI’s financial assistance allows for the best deal in town. The subsidy option that HOPE VI make available for people to buy homes is one of the biggest parts of the project.”
Homes are available with prices ranging from about $160,000 to $188,000 with down payment assistance available for buyers that qualify, based on factors such as income and household size. However, the buyer must live in the house for five years before selling or they must pay a prorated fee.
The RRHA pays closing costs and there is soft second mortgage funding available for all homes. A soft second is the amount that RRHA provides to the buyer in addition to the down payment toward the mortgage, which decreases monthly payments. Some people may also qualify for instant equity.
The housing authority has been dedicated to helping residents purchase homes through HOPE VI, Goode said. Former residents have first choice in homes in the Blackwell and other areas in the city funded by HOPE VI.
“It is quite rewarding to see people actually getting homes who may not otherwise have the opportunity,” Goode said. “The program makes that dream come true for them.”
In addition, the federal government may transform the HOPE VI program to make grants available to organizations other than public housing authorities, Goode said.
Watch as Shirley Adams, a former Blackwell resident discusses how the HOPE VI project may restore the community. Adams lived in an apartment in the scattered-sites public housing between Boston Ave. & Chicago Ave. on 15th St. in Blackwell in 1971. Adams worked on the advisory committee for the local tenant association.
The next steps for Blackwell and HOPE VI
There has been positive response from the community since construction started, Goode said.
“People are pleased because this project helps property values,” Goode said. “Also, the neighborhood was torn apart by crime as well as years of vacancy due to demolition. Now, citizens have a sense of community since the neighborhood is coming back together.”
Additionally, the RRHA has encouraged other property and business owners to renovate and rebuild, said McLemore.
In the future, the agency plans to do landscaping and add features such as decorative street lights, benches and brick walkways once the single-family development phase is complete.
Also, a courthouse expansion project, low rent and partnerships with the RRHA allow business owners to expand.
“I hope more and more businesses come to support the area because it still lacks a grocery store, other retail and more restaurants in walking distance,” Goode said. “Everyone is working to make the Hull St. corridor and Blackwell vivacious areas again, so you’ll see it pick up even more.”