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by Caroline Jackson
The Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions or RePHRAME met Tuesday, September 15th to inform the community about what they want when the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, RRHA, begins renovation of Gilpin Court. According to a Times Dispatch article from February, the new plans would decrease the number of subsidized housing units but RRHA said no one would lose housing because of the project. The members of RePHRAME are asking that before RRHA begins tearing down housing, they have a plan to replace each unit they tear down with another, allow current tenants to return without having to re-qualify and they want to have a say in decision making, planning and policy within RRHA. RePHRAME has met with every council member and the mayor in the last year but until the meeting last Tuesday, RRHA hadn’t set a date to meet with them.
A member of RePHRAME and Gilpin Court resident Lily Estes said, "We need total community healing and that cannot happen if one sector of the community is repeatedly left out of the planning, building and prosperity."
They also want to have responsible management in public housing buildings now and in the future. Many speakers at Tuesday’s meeting shared stories of being treated poorly by housing staff and they were met with rousing agreement from the audience.
"There is sense that because we are residents of public housing we do not deserve respect. However, regardless to what your situation in life is, you should never lose value as a person," said Ceonna Johnson of RePHRAME.
Councilman Marty Jewell attended the meeting along with five other council members and the mayor. He said he was impressed by how RePHRAME has pulled this disenfranchised community together.
"I'm very impressed by that coalition because it has certainly emboldened the residents to stand up about issues of concern to them," Councilman Jewell said.
Councilman Jewell has a long history of standing up for housing project residents in Richmond. He was an advocate in Blackwell for 4 ½ years when they tore down housing projects in order to deconcentrate poverty. Councilman Jewell said Blackwell turned out to be the nation’s poster boy for what not to do.
"Sadly they were lied to over and over again, saying they would be brought back into the facility, that they would be supported and help would be on the way for training, for employment, good paying jobs and none of that happened," he said.
No representatives from RRHA were at the meeting. A fact that Councilman Jewell said is “very telling”. He described them as doing the least they can do to get by.
I was initially contacted by someone from RRHA but they did not call me back to answer my questions by the time this story was submitted.
Councilman Jewell admitted he has had tension with RRHA in the past both as an advocate and a councilman.
At RePHRAME’s meeting he said: "They can't shoot straight, they don't tell the truth. Now, I think the mayor's right, we don't have any enemies. And I'm not portraying RRHA as an enemy. But they're doing things that an enemy would do."
At the end of the meeting last Tuesday Councilman Marty Jewell declared that he was ready to write up a resolution with whoever was willing the next morning at 9:30am.
"Meet me downtown 9:30 tomorrow morning. I will draw up a resolution, I challenge my colleagues to vote for it when it comes up, I challenge every one of you..."
None of the five council members in the room stood up to join him in support when asked that night. But Councilman Jewell says two approached him afterwards to say they feel the same way he does. And two members of RePHRAME met with him on Wednesday to discuss what they want to do going forward.
Since the meeting, RePHRAME member Ceonna Johnson said the executive director of RRHA Anthony Scott has confirmed a meeting with RePHRAME at the end of this month. Johnson hopes this will set the two groups up to start working together to make a balanced community she said has been possible in Alexandria, Virginia and D.C.
"We are not against change but we are against mistreatment and hopefully we can come together and accomplish the changes that need to be made for the benefit of the residents," said Johnson.