Last Thursday at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Jackson Ward, Pastor Tyrone E. Nelson had attendants bow their heads and pray. The room was full but not with his regular congregation. This was the third annual forum for public housing tenants and their allies to air their grievances, led by the organization Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions or RePHRAME.
Pastor Tyrone E. Nelson
RePHRAME member Vanessa Valentine
Helen Frye and other audience members
RRHA CEO Anthony Scott
Councilman Marty Jewell
Photos by John Garcia.
This time last year, RePHRAME held their meeting across town in Faye Towers in Gilpin Court. Their hope was to establish a bill of rights the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority or RRHA would agree to. The list included one-to-one replacement of any units torn down by RRHA and the right to return to a housing project once it was completed, without reapplying. No one from the RRHA attended last years meeting. A fact Councilman Marty Jewell described that night as “very telling”, he said RRHA was “doing the least they could do to get by.” But RRHA’s CEO Scott Anthony said he set up a meeting with RePHRAME afterwards.
After a couple meetings, they met in the middle and established a bill of rights. RRHA sent it to the Richmond Tenants Organization to be approved. Scott said they included a coverletter, RePHRAME’s first draft and the final compromise.
“Because we didn’t want the RTO to see just the version we talked through, we wanted them to see the version RePHRAME originally presented because they may actually have agreed on RePHRAME’s version rather than what we agreed to, so again, I’m trying to be as transparent as possible," Scott said.
But he said RePHRAME thought the inclusion of the original was misleading.
“Which was not the case nor the intent," Scott said. "But I think that’s where we got on a bad start and we haven’t really talked directly again since then.”
At the meeting last week, RePHRAME member Vanessa Valentine said they were moving on to two new issues for now. She said evictions of Gilpin Court that seemed imminent last year, she has since learned would probably take about ten years. She said she had other concerns, rent payment and representation.
“What I’m worried about now is paying that five dollar late fee, having that management office have respect for me as a resident," Valentine said. "And just because I’m a poor person doesn’t mean I don’t deserve respect. I want my voice to be heard about all the issues that affect all the residents.”
Public housing residents have to send their rent to Baltimore. There is no way to paying locally. And Cora Hayes of RePHRAME said even if rent is sent out with plenty of time, sometimes it still doesn’t make it through the postal service and couriers and into the system on time.
“We have incurred a lot of late payments, not due to us paying our rent on time but due to situations that we have no control of," Hayes said.
Scott said RRHA had already begun working on the issue when RePHRAME brought it up at a board meeting in April.
“We don’t have a problem with the local rent option, we just weren’t ready for it yet and we didn’t want to launch into it prematurely," Scott said. "So when we do do it, we do it well and we do it right.”
He said their demand did make RRHA ramp up the process a bit. RePHRAME members were told recently it was possible they could pay rent locally as soon as November.
“We are here tonight to make that possibility a concrete action,” Valentine said.
But rent payment wasn’t their only issue Thursday night. They wanted more seats on RRHA’s board of commissioners. The board makes decisions about rent increases and approves RRHA’s five year plan and plans for improvement of units. Right now, only one out of seven is reserved for a tenant of public housing.
Hayes said this wasn’t fair representation.
“Having only one seat on the board does not give residents enough voice on issues that impact their lives,” she said.
Councilman Jewell was the only City Council member at the meeting on Thursday. He said expanding the board is long overdue.
“It is hard for low income people to buck or go against that majority who has no clue about their issues or concerns,” said Councilman Jewell.
He said two or more members would relieve the pressure of being the lone low income person on the board.
“And provides an opportunity to keep an eye on the other guy, not to sell out the interests of public housing tenants,” he said.
Councilman Jewell said Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille was drafting a proposal to add two more members to the board. He said he would take a look at the language and most likely co-patron it.
“I don’t think there’s any real opposition on the board against expanding the board to nine people. It makes sense,” said Councilman Jewell.
Valentine ended the night with a call to action. She said things could change but they had to rally their communities.
And for one public housing resident, who had never attended a RePHRAME meeting before, Valentine’s appeal worked.
“We are going to call a meeting of our tenant council and try to get all the tenants, if not we are going to knock door to door to make sure everybody knows what we learned today,” said Helen Frye.
And Scott said RRHA will listen to their issues.
“It’s not like we’re saying we aren’t interested in helping our public housing residents. If they have and idea that is legitimate and makes sense, we are listening to it, just like we would listen to anyone else," he said. "So I’m not saying we aren’t working together and we may not always agree but I think that in the end of the day when we see ideas or issues that we can agree on than we try to make that happen.”
And tensions seemed to have subsided between the grassroots organizers and the authority that often determines their fate. After the meeting, Hayes gave Scott a hug and joked saying he wasn’t so bad. She assured onlookers they were working together.