Fresh Thinking from Richmond’s New Public Housing Chief

RDHA chief Damon Duncan. Photo credit: Style Weekly

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has a new chief executive, Damon Duncan, who led a housing authority in the Chicago suburbs before taking on his new role in March. He has a tough job. The public housing stock has been deteriorating — units have outlived their useful life by 10 to 15 years at least, he says. And Richmond housing projects are beset by crime, much of it committed by outsiders. Between the maintenance backlogs and the high crime rates, public housing in Richmond is a scandal.

In a Style Weekly profile, Duncan comes across as energetic and willing to challenge the status quo. What impresses me most is that he’s talking about making changes that will surely ruffle feathers in the poverty-industrial complex. To receive subsidized housing, he says, residents will have to work or enroll in education or training programs. Writes Style:

“One thing we didn’t talk about, but we’ll talk about at a later time, is the level of accountability that we’re expecting from the residents in the way of participation with human services programs,” Duncan says, explaining that the agency will move toward requiring able-bodied heads of households to work or enroll in education or training programs to receive public housing assistance or Section 8 vouchers.

“There are some things that we’re going to start to make policy that may be controversial with some of the advocates and some of the other folks,” he says. “But I believe, having worked on the supportive side and the development side, that a lot of these forces help to keep conditions the same.”

This is an interesting development. A less incurious media might ask some follow-up questions:

  • What exactly are the work/education/training requirements for able-bodied heads of household?
  • How scrupulously have those requirements been enforced?
  • How many able-bodied adults are benefiting from subsidized rents, and what percentage is participating in the workforce programs?
  • Do the programs work? How many participants eventually find work that allow them to move out of the projects?

Put another way, do Richmond’s public housing programs promote upward social mobility or do they create a poverty trap?

The other question I’d really like to see Duncan address is this: Why does it cost $200,000 per apartment unit in the Richmond region to build affordable housing? In Richmond, the housing authority already owns the land, so that’s a freebie. What makes re-development so incredibly expensive? Is it federal regulations? State and local regulations? Minimum square-footage requirements? Mind-numbing bureaucracy and administrative overhead? Greedy private-sector developers? All of the above? Getting answers would seem fundamental to any rational discussion of how best to provide decent housing for the poor.

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11 responses to “Fresh Thinking from Richmond’s New Public Housing Chief”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    totally sign on to the idea that these folks should work and to include the idea that “able- bodied” means different types of tasks and some suited to those who are less than 100% able-bodied like we see with Goodwill Industries.

    There are all kinds of “work” that folks are capable of doing – some of it in their homes. The concept of “work” restores dignity to many.

    But keep in mind that a good number of such folks may not be capable or amenable to a “good job” and that’s why they are not employed in the private sector to start with. Yes, you can PAY someone to ride herd on folks but in the end, some of them are just not good candidates for “work”.

    I’m no fan of the $200,000 (or any other price) for complexes for low-income folks – concentrating folks of that economic circumstance actually makes it worse.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    One of the frequent obstacles to persons getting subsidized housing or other benefits being required to work is child care. Who is going to take care of the children while the mother/father work or attend training? Of course, the irony is that research has shown that children usually fare better (are happier, better developed, etc.) when cared for by parents, assuming that the parents are not dysfunctional.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Why not try to set up a coop in the city-run community? It could start small with child care. It would offer work experience as well as providing child care. And best yet, within the parameters required by the city, running a coop can empower people to take control over their lives.

      1. spencer Avatar

        I’ve often wondered why public housing wasn’t more like a commune. The people that live in public housing can supply their own daycare and eldercare, lawn care and maintenance on the buildings can be done by the residents. They can cook for and feed the most vulnerable amongst them.

        Train and pay the residents to help them become self sufficient. A few would go on to become electricians, plumbers, gardeners, child care providers. You should be able to learn a trade while making public housing sustainable with the goal of getting out.

        My mother was in a subsidized apartment for seniors in Newport News (lived there for about 9 years). The apartments were garden style with small flowerbeds that residents could plant how they saw fit… unless they saw fit to plant vegetables. Planting actual food was against the rules. Poor seniors in subsidized housing weren’t allowed to grow their own food. Many tried over the years, all pepper, squash and tomato plants were removed by the complex. Gladiolas, geraniums, lantana were all fine.

        I drive through Mosby and Gilpin Courts pretty much daily. There are no community gardens. That seems like such a missed opportunity to help people supplement their groceries while connecting them to their home. I’m not so delusional to believe that the gardens would be a huge success, enjoyed by most residents. But it could make a positive impact on some of the residents and wouldn’t require much investment. Hopefully folks with more on the ball than myself are reaching out to community garden groups, like Tricycle Gardens here in Richmond, in hopes of bringing gardening to public housing. If it has been tried but failed in the past, try it again.

        1. Remarkable: Residents of public housing projects are forbidden from growing their own vegetable gardens? What kind of folly is that? Why aren’t they encouraged to display initiative and grow their own food?

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          I agree with Spencer and TMT. The basic problem for any of this though is taking folks who may not be suitable to do that work who have to be trained and supervised so how do you do that without more money?

          that’s the problem.

          gardens require tools, plants, seeds and diligence and many a ‘group” garden – subsidized and not – just fail because people
          won’t do what is right – which is giving work to get rewards – they won’t work then they’ll take the veggies when no one is looking.

          Again, unless you have some kind of supervision to keep the scofflaws from ruining it for others.

          Sad to say – there are those among us who will take things if they think they can …. not about rich or poor… we just like to point to the poor.

          1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Fire some of the City’s administrative staff and use the money to assist in the formation of resident coops.

      2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I hope the new public housing director is monitoring this blog for some of the good ideas set out here.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    The new The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority chief executive, Damon Duncan, appears quite well suited for his new job. His appointment is encouraging news suggesting that Richmond’s public housing has turned a corner and now is headed in a far more fruitful direction.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    yeah, I don’t think one guy with “ideas” is going to change much – at least right away unless he can find a way to implement some of his ideas within the existing framework – or advocate for reforms, etc..

    But basically – you cannot concentrate people in poverty into “projects” without it breeding further problems. We KNOW THIS from EXPERIENCE! People of lower economic circumstances are much better off mixing with others in terms of housing and schools – to see and know what “normal” is and understand the difference from dysfunctional.

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