Jones’s Bet on Mixed-Income Housing

The Church Hill North vision of mixed-income housingCan Church Hill North break Richmond’s cycle of poverty?by James A. Bacon

Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones most likely will be remembered for boondoggles like the Washington Redskins stadium and fiascoes like the proposed Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium. But he should be recognized, too, for a mixed-income redevelopment project in the city’s poverty-stricken east end that has garnered too little attention: Church Hill North.

A crowd of city officials, community supporters and alumni gathered at the 22-acre site of the old Armstrong High School Monday to mark the start of construction on a 256-unit affordable housing complex. Years in the making, Church Hill North represents a marked departure from dismal, cookie-cutter public housing projects like the nearby Creighton Court, which became synonymous with poverty, squalor and crime.

Instead of concentrating poverty, the idea is to dilute it by planning a mix of poor, working- and middle-class homeowners in a community of diverse housing types. Rather than construct cookie-cutter buildings like those found in “the projects,” Church Hill North will provide a diversity of housing types — one-story bungalows, single-family dwellings, duplexes, townhomes, three-story stacked flats and three-story apartment buildings for seniors. Units are expected to sell in the $150,000 to $170,000 range.

The $100 million development, which is expected to take between eight and 10 years to complete, will include a 20,000-square-foot community center, a memorial garden, and 1.2 acres of public space and playgrounds. One hundred and twenty-eight units will replace public housing for residents of Creighton Court.

In his remarks yesterday, as recorded by Richmond BizSense, Jones emphasized the anti-poverty aspects of the project. For the good of the poor, the community, and economic development, public housing projects need to go. “It would benefit businesses to eradicate poverty,” he said. “When our poverty is eradicated, our ratings on Wall Street go up. A good quality of life is in the best interest of business.”

Jones praised the public-private partnership model used to execute the project. Community Builders, a non-profit organization specializing in affordable housing, is the developer. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority is backing the project financially. The state’s Vibrant Community Initiative will chip in $2.5 million to expand the availability of affordable rentals.

Bacon’s bottom line: I question the sociological premise underlying the project that nicer dwellings and mixed-income housing will eradicate poverty. But after eighty years of failed public housing initiatives across the country, I suppose it’s worth one more try.

There is a consensus across the U.S. ideological spectrum that the housing projects of the post-World War II era were a catastrophic failure. Concentrating poverty geographically created cesspools of crime and social dysfunction. The idea behind Church Hill North is to make a neighborhood that works for people of all incomes. Living in decent accommodations amidst middle-class neighbors, from whom they will absorb middle-class norms, will create more uplifting conditions and reverse the vicious cycle of poverty.

I certainly hope that happens, but I’m not holding my breath. I expect one of two things will occur to Church Hill North. Either the neighborhood will become such a desirable place to live that the middle class will displace the poor over time, or, once the shiny newness of the houses wear off, the presence of a hundred poor families will drive property values down and the middle class will depart. The prospect of middle-class homeowners acculturating the poor in their midst to bourgeois behavior seems remote.

In my observation, people of different socio-economic backgrounds have different tolerances for crime, vandalism, noise, and obstreperous public behavior. (This has nothing to do with race, by the way. Read “Hillbilly Elegy,” if you think it does.) Those behaviors are more the result of social breakdown than material deprivation. Slums don’t create poor people; poor people create slums, and they drive away people who find their behavior objectionable.

But I might be wrong. It won’t be the first time. Let’s make every effort to get Church Hill North right. Whether it’s a success or failure or something in between, hopefully we can learn from the experience.

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One response to “Jones’s Bet on Mixed-Income Housing”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think when neighborhoods stratify according to income demographics – bad things happen and especially so with schools.

    we need a variety of mixed housing stock including with regard to income.

    In Henrico county – the school system has some of the best schools in Virginia – at the same time they have several that are so bad that they have failed to be accredited. Same thing with Chesterfield.

    Wake County, NC which includes the Raleigh area and one of the biggest school systems in the country – actually buses kids – not according to race but to get a mixture of income demographics … controversial … but they score better than other schools – even the minorities.

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