The Public Housing and Education Debate – Who, Exactly, are the Racists?

Norfolk public housing immediately adjacent to old Virginian-Pilot building

by James C. Sherlock

There is agreement on both sides of the political divide in Virginia and the rest of the country that public housing projects were and are hellholes.

I have written that the bipartisan response, vouchers, run into lack of supply virtually everywhere.

Cue the debate about causes and solutions.

Let’s take a look at the evidence.

A new start. Let’s talk about a major new project meant to address the supply issue.

Norfolk is redeveloping three dreadful, crime-plagued projects in the downtown St. Pauls area. Some of our readers are the kinds of people who will read every page on that site, and I encourage others to do it. A snapshot (emphasis added):

Within the roughly 200 acres east of downtown Norfolk are three public housing communities, Calvert Square, Tidewater Gardens and Young Terrace. There are approximately 4500 residents of which 2200 are children, living in 1700 units. Residents want change, and have participated in multiple community meetings where they envision a new neighborhood with mixed-income housing, parks, retail and other amenities. The City of Norfolk and NRHA are committed to ensuring that throughout this transformation process, people always come first.

It really does sound like the right thing to do. I very much hope it works.

But as I said, we start with the fact that those three projects are crime-ridden hellholes.

You will notice there is no word on the St. Pauls project website on how the criminals will be filtered out of the “transformation.” In fact, when I read every page of that website, my word search feature never found the words “safe” or “crime” or “criminal.” They don’t mention cleaning up the spent brass as part of the transformation.

It’s as if by ignoring the elephant in the room, it won’t be there. How many middle-income families are going to stay in these “mixed-income communities” when the bullets resume flying?

Good schools with disciplined learning environments and “broken windows” law enforcement must accompany any real “transformation,” or the new communities will be the old communities with better views. There is no plan that I can ascertain to provide those necessities.

But, in a bit of good news, Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, will sell the residents pot from her stores. Maybe that will help calm things down.

Supply of Housing. As for the need for more public housing, it is there and I have brought it to light in this space.

To fix the supply problem with public support, authorities will first need to investigate and report on things like:

  • How many people are living in projects or voucher housing that no longer qualify to be there?
  • How many are dealing drugs from that housing?
  • How many now make too much money to qualify?
  • How regularly and thoroughly are physical inspections of the properties conducted?

In short, where is the follow-up after the original housing application is filed? That needs to be done and reported to improve public confidence in the program. That said, I assume, but do not know, that there would still be more demand than supply.

The next step indicated is an investigation of zoning impediments to creation — either new-build or renovated — of low cost housing. They will vary city to city. Those barriers, erected largely by minority-led city governments, must be eliminated.

Then there is inflation. Certainly the costs of building and rehabilitation materials and labor have crushed return on investment calculations in the last couple of years. The costs of existing housing have experienced even worse inflation over a longer period of time.

There is certainly no programmatic fix for inflation other than money.

The unanswered question is whether massively increasing the values of vouchers — throwing money at the problem — will actually increase supply in the face of current zoning restrictions. It is hard to see how. Rent controls? Proven to lower investment and supply.

So, I really don’t have an answer to what will work to provide more long-term housing for poor people other than zoning changes accompanied by money.

But I am sure we must have, over time, fewer people who need long-term public housing.

Schools. I do know how to reduce the demand over time. Better schools. Which start with lowering chronic absenteeism and offering disciplined learning environments.

Chronic Absenteeism.  Virginia Code and regulations already offer the solutions. But laying off truancy staff as they did in Richmond raises a middle finger to those laws.

In 2019 Richmond laid off more than half of its attendance staff and hired a Director of Equity. Halfway through the school year, in early February of 2020 (before the pandemic), 17.5% of Richmond public school kids — roughly 4,400 children– were chronically absent. Accountability? None.

Take Portsmouth and next-door Chesapeake. The city boundaries separate the same minority communities exactly like the Richmond-Henrico boundaries. A clear, definitive difference is that Chesapeake strictly enforces school attendance, whereas Portsmouth does not. Chesapeake takes parents/caregivers to J&D court every time it is indicated by chronic absenteeism. Portsmouth virtually never does.

Guess what?

These kids are cousins. Kids in the same extended families go to school in Chesapeake and wander the streets in Portsmouth. Doesn’t take a math major to figure out how that will work out for the next generation.

It doesn’t take a degree in education to enforce the truancy laws

Teaching and Learning Environments. Schools can get control of the in-school teaching environments with the evidence-based techniques offered by the federal study Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom. I cannot find a single reference on the VDOE website to this 2008 work by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) .

For example, from Virginia’s 2011 Teacher Uniform Performance Standards:  Standard 5: Learning Environment (page 50), poses a lot of questions but provides no answers. Page 64, Standard 5 Learning Environment, contains no hint of the evidence-based techniques offered by the IES report published three years earlier.

Then we reach the progressive renaissance at VDOE and the November 2021 Guidance on Cultural Competency Training for Teachers. Go to Domain III: Culturally Competent Learning Environments

In this domain, the goal is to foster inclusive excellence that impacts all learning environments. Therefore, to achieve this, culturally competent educators analyze policies, procedures, and programs that prevent or limit access and opportunity for students and staff and align resources to increase achievement for all, without lowering standards for any student.

The solution:

Create safe, and culturally affirming learning environments where all dimensions of diversity are respected and all students are held to high expectations.

Got it?

Then there is the VDOE webpage on student conduct. See there the infamous 2021 Model Guidance for Positive, Preventative Code of Student Conduct Policy and Alternatives to Suspension

Teachers are responsible for establishing and maintaining a safe, supportive environment that is developmentally and culturally responsive and promotes student academic, behavior and social-emotional development.

Developing positive relationships with students that are built on mutual trust and respect have been shown to demonstrate some of the highest positive effects on student achievement and behavior. Developing relationships requires “specific skills of the teacher such as the skills of listening, empathy, caring and having a positive regard for others.”

Thanks. Teachers will undoubtedly work on whatever those guidelines mean in practice. I’m absolutely sure the DEI staffs will be more specific.

School boards are reminded that

Involving police in school discipline undermines positive school climate and student attendance and achievement.

No word which students may not attend if SROs are present. No word either on which students will only attend if SROs are present.


What would progressives do about low-income housing? Readers know that progressives, without asking themselves why it took a conservative to create this series of stories and headlines on public housing, will offer a solution to the need for more housing assistance: more money and rent controls.

I would likely support more money under the conditions I laid out above under Supply of Housing. But those conditions are not likely to be considered, much less acted on.

Progressives consider personal agency — crime in the projects and school attendance and conduct- – to be out of bounds for public discourse. Truancy laws are widely denounced as racist along with school discipline laws. Restorative justice is the theme. The only victims they see are the criminals.

But they will never choose to live in the “mixed income” communities like St. Pauls and send their children to play and to school with un-policed gang-bangers.

So who, exactly, are the racists?