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?

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18 responses to “The Public Housing and Education Debate – Who, Exactly, are the Racists?”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “Let’s take a look at the evidence.”


    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I linked the evidence, Eric. You should look at it.

      Or don’t, and people younger than I will be having the same discussion a decade and two from now.

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        You posted a reference to a single development then launched into your discussion on how to make schools better. I saw no evidence on the “causes and solutions” of lack of housing for those living in poverty. I saw what you think may eventually be solutions but no real evidence one way or the other.

  2. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Am I the only reader unimpressed that many assertions in the last two screeds on this topic are littered with the pronoun, “I.” Are public policy makers drooling in anticipation of the next pronouncement?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I used my name above the “screeds”. That pretty much signals “I”.

      Excellent refutation of those two articles, by the way, calling them “screeds”. Pretty much absolves you of having to think.

      1. James McCarthy Avatar
        James McCarthy

        We all have your voluble treatises to rely upon. Keep at. Perhaps one day some legislator will convert your theories to a piece of legislation.

  3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “I do know how to reduce the demand over time. Better schools.”

    Are you trying to make the case that if schools are improved fewer people will eventually find themselves living in poverty? If so, that is undoubtedly true. What are you going to do in the intervening decades for those living in poverty now? Increase funding only if…?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      As you said, undoubtedly true about schools.

      As for housing, we are not discussing intervening “decades” after the schools are improved. I’ll give it one, maybe.

      If you read the article you will see that I personally will support increased funding. I have set some conditions that will ensure that new money is effectively and efficiently spent.
      – enforcement of existing qualification rules through regular re-qualification
      – removal of zoning barriers
      – enforcement of laws against drug dealing
      – regular inspections of apartments and homes

      Do you take issue with any of them?

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        “As for housing, we are not discussing intervening “decades” after the schools are improved. I’ll give it one, maybe.”

        I am not seeing this… maybe within a generation… if you were spectacularly successful.

        I’ve got no problems with your first two conditions even though you simply said they need to be studied. No case that these are actually existing problems.

        As to your last two, drug laws should be enforced equally across society. The old War on Drugs created many of the problems the poor are facing today in America. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

        I support inspections of residences only with a warrant.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          The projects are government property. Drug dealing is both illegal and a scourge on the communities forced by circumstances to live with them. Throw the dealers out. Inspections are necessary to protect government property.

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            Again, I have no problem with enforcing drug law as long as it is done with an even hand. It hasn’t been in the past and here we are…

            Leased apartments are the property of the landlord. Occupants have rights though. Just cause for intrusion should be an important requirement – especially when the government is the landlord. Seems to be a Conservative stance to me… 🤷‍♂️

            That being said cops have a role here to play in cleaning up projects. Maybe start with 911 response. I would rather them spend their time doing that than handing out speeding tickets to cars with tinted windows.

  4. Teddy007 Avatar

    The closest public high school is Booker T. Washington High that is 81% black, 90% free lunch, No matter what type of housing one builds, no middle class family with children will live there.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      You assume that Booker cannot be remade into a high performing school over a 10 year period as freshmen properly taught in elementary and middle schools start to rise up. I do not.

      It has to start in kindergarten, but it not only can be but is regularly accomplished in the best charter schools for those demographics.

      If those cities do not start to reform their school systems, we will be having this same discussion 10 and 20 years from now.

    2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      I think that is the point made in the last sentence. The schools are the starting place for any true and equitable reform. Education is the economic parity between the haves and the have nots.

      If the definition of insanity is to do the same failing thing over and over, how insane is the system of education where we have now measured and collected meaningful data since 2002.

      1. Teddy007 Avatar

        I once asked a tenured professor of education at a seminar on education why no one ever studies white or Asian students in majority black or Hispanic schools. Given that less than 50% of school-aged children now count as white and given the demographic trends in the U.S., one would think that it would be an area for study. The professor looked at me like I had asked him to study the effects of Phrenology on educational performance. He said that there was no way that such research should occur. I suspect that no one wants to study whites in majority black schools because the researchers are afraid that the results will end their careers. Thus, we are stuck in a country where the only sane thing a white family can do is avoid schools that are predominately black or Hispanic.

      2. James McCarthy Avatar
        James McCarthy

        Include the minimal number of charter schools advocated?

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Beefing up truancy enforcement will do wonders for the chronic absenteeism.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    A lot here to comment on. As for the housing development, although “mixed-income communities” sound good in theory, I am skeptical of their viability, for the reasons you alluded to and as articulated by Teddy007.

    Rather than a “broken windows” approach, these communities will need a strong, active community policing program.

    I still don’t understand how zoning discourages Section 8 housing per se. I realize that zoning affects the availability of housing with its requirements of lot size, single family residential vs. multifamily, etc. But how specifically does it discourage Section 8? If a developer has a parcel of land zoned for multifamily residences, can he not choose to build either Section 8 housing or higher end units?

    Schools. I agree with you that the mandatory attendance laws should be vigorously enforced. Kamras made a major mistake in paring the number of attendance officers. As for discipline and the learning environment, I will comment on this at some length in a separate post. However, I do think you misinterpret the language relating to involvement of police in school discipline. Involving police in school discipline as a last resort does not mean there is no place for school resource officers. The primary duty of the SROs should be to ensure that the school is safe from unauthorized outsiders coming into the school; to provide for the safety of the students and staffs (e.g. breaking up fights); and to enforce laws (possession of firearms, etc.) SROs should not be involved in arresting students for violating school rules and creating disturbances in class.

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