This is in response to CRHA finance committee member Jason Halbert’s recent guest editorial in the Daily Progress:
In his December 30, 2012 guest editorial, Jason Halbert attempted to push an aggressive agenda for public housing in Charlottesville amid a flurry of deliberate distortions, attacks on CRHA board members, and willful ignorance of the concept of resident participation in CRHA matters. He offers some solutions to what he sees as a lack of leadership that fit only his vision of what redevelopment should be, who will pull it off, who should support him, and how.
When it comes to all matters of public housing, including redevelopment, there are two things that need to be understood: HUD Regulation 964 which mandates resident input into decisions that a housing authority makes especially for major renovations, and the Residents Bill of Rights for Redevelopment the first principle reading “A meaningful and enforceable resident participation process will guide all substantive decisions about redevelopment”.
How does one so wholeheartedly refer to the Residents Bill of Rights, while ignoring the central and guiding principle of the document? Halbert’s commentary carries a tone of disdain for resident involvement, even attempting to silence one resident leader by name. The piece ends with criticism of PHAR, painted in the language of “civility” but which reads as “PHAR should stay out of the way”.
Francis Fife once said of Vinegar Hill “If we had had PHAR around back in the 1960s, Vinegar Hill would not have happened the way it did”. PHAR is consistent in its advocacy for resident input based on the needs of a community whose homes and economic situation will be greatly impacted by decisions concerning redevelopment.
Mr. Halbert presents a vision of the demolition of public housing and rebuilding along a “mixed-income” model. It is entirely too similar to what happened to Vinegar Hill in the 1960s and PHAR will not let this happen.
Clarifications of Mr. Halbert’s distortions can be made showing that a lack of adherence to both HUD regulation 964 and the Residents Bill of Rights by CRHA staff, some commissioners, and even Mr. Halbert himself as being partially to blame for the lack of accountability and action from CRHA.
First off, the master plan. While the plan had resident input it did not, and does not, reflect the full desires of residents. Resident input seems to have been only a formality. However, the plan still exists with some key concepts of the RBOR included. Assuming the plan stands, PHAR has been diligent in its efforts to ensure that redevelopment happens, as it is greatly needed. Public housing in Charlottesville has become unmanageable, under-maintained, and in many circumstances uninhabitable. “So why is it [redevelopment] not happening?” Halbert asks.
The answer is not current CRHA board leadership, angry residents, or PHAR but primarily a lack of funding. As a member of the CRHA finance committee Mr. Halbert should know that this is ultimately why no movement has been seen until recently. Halbert says the CDC needs to be “dusted off”, but this is nothing new to anyone informed about the process. Unfortunately, the staff at CRHA attempted to conveniently exclude residents from the CDC selection process going so far as to avoid the duly elected resident advisory board when presenting the CDC membership to the board for a vote. One wonders if it is incompetence that the agenda for the October meeting where the decision was to be made was not made available to the public ahead of time or if a deliberate attempt was made to fast track the CDC appointments without resident input. PHAR simply asked for the opportunity to meet with suggested appointees and to offer a recommendation before a vote was taken.
If spurring on the CDC is the first step towards redevelopment then “meaningful and enforceable” resident participation is the first step for PHAR. PHAR, along with the LEADERSHIP of Commissioners Johnson and Norris, has been able to consult with city leaders, set a process for determining how the CDC is made up, and is on the verge of making recommendations. As anyone in tune with what is going on with PHAR or the housing authority knows, there is an intense focus on moving redevelopment forward. Mr. Halbert’s assertion that PHAR is blocking or not doing enough is a distortion of fact and should be ignored as should his placing of blame on commissioners Norris and Johnson, who have been doing the leg work of moving forward on redevelopment. People such as Mr. Halbert have worked vigorously to exclude residents from the process. Perhaps it is not leadership that is lacking but Mr. Halbert’s leadership and agenda that he sees as missing from the process?
PHAR welcomes suggestions for bringing in needed funds for redevelopment. We feel that Levy Avenue should be developed as temporary lodging during renovations at Crescent Hall. This has been the assumption for some time. Money is needed, and the understanding of all community partners needs to be included. There are obstacles, but PHAR only becomes one when HUD mandated resident participation is ignored. Halbert correctly invokes the Residents Bills of Rights for Redevelopment, however he does not need to tell PHAR to “organize to achieve that vision”. In fact he need not tell PHAR what to do or how to do it as PHAR is intensely focused on redevelopment. We support the entirety of the Resident Bill of Rights for Redevelopment, not just those planks that are convenient to Halbert’s vision for redevelopment. I invite anyone interested to call or write PHAR to find out exactly what we are doing to support the resident bill of rights, and what our vision for redevelopment is.
Amid many other distortions and misrepresentations, Halbert offers other “solutions” to the current mismanagement of public housing. First he suggests that the CRHA Board of Commissioners be dissolved. This is certainly unwarranted and misplaces blame. Ample examples can be provided as to mismanagement of the housing authority by staff on all levels that includes maintenance oversight, as well as executive resistance to existing CRHA policy and procedures (as can be attributed to the need for a 30 day moratorium on evictions). At no turn should the CRHA board be eliminated. Rather, the city should have direct control over executive administration with governance provided by a healthy and responsive board of commissioners. City staff is highly capable, respectful, and willing to administer day to day operations of public housing. This was exhibited successfully during Aubrey Watts’ time as interim director. His respect and ability to make things happen are exactly the kind of administrative leadership that is needed. Governing leadership needs to include resident voices and solid public policy veterans. Joy Johnson has shown that she is not only competent and capable, but also knows regulation and policy better than anyone else currently serving on the board of commissioners. To lose her as a decision maker means losing resident input as well as a trained expert on the CRHA board.
Conversely, behind the scenes meddling by the likes of Halbert (who is not currently serving on the CRHA board- why is he even allowed on the finance committee?) and other commissioners have seen the shepherding through and by-passing of procedure in the selection of the current executive director and the purposeful monkey wrenching of the 21 vouchers needed for the Crossings (despite a previous 6-1 vote, of which Halbert was the sole opponent), which in turn led to HUD not approving the 2012 annual plan and causing a snowball effect for comprehensive planning including for redevelopment. We do not need Halbert’s vision of backroom deals and intentional sabotage of process as the model for leadership in the CRHA.
Norris is a consensus builder, if he were to be the sole vote in a 6-1 vote he would not sneak behind the backs of commissioners and staff to intentionally derail a process in place to house our homeless. Dave Norris is trusted by the public housing community, even when he has made hard decisions not fully supported by PHAR he remains someone that residents know they can trust. As chair of the CRHA, he has provided much needed leadership in getting a barment policy passed, attempted to hold CRHA staff accountable, and built consensus on things like eviction prevention, and yes, on redevelopment. Mr. Norris has many balls in the air, his stewardship, expertise, and respect for residents are greatly needed at this important time. If redevelopment is to move forward Mr. Norris is committed to making it happen. Norris and Johnson should remain on the board, otherwise backroom deals, sweetheart tax credits, and the razing of neighborhoods are likely to be the drivers and end results of redevelopment.
Finally, a word about anger and ad hominem attacks. When you live in a community, any attempt to dissolve your community, tear down your neighborhood, or otherwise alter your living situation is deeply personal. You will be angry. You should be angry. If the CRHA won’t listen to resident concerns on a rational basis, then there is no option but to express that anger. Is it helpful? Perhaps not always, but it is warranted in the face of the undignified and casual manner in which some in the CRHA staff treat the residents they are tasked with serving. Mr. Halbert has no right, as a wealthier member of our community, to meddle behind the scenes with the lives of 376 families and not expect for anger to be expressed.
Public housing is like any other neighborhood, people who live there have the right to be safe, have sanitary living conditions and to have a say in their futures like any other neighborhood in Charlottesville. Distortions, misrepresentations, attacks, and attempts at removing trusted appointees in the name of expediting a small group of people’s vision for redevelopment will not lead to a “brighter future for our whole city”.