Sha’Randa Taylor delivered an impassioned plea before City Council Monday night. Displaying a clear container containing what she said was her fetus, recently miscarried due to the stress of her living situation in Richmond public housing, she called on Council for justice.
We first met Taylor while reporting on the heating crisis this winter at her unit in Creighton Court. The young mother and nurse was living in an unheated apartment with clear evidence of a mice infestation despite the sealed Tupperware containers she stores food in. “I was housed like an animal,” Taylor said, recounting her experience before Council,
Among her complaints were financial ones. She had with her a stack of receipts she said “total $10,000 in possessions I can’t get to anymore,” as they remained in a unit she no longer has access to. She also maintained that her rent was overcharged at $92 a month, $42 more than her income allowed the Authority to charge, and said she’s overpaid by more than $800 in total.
Taylor said she lost her job and her unborn baby over stress, and as her 3-minute comment period ran out, she raised her voice, asking, “I am here, I am talking, do you hear me?” In a tense moment, police moved in around her before City Council President Chris Hilbert asked them to stand down.
Like other residents without heat, Taylor said she was eventually offered a hotel room during the heating crisis, but it wasn’t a good solution for her and her three children she said, noting the lack of a stove. “I get food stamps. How do those help me if I don’t have a stove? I don’t eat fast food,” she said.
As Taylor finished her story and stepped away, a woman from the audience yelled, “Help her. Who’s going to help her?”
Council Vice President Cynthia Newbille tasked Orlando Artze, the interim CEO of Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, to provide that help.
Taylor was joined at the meeting by a broad coalition of groups and individuals advocating for people living in public housing. The Coalition For Better Housing held a press conference in front of the Marshall Street entrance to City Hall, with many long-time leaders in social justice and civil rights.
Among them were Lillie Estes and Arthur Burton, both long-time advocates for civil rights and justice in Richmond, Green party House of Delegates candidate Montigue Magruder, and Leaders of the New South founder, Omari al-Qadaffi, who brought the dire situation in city housing courts to public attention this past winter.
The group cited the resignation of T.K. Somanath as a success and delivered a set of demands intended to make RRHA accountable and transparent going forward. Before the meeting, on Marshall Street, Magruder was cynical speaking on our city government “They just passed a meals tax they say is for the kids, but those same kids go back to these dilapidated homes” he said.
Burton chimed in, sharing similar frustrations to Magruder’s. “These are government homes and government schools. It’s a double dose of government oppression,” he said.
Estes said it was a case of “intentional blight,” a theme which Burton expanded on, pointing back 13 years when he said, “The truth is, the city started this with Dove Court. It was intentional blight to justify destroying public housing.”
“If you create this narrative, that communities are isolated and blighted and ridden by drugs and crime, and you don’t provide services because you privatized the streets, then you make that narrative come true,” Burton continued, claiming that the lack of maintenance was intentional.
He said that even when the city tries to help, they have to package the help to appeal to a broad audience, giving the coliseum project as an example. “We advocated for a new transfer station, to replace one that everyone acknowledges is alienating and dehumanizing. And what does the city do? They tie it to a $160 million new coliseum,” he said. “We see this over and over again.”
The problem, the advocates say, is that it all comes down to accountability. Burton said the authority system, in particular, exists to give political cover for unpopular decisions, allowing mayors to point to councils, councils to mayors, and both to point back at authorities, over which they have limited direct control.
“It’s the same thing from Jim Crow, you have these authorities set up to eliminate accountability,” Burton said, pointing back to the highways that were built over the homes of Black Richmonders in the 1950s.
After the conference, the group headed inside, where Estes delivered their demands to Council with an extension on her three-minute speaking time. After sharing statistics on poverty in Richmond, she asked for audits or reviews of existing audits of the RRHA, inclusion of community leaders on the RRHA Board, an evaluation of the contentious tenant council system and specific positions at the Authority, and support for “Know Your Rights” trainings that educate residents about their rights in public housing.
In a split from the coalition, she asked that every sitting board member of the RRHA be removed and replaced. Reached after the meeting, she said that she loves some of the people on the board, and she’d be happy to see them rejoin, but she “feels we need a clean slate, a new beginning.”
Only Taylor and Estes were signed up for citizen comment, but al-Qaddafi used the regular agenda section of the meeting later to make his own comments. He said he’d like to support an agenda item honoring a former public servant for his good work, but that those were different, better, times for Richmond government, saying, “we are not living in those times.”
“There is a humanitarian and a civil rights issue in the housing authority right now. This is not just about heat any more than the problem at schools are just about facilities. This is about systemic problems,” he said, before demanding better results from City Council. “I can’t speak for RVA. They may be drowning their meals tax sorrows right now somewhere west of the Boulevard, but residents of Richmond will no longer accept cries of, ‘We didn’t know.’”
Photos by David Streever. We updated this story to add a link to a PDF of the demands. We also made a minor correction to one quote.