Monday, March 20, 2006

Second disussion on persistence of poverty

(Charlottesville Independent Media, Jan 26 2006)

More than a hundred people crammed into the Westhaven community center Thursday evening. The discussion that brought together this diverse group was "The Poverty of (Re)Development."

Westhaven opened in 1964, the first public housing project in Charlottesville. The complex of townhouses replaced tenement houses on Cox's Row north of West Main Street. Westhaven is named after John West, a wealthy local black man in the 19th century. The low-income housing served the black residents displaced by the Vinegar Hill redevelopment approved in a 1960 city referendum and was integrated in the mid '70s. The Omni Hotel was built in the '80s and marks the lost neighborhood.

Karen Waters of the Quality Community Council moderated the discussion and had to end the meeting after two hours although more people wanted to speak. There were at least two dozen questions or comments.

The panel:
1. Noah Schwatz, director of the Redevelopment and Housing Authority created in 1954
2.Joy Johnson, public housing advocate and resident
3. Dave Norris, former chairman of the Housing Authory's board of directors and current candidate for City Council
4. Lynn Wiber, former homeless person now involded in PACEM, Norris' interfaith initiative to provide shelter for the homeless
5. Theresa Tapscott, director of AHIP (Albemarle Housing Improvement Program)
6. Corey D.B. Walker, UVa professor of religious and black studies

One question asked was why it's so hard to get into public housing. Housing director Schwartz blamed federal requirements and others agreed. Means testing assumes people are trying to scam the system. One person said it's a catch-22, you're not eligible with bad credit or unpaid utility bills--the reason you need assistance is because you can't afford the bills.

One person who grew up in the Westhaven neighborhood said the city is in denial about its homeless population. A homeless man said he expects to have a magazine ready for publication by next month. Another person said people need to envision a more dense city and then left before the panel had finished answering his question. Someone cited eminent domain as one of three main resons for continuing poverty. And of course, many more comments. These are the ones that stick in my mind.

Noah Schwartz said too much focus has been on "bricks and mortar" redevelopment, and not enough on the people side. He called for more subsidized rental housing. He said 50% of people in public housing have been there more than 5 years.

Dave Norris said the city adopted in 1999 a housing strategy to encourage more expensive development because there was too much low-income housing. He said gentrification is modern-day urban renewal.

Theresa Tapscott remembered as a child asking her father where the people of Vinegar Hill were going to go. The question was rhetorical. But the real answer was Westhaven.

When the crowd was dispersing, as I helped put away the chairs, Norris told me that I had misrepresented his position. On I had said he was a flipflopper. He pointed out that, at the City Council meeting on Nov. 21, he spoke in favor of the charter amendment based on the grant/loan provisions. His not speaking against the eminent domain aspect does not mean he supported it. He said he has never supported eminent domain.

In that case, maybe, in the course of his campaign, he will explain how he can support the Housing Authority given its history and authority to abuse eminent domain. Same goes for Noah Schwartz.

Here are two ideas from the reporter.

1. If the federal bureaucratic rules are so bad, why don't we stop taking the money. But how would you pay the rent? If your rent is $500 and you pay $100, $400 comes from HUD. The city owns Westhaven. Why don't they just charge $100 and better serve the residents and the community?

2. Why don't they convert Westhaven to affordable condos? What is their true motivation?
Council Beat: Parade of grievances, Housing Authority report (Jan 19 2005) for more urban renewal--remember that?)


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