NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A group of residents from Norfolk’s St. Paul’s public housing communities say they hope a judge can force the city to change its public housing plans.
On Thursday, around 30 residents and community activists joined with attorneys to protest what they called a “scheme” to redevelop nearly 200 acres of downtown Norfolk.
“The community has been speaking out against the [Choice Neighborhood Initative] as it’s currently articulated now for over a year, and the city and [Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority] have not been responsive to those concerns, and there is no other alternative but to file a lawsuit at this time,” said Sarah Black, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia.
On Monday, Black — on behalf of residents of the St. Paul’s Quadrant Tenant Group, New Virginia Majority and several individual St. Paul’s residents — filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop Norfolk’s redevelopment plans.
The 51-page complaint begins by detailing what it calls Norfolk’s “long and indisputable history of racial segregation.” It alleges the plan to redevelop the St. Paul’s Quadrant would further segregate and disadvantage black residents in violation of federal law.
“Look at the impact of this project on the community. It’s nothing but racist in effect,” Black said.
In January 2018, Norfolk City Council voted to have the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority move ahead with plans to eventually level the Tidewater Gardens, Young Terrace, and Calvert Square public housing complexes, and replace them with mixed-income communities. The goal is to increase the quality of life for residents and leave behind the neighborhoods’ poverty-stricken past.
The lawsuit claims the average household income is about $12,000 a year.
The suit says the plaintiffs do not oppose the redevelopment, but that it should not take place on the backs of black residents.
One of the plaintiff’s main issues is that replacement units will not be constructed before current structures are leveled.
Last year, HUD awarded NRHA $30 million as part of its Choice Neighborhood Initiative grants, to tear down the 618-unit Tidewater Gardens. When that happens, a resident can either choose to relocate to another NRHA property or take a voucher and live in privately owned section 8 housing.
“They are re-concentrating poverty to other poor neighborhoods in the city for those fortunate enough to remain in the city,” Black said.
Moreso, NRHA explained at several public meetings that not everyone will be able to return to the new community.
“I think there is space within the CNI area itself to keep everyone there. I think there is definitely space in the city. What is lacking is the political will,” Black said.
The lawsuit says it could be accomplished by simply building more and/or higher buildings. If they can’t, they should build new public housing in high-opportunity areas rather than forcing people to live in highly-segregated areas of the city.
Since 2010, NRHA has pushed to add at least 3,600 quality affordable housing units that accept vouchers to the city’s inventory, to not only help knock down Norfolk’s lengthy housing wait list, but also to prepare for the redevelopment. So far, Kownack said 1,600 units have come on board.
A spokesperson for the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority told WAVY they cannot comment on pending litigation.
However last year, the spokeswoman for the project reiterated, nobody will be kicked out.
“If you don’t have new housing by [your move out day], then you stay where you are,” Barbara Hamm Lee said in February 2019. “It means that we will work with you until we find you suitable housing, Nobody is going to be kicked out on the street. That will do no good for anyone, not for the city of Norfolk, not for NRHA.”