NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging Norfolk’s plans to redevelop the St. Paul’s public housing complexes.

The final order was issued on Tuesday after both sides reached an agreement to move forward that includes the assurance that all current residents of the Tidewater Gardens public housing complex — the first to be demolished — who want to return to the area following the redevelopment, will have the opportunity to do so.

The move ends nearly two years of litigation brought by a group of public housing residents and progressive New Virginia Majority advocates. They claimed plans to redevelop nearly 200 acres of downtown Norfolk were “nothing but racist in effect,” as it they would re-concentrate poverty to other poor neighborhoods.

Work has been underway since January 2018 when Norfolk City Council voted to have the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) move ahead with plans to eventually level the Tidewater Gardens, Young Terrace and Calvert Square downtown public housing complexes and replace them with mixed-income communities.

The goal is to increase the quality of life for the 1,700 families that currently call the aging St. Paul’s community home and leave behind the neighborhood’s poverty-stricken past.

While NRHA said long before the lawsuit was filed that nobody will be made homeless because of redevelopment efforts, terms in the dismissal agreement reaffirms the public payment of relocation efforts. A resident can either choose to relocate to another NRHA property or take a voucher and live in privately owned section 8 housing.

Under the agreement, the city is being asked to step up its efforts to make sure those vouchers are accepted in all areas of “opportunity.” The City Council will have to pass “a source of income discrimination ordinance.” Essentially, the plaintiffs want to make sure landlords don’t turn down potential tenants because they’ll pay rent with housing vouchers.

In a news release on Dec. 16 about the settlement, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority said it, along with the City of Norfolk, “will continue providing robust relocation support for Tidewater Gardens residents as they transition to new housing, including case management.”

In Tidewater Gardens, NRHA said more than 67% of residents have left, 214 out of the 618 units have already been leveled.

The settlement agreement said that at least 260 of the units rebuilt on the site must be set aside specifically for public housing residents — 34 more than the original redevelopment plan. The NRHA said the City of Norfolk and NRHA will “make good faith efforts” to support the development of an additional 95 project-based voucher units off-site over the next seven years. Current plans call for roughly 700 replacement housing units for Tidewater Gardens, evenly split between public housing, affordable housing, and market rate.

NRHA and the city will have to continue their communication with plaintiffs before they begin tearing down the other two St. Paul’s public housing communities.

A report completed by the city will need to bring answers for two main questions: whether the redevelopment plan “will perpetuate segregation in Norfolk” and if there’s an alternative plan that could be used to avoid discrimination.

In terms of money, the city will pay the plaintiffs $200,000 but will not pay their legal and attorney’s fees.

In a statement, Norfolk City Attorney Bernard Pishko praised the dismissal and agreement reached.

“The City is pleased that the lawsuit challenging the plan for the redevelopment of Tidewater Gardens has been dismissed. The goals of HUD, the NRHA and City (the defendants) were aligned enough with the goals of the plaintiffs to reach agreement,” Pishko said. “The City looks forward to assisting with the development of this uplifting plan.”

“This settlement means three very important things to our community. First, it reaffirms our commitment to our Tidewater Gardens residents and the future generations of families who will grow and thrive in the redeveloped community. Second, it ratifies the vision for redevelopment created together by Tidewater Gardens residents, stakeholders, the City of Norfolk, and NRHA. Third, it’s time to move forward and focus all our attention on working to make this transformation a reality,” said NRHA Executive Director Ronald Jackson in the Dec. 16 NRHA news release.

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Construction on replacement units is expected to start in the coming months around the Norfolk Transportation Center.

The whole project is supported by a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The settlement makes some minor changes in the redevelopment plan. Those include:

  • NRHA will increase the purchasing power of housing choice vouchers in two zip codes
  • The city will also retain a consultant that will evaluate and advise the People First program

No plaintiffs responded to 10 On Your Side’s request for comment.