By Dean Mirshahi, WRIC
RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Members of 22 congregations packed Richmond’s City Council chamber last week to raise concerns over evictions, gun violence, money meant to fund affordable housing and dilapidated mobile homes in the city.
Faith leaders in the group Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities (RISC) said the city has yet to take action on initiatives they believe will help address the issues, and called on city councilmembers to support their efforts and apply pressure on Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration.
After the faith leaders addressed the council and the public comment period was over, about 150 RISC members braved the cold for a press conference just outside Richmond City Hall.
Where’s the Money for Affordable Housing?
Richmond’s housing crisis is worse than before the pandemic, Rev. Mairi Renwick of Union Presbyterian Seminary told the council during the Nov. 14 meeting, with rents rising faster than inflation, vacancy rates dropping, and eviction filings surging after statewide protections ran out.
“It’s not just that people can’t find an affordable place to live, it’s that there’s no place to live,” Renwick said. “The issue is units. We need a mass influx of units to affordable housing set aside for those people who have been priced out.”
RISC pushed for a dedicated funding source for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund — a proposal from Mayor Levar Stoney passed by the council last year to use a portion of the city’s real estate tax revenue to finance affordable options for low-income residents — and for the city to set aside $20 million in federal COVID relief money for the fund.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money has been allocated to the trust fund — $10 million in fiscal year 2022 and a proposal for another $10 million in 2023. While the city set aside $2.9 million in local funds for 2022, local funds have not been dedicated toward fiscal year 2023.
Renwick questioned the council on where the dedicated stream of local funding was for 2023, saying that “people need a place to lay their heads” and that more money into the fund would help bring in more affordable developments across the city.
The City’s Response
“This body is committed to creating an inventory of affordable housing, of having resources sufficient to address our mobile home challenges, of addressing gun violence in the city, so we hear you,” Council President Cynthia Newbille told RISC members after they spoke.
When Stoney announced his proposal, his administration said it anticipated the dedicated funding stream would grow by $2 million each year and reach “an unprecedented $10 million” in fiscal year 2026.
Jim Nolan, the mayor’s spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment or interview. But Nolan told 8News before that the administration had an “understanding” with the council to substitute the federal funding for the trust fund.
Richmond’s Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders told the council and RISC members that the administration has implemented an eviction diversion program and is working to propose a pilot program to help families get access to housing. Saunders also did not respond to 8News’ request for an interview.
After leaving the council meeting, RISC members said that the city must act more urgently to address the issue as evictions surge and questioned the response from Saunders.
A Focus on Gun Violence in Richmond
There were 47 gun-related killings in Richmond from the start of the year to Oct. 30, according to crime data from the city’s police department. The city recorded 76 last year and 61 in 2020, data shows.
Mayor Stoney and city councilmembers have put forward plans to address gun violence, including a gun buyback program and a plan to hire “violence interrupters.” Those initiatives have faced criticism over their effectiveness and rollout.
RISC asked the council to direct city agencies to help implement Group Violence Intervention, a program they say already has a funding source and has helped reduce gun violence in other places.
First implemented during the 1990s, GVI focuses on the community engagement between law enforcement and residents.
Rev. Marvin Gilliam Jr., pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Richmond, told the council RISC believes that GVI can work in concert with the city’s existing gun violence framework. He added that REAL LIFE, an organization founded to help the needs of those previously incarcerated, has already secured funding for GVI and only needs help connecting with the city’s police department and social services.
“The effective implementation of GVI is especially contingent on the cooperation of city governmental agencies, namely the Richmond Police Department and the Department of Social Services,” Rev. Gilliam said. “This does not require any money from the city, it only requires allowing the city entities to share data and resources to help the National Network for Safe Communities and REAL LIFE do the work of saving lives and providing the appropriate services.”
‘We need something now’: Mobile Home Issues in the City
Pastor Donald Coleman, RISC’s co-president, spent his three minutes of public comment sharing concerns over run-down mobile homes in Richmond.
Coleman applauded the city for putting aside $300,000 to establish a program to fund mobile home repairs and replacements. And he acknowledged that Stoney’s administration said it was working towards developing a comprehensive plan for the money.
But Coleman said things are moving too slowly for those struggling to stay warm in shabby mobile homes in frigid temperatures, telling the council mobile homes are “falling apart across our city.”
“We need something now,” Coleman said during the Nov. 14 meeting, adding that RISC would not “relent” on the issue until it’s addressed.
Paulina Chavez addressed the issues she’s facing in her mobile home after RISC members left the council meeting.
“We suffer from the cold and hot weather. That is the reason why we are here tonight,” she said through a translator. “Right now, my trailer does not have heat and my children are getting sick. It’s not just my problem, there’s hundreds of other families going through the same kind of problem in their trailers.”