Victory for Public Housing Residents as TK Somanath is Forced to Resign

Attendees listen to speakers at the rally for RRHA residents in Richmond.

Tonight Richmond public housing residents and advocates celebrated a significant victory: TK Somanath stepped down as CEO of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA).

I have written about Somanath before, when he threatened to deny residents suspected of illegal activity due process by using extrajudicial evictions in the supposed name of public safety. Somanath reflected the worst trends in Richmond’s long-standing mistreatment of working class and African-American residents: rather than seeking real economic justice for all of Richmond, he saw working-class Richmond as a burden to be managed until it can be displaced. Nowhere is that more clear than his recent statements about the public housing heating crisis.

The depth and scale of the neglect in public housing is only now coming to the surface, and it is thanks only to the tireless work of residents and advocates that we know the problem extended far beyond the 54 units RRHA has admitted lack heat, in more developments than Creighton Court, and for longer than just December. Advocates and organizers have knocked doors and run surveys across the city’s public housing units, and he has identified failed heating in all of them. As the details emerge, journalist Michael Paul Williams has intervened to recognize the heating crisis as a crisis of conscience. Landon Schroder has expanded that analysis, calling it a fully-developed human rights crisis.

At the core of this crisis is a battle over the financial stakes we all have in our city, and the value moneyed interests, particularly private developers, see in the publicly-owned land on the city’s east end and north side. Developers now have so much power in Richmond that Somanath did not need to pretend that his job as CEO of public housing positions him to meet the needs of the city’s working class, working poor, and unemployed. Rather, he admitted he works for the interests of private development:

Somanath acknowledged that RRHA’s priority is to redevelop the properties. He said pouring money into preventive maintenance would be a waste. And, in either case, he said, it’s money the authority does not have. “Taxpayers’ good money should not be wasted — put into a sinkhole,” he said. “It’s not worth the investment.” Redevelopment of public housing is a long-term issue the agency is working to address with a push it announced last year to transition from the federal public housing program to the Section 8 housing choice voucher program, which Somanath said would free up funds for maintenance and the eventual redevelopment of all of the authority’s “big six” public housing communities — a total of about 3,000 of the agency’s 4,000 units.

Public housing residents and advocates have long called for public housing to remain public, without being converted to a for-profit voucher system. Advocates have explicitly demanded one-to-one replacement of any public housing lost in Richmond. The city has failed to guarantee it. Much like city leadership, Ned Oliver’s reporting above treats the redevelopment of public housing as a foregone conclusion. The dangers of this attitude are clear: when city leadership converts public goods to private profit, they are no longer willing to invest in public good, even when disinvestment means children must sleep, year after year, in freezing apartments.

Somanath’s words for the Times Dispatch reveal an often-concealed ugly truth about how private interests perceive the public good and, by extension, the public. Somanath calls upon the rallying-cry of conservative politicians everywhere who hope to defund the public sector and sacrifice public wealth for private enterprise: He names the “good money” of the “taxpayer” in the hopes that greater Richmond will agree that freezing families and children are not worth the expenditure of public funds.

It turns out, Richmond is better than that.

The broader public has rallied in favor of public housing residents. Residents and their neighbors know what Somanath would have us forget: in RVA public housing residents *are* our taxpayers. RRHA residents are paying taxes on food, on goods and services, and on income. In many cases they are also paying renters. As David Streever so aptly reported for in RVA Mag and discussed on social media, many RRHA residents pay market rates for housing. They are unable to leave RRHA not because they are not working and paying taxes, but because discriminatory rental practices across Richmond (practices driven by developers) keep working class and black Richmonders out of our highly competitive housing market. Across Richmond, public housing has become a refuge from discrimination in the private sector; what will happen if it is defunded and eliminated? The public sector remains a place where we have more power to fight for protection against discrimination. When we lose truly public housing to a privatized voucher system, we stand to lose a great deal.

Richmond’s developers–the driving force behind rising home prices, rising rents, and disinvestiment in public housing–do not pay their fair share of taxes. They benefit from seemingly endless abatements, an unjust citywide charity bestowed upon those who already have the most land and gain the most wealth from its development. As City Hall reserves for itself the right to make private offers to Amazon, promising untold wealth in tax breaks in exchange for the underemployment of our already poorest job-seeking residents, I have to wonder: who does Mayor Stoney work for? Greater Richmond, or Richmond’s corporate class?

Richmond has the moral backbone that Somanath, the mayor, and the developer class lack. We believe public funds belong to the public, and we are outraged at the knowledge that families are needlessly freezing this winter. Somanath’s resignation is a victory, and it is just one of many.

Richmonders are united: we invest in our city every day, and we deserve reciprocal investment. We will not allow Richmonders to spend another winter in the cold while our city’s developer class prospers. Public housing residents are invested in our city. It is time our city invests back.

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