Rebuilding Westhaven

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Our leaders love to trumpet Charlottesville’s progressive spirit and the world-class quality of its city life. The sales pitch rings hollow in Westhaven, though, where ambitious plans for “urban renewal” have literally fallen apart. Now the Housing Authority hopes to overcome 20 years of neglect with a new version of urban renewal. But can yuppies really save the ghetto?

 

“This place is a ghetto”

This winter, Annie Brown and Mary Faulkner kept their ovens open all winter. The two grandmothers weren’t baking cookies…they were just trying to keep warm.

   Brown and Faulkner live in Westhaven, one of the City’s seven public housing sites. Like many other public housing residents, they spent most of the recent winter without heat.

   “If you leave the oven on long enough, it heats up the room O.K.,” says Brown. She says she called the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which manages the City’s public housing, asking them to come and fix her heat.

   “They didn’t even come and check the heating,” Brown says. “They told me not to burn the oven. I asked them what was I supposed to do in the cold?”

   Faulkner, too, says she called the Housing Authority for help—sometimes once a week—to no avail.

   “We’re paying them our money, and we’re living in the cold,” says Faulkner. “They don’t have any maintenance. That’s their excuse,” she says.

   Recently the Housing Authority spent about $100,000 replacing the antiquated boilers in some Westhaven apartments. The women say they now have heat—just in time for spring.

   On the other side of Hardy Drive, Westhaven’s main thoroughfare, Wayne Arabie says that between January and mid-March, he had no hot water in the apartment he shares with his wife and four children.

   “We had to go across the street to my sister-in-law’s to take showers,” he says. Arabie says several times he called CHRA Executive Director Paul Chedda, who took control of the beleaguered Authority in August. “I left message on top of message. He wouldn’t return none of my calls,” says Arabie.

   Arabie says he started threatening to withhold his rent—the Authority charges tenants 30 percent of their monthly income—when the boiler was finally replaced. But the Authority still hasn’t fixed the leak in Arabie’s ceiling, which for two years has sent water trickling down his stairwell every time it rains.

   “Most of the maintenance I do in my apartment, I do myself,” Arabie says.

   Stories like those of Brown, Faulkner and Arabie are not at all uncommon in the 376 public housing units clustered around Charlottesville. Stories abound of leaky roofs, overflowing dumpsters, shoddy wiring and plumbing. Maintenance calls go unreturned.

   When Chedda took over, he fired most of the maintenance staff for incompetence, so CHRA had to rely on private contractors for repairs. The one heating contractor Chedda hired couldn’t keep up with all the maintenance needs, which are most acute at Westhaven, the City’s oldest site.         Built in 1965, Westhaven was Charlottesville’s first experiment with public housing. The Housing Authority built the cinderblock apartments on Hardy Drive to house the displaced residents of Vinegar Hill, which the City demolished in the name of “urban renewal.”

   Completed in 1967, the destruction of Vinegar Hill is still a sore spot in Charlottesville’s collective memory. Nevertheless, many of the people who lived without heat or indoor plumbing in Vinegar Hill saw Westhaven as a blessing. Now Westhaven is a slum, and the Housing Authority says it’s time for another urban renewal. They plan to tear down the neighborhood and rebuild it, tripling the density and putting market rate housing side-by-side with subsidized apartments.

   Another round of urban renewal will surely be expensive, and the intentional gentrification will no doubt engender controversy. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the current public housing model isn’t working.

   “Whenever I’m in this place, I play nothing but gospel music,” says Joy Johnson. “This place is not uplifting.”

   Johnson has deep roots in Charlottesville’s public housing system. She is a longtime resident of Westhaven and a founder of the nationally recognized Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR). She’s an expert in federal housing policy and a former member of the CHRA board.

   “You want to know why kids don’t do well in school, or why people are on drugs? This kind of apathy invites other things,” says Johnson. “Why do you think drug dealers set up shop here? Nobody else cares.

   “Westhaven is a ghetto,” she says bitterly. “And I never use that word,” says Johnson.

 

Best of intentions

“Ghetto.” It’s an ugly word, originally used to describe sections of European cities where Jews were required to live. In America the term first applied to immigrant portions of a city, and now is mostly associated with neighborhoods where blacks are confined by social, legal and economic pressure.

   More recently, peddlers of hip hop culture have made “ghetto” a badge of authenticity for rap stars, and suburban teenagers now use “ghetto” as an offhand expression for cheap products or tacky behavior.

   But for residents of Westhaven—particularly those who remember the neighborhood’s better days—there’s nothing trivial about living in the middle of a real ghetto.

   “When it was brand new, it was real nice. The conditions were real good,” says Marie Walker-Scott, who moved from Vinegar Hill to Westhaven the year it opened.

   Walker-Scott, who helps run Mel’s Café on W. Main Street with her sons, Mel and Arthur, is one of the few public housing success stories. She and her former husband moved out of Westhaven in the early 1970s and bought a house on West Street. Now she owns a home on Anderson Street, and notes with sadness the degeneration of her old neighborhood.

   “It’s just like if you got a house, you’ve got to maintain it year after year,” she says.

   Clearly, the Housing Authority has neglected to care for the neighborhoods it created. Asking why leads to a ring-around-the-rosy game of finger-pointing and buck-passing. Depending on whom you ask, the problems at Westhaven can be chalked up to power-hungry housing directors, incompetent staff, apathetic residents, cheapskates at the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or a City Hall conspiracy to push poor people out of Charlottesville.

   Finding the real root cause may be beside the point. The Charlottesville Housing Authority has always been a simmering controversy [see sidebar], and clearly basic upkeep has been lost amidst the politics.

   “We haven’t had good management of the Housing Authority for 15 years,” says Kendra Hamilton, a City Councilor who sits on the CHRA board of directors.

   The “urban renewal” that the City commenced with such optimism is now itself in need of rebuilding. The neglect of Westhaven isn’t just dispiriting for the residents there, it’s dangerous.

   “It used to be we could leave our doors and windows open, but now this dope business has ruined everything,” says one elderly resident who pleaded, out of fear, to remain anonymous.

   This resident describes the clatter of gunfire and the sound of cops chasing crack dealers (many of them from out of town) through the backyard. When the noise wakes her up in the middle of the night, she heads to the bathroom, where there are no windows, because she’s scared of getting hit with a stray bullet.

   “At night there’s no peace,” says the resident. “The dope business has ruined the world, and in the last three or four years it’s gotten worse and worse.”

   A walking tour of Westhaven reveals the degree of neglect. Dumpsters sit in plain view, overflowing with trash. The gutters of at least one building haven’t been cleaned in so long that saplings are taking root and sprouting from the debris. Despite an ongoing problem with drug dealing and fears about crime, the streetlights along Hardy Drive don’t work.

   “This street is pitch black at night,” says one Hardy Drive resident.

   The urban renewal projects the City commenced with such optimism 30 years ago are now in need of another rebuilding. But it’s not just the broken boilers and leaky roofs that need to be chucked out—also headed for the trash bin is the concept of isolating low-income people. Could it be that, these days, the idea that public housing tenants can’t live next door to the middle class is history?

 

Looking toward the future

Here’s the bottom line: According to a recent audit of maintenance needs, Charlottesville’s public housing sites need about $20 million worth of repairs—$10 million at Westhaven alone.

   All of the CHRA’s annual revenue comes from HUD, but the agency has been cutting its funding in recent years, and CHRA board chairman Howard Evergreen says more severe cuts are likely in the future.

   “If our HUD funding continues, we’ll get the $10 million Westhaven needs in about 20 years,” Evergreen says. “The only way we figure we can deal with this is keep Westhaven operating and look at doing a serious redevelopment there.”

   Although “redevelopment” is supposed to be part of the Housing Authority’s mission, it hasn’t done any major construction since building apartments on S. First Street in 1981. That’s about to change.

   On a recent afternoon, Paul Chedda spreads a drawing of colorful houses across the desk in his windowless office in the basement of City Hall. The Authority owns property on Levy Avenue in Belmont, and the cottages the Authority plans to build there may represent the only hope for a bright future at Westhaven.
   On March 23, the CHRA board of directors voted to hire Bruce Wardell Architects to design a cluster of about 30 houses on the Authority’s Levy property. Rick Jones, president of Management Services Corporation and chair of the board’s redevelopment committee, says the plan is to sell most of the units at market rates, then use the profits to make 15 percent of the units “very, very affordable.” Residents would have a priority to purchase the subsidized homes, says Jones.

   “We have to produce a very marketable project. It has to be as sought-after and successful as the Belmont Lofts,” says Jones, referring to the condominiums currently fetching $200,000 for a one-bedroom unit.

   Redeveloping Westhaven is next on the list, says Jones. The apartments on Hardy Drive are so bad that tearing them down and rebuilding would be cheaper than making all the repairs the units require. “There comes a point when you can’t keep putting Band-Aids on something that has a major injury,” says Jones.

   Jones, who manages about 4,000 apartment units for MSC, says the Westhaven site holds rich potential. It’s the real estate market, and with the rising tide of property values, that might be the CHRA’s only chance of saving the City’s public housing shipwreck.

   The 126 Westhaven apartments sit near W. Main Street, which has been targeted by both the City and UVA as a boulevard ripe for commercial redevelopment. In recent years, W. Main neighborhoods like Starr Hill have seen the exploding property values that come with gentrification.

   “One of the most important policies the Authority has is that we’ll never reduce the number of housing units,” Jones says. “We’ll replace everyone who lives there now, and at the same time add more to the project. It might be commercial, it might be retail, condos, townhouses, high-end rentals, conventional rentals. All of that would be market-rate, to help us pay for the Westhaven project. I would hope to see that under way in the next three to five years,” says Jones.

   Joy Johnson is not easily sold on the City’s big visions for urban renewal.

   She has some good reasons to be suspicious. Every day she walks out her front door, she sees the results of Charlottesville’s first stab at urban renewal, and it ain’t pretty. Also, as social service costs continue to bloat City budgets, Councilors have been saying for years that Charlottesville has “more than its share” of poor people, and that the County needs to take on some of the burden.

   When the City says “redevelopment,” Westhaven residents often hear something more sinister. “Let public housing run down, then tear it down,” says Johnson.

   Yet Johnson herself says she’s willing to give the Authority’s big idea the benefit of the doubt. “I’m not saying redevelopment isn’t a good thing,” she says. “But we’ve got to manage what we have.”

   On that note, Jones and other CHRA board members swear that Westhaven residents Annie Brown and Mary Faulkner won’t have to spend another winter heating their apartments with open ovens. Jones says the Authority has enough federal money for essential maintenance—about $800,000 this year.

   “We’re not going to have to hold a bake sale to fix air conditioners,” says Jones.

 

Picking battles
Housing Director Paul Chedda learns the ropes

You’d think that moving from New York City to Charlottesville would be a relaxing transition, but not for Housing Authority director Paul Chedda.

   “It has been overwhelming,” Chedda says of his first eight months on the job. “A lot more overwhelming than I ever thought.

   “I sink my heart and soul into this job,” he says. “You rarely ever hear someone say you’re doing a good job. You try not to be thin-skinned, but you can’t help but hear the negative voices.”

   Chedda says that even though he was making three times more money as a New York lawyer, he moved to Charlottesville because the job of helping millionaires grab another million bucks was no longer satisfying him. Of course, big-city courtroom sparring might be a breeze compared to a face-to-face showdown with housing activist Joy Johnson.

   At the CHRA board meeting on March 23, Chedda blinked rapidly and seemed nervous as public housing advocate Joy Johnson stepped to the podium, waving her dog-eared copy of the Housing and Urban Development policy manual. Johnson is poor, well informed and she’s a fearless speaker when she decides powerful people need to be, as she says, “blessed out” for the neglect of public housing.

   Several CHRA board members and public housing residents told C-VILLE they think Chedda is slowly but surely improving the beleaguered Housing Authority, and Johnson herself complimented Chedda’s hiring of a new maintenance director. In order to keep up the progress, Johnson says the board and the executive director need to improve their communication with residents.

   That night Johnson chastised the board for recently canceling meetings on short notice, which Johnson perceived as a way to keep residents from showing up and speaking before the board.

    Resident complaints have recently put Chedda on the defensive. On March 7, Crescent Hall resident and former CHRA board member Elizabeth Cockerille spoke before City Council. She reported safety and maintenance problems at the South First Street high rise—including alleged sexual assaults of residents.

   In response, Chedda sent a letter to Crescent Hall residents. Although the letter did not mention Cockerille by name, it seemed designed to discredit and intimidate her. “What more can we do?” Chedda wrote. “Long drawn out speeches, yelling at our staff and rumors that panic residents does not help and I question the motives of those who do this.”

   Cockerille says she was “flabbergasted” at Chedda’s response, and that “it raised a lot of anger” towards her from other Crescent Halls residents.

   “I didn’t mean any of it as an attack on him,” Cockerille says. “I was basically being a messenger for things I heard from other residents.”

   Johnson was furious when she saw Chedda’s letter.

   “To me it was in bad taste,” says Johnson. “She is a disabled senior, and she can say whatever she wants to say. If he had something with her, he should have dealt with her, not tried to intimidate her.”

   City Councilor Kendra Hamilton says Chedda may need a little more time to adjust to small-town politics. Indeed, Chedda will need to pick his battles in order to avoid drowning in the petty politics that has always plagued the Authority, while at the same time steering the CHRA through federal funding cuts and ambitious redevelopment plans.

   “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that he’ll weather it and stick with us,” says Hamilton.—J.B.

 

A brief, pointed history of public housing
If you don’t like your job, consider this: At least
you’re not running the Housing Authority

In the mid-1950s, the federal government was handing out funds to cities for “urban renewal,” a campaign to improve the commercial viability of inner cities by bulldozing dilapidated buildings. With Uncle Sam’s nickel, Charlottesville’s City Council targeted Vinegar Hill, a neighborhood of more than 166 black-owned homes and businesses just west of Downtown.

   In 1956 the City created the CHRA to oversee the destruction of Vinegar Hill and the construction of Westhaven, the city’s first federally funded subsidized housing, named somewhat ironically for John West, a prominent African-American landowner.

   The City’s first housing director, A.E. “Gene” Arrington, was from “the old school,” says Charlottesville attorney Ed Wayland, former director of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “He was very paternalistic. He wouldn’t ask what residents think any more than you would ask children what they think,” Wayland says.

   Arrington served until the mid-’80s. When it was time for the CHRA board of directors to find a new housing director, tenant associations like Westhaven’s demanded a more resident-friendly director. The Authority hired Earl Pullen. “Well, he started out O.K….” Wayland says.

   Pullen was perceived as more lenient with residents than Arrington had been. But where some saw compassion, others saw negligence. In 1998, near the end of Pullen’s tenure the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development ranked Charlottesville’s public housing 25 out of 27 Virginia sites, and Pullen admitted residents owed the Authority between nearly $45,000 in back rent. The CHRA board informed Pullen his contract would not be renewed.

   The City hired Del Price (later Del Harvey) from the Contra Costa Housing Authority in California to whip Charlottesville’s public housing into shape. By the time Harvey took over in April 1999, Joy Johnson’s Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR) had emerged as a powerful voice in favor of residents’ rights and critical of the housing authority. Further, PHAR secured two seats for current or former residents on CHRA’s five-seat board of directors.

   Harvey enforced Authority policies more strictly, collecting rent on time and evicting problem residents. Some tenants welcomed this change, but a 2001 survey found “a significant problem,” with Harvey’s management style: Respondents pointed to her as “the cause of significant amount of staff turnover because she underappreciates her employees, is too controlling, and makes unfounded accusations.” She resigned in May 2003.

   Assistant City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney served as a part-time interim director until August 2004. During her tenure the maintenance department apparently ceased to function altogether. According to a City report, it was taking up to four months to turn around vacant apartments, especially troubling given the waiting list for public housing.

   Into this colorful history stepped Paul Chedda, a New York attorney hired as CHRA executive director in August. The good times just keep on rolling—the Housing Authority’s new budget contains a $100,000 deficit. Residents owe nearly $50,000 in uncollected rent. There’s a pile of maintenance problems, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is planning more cuts to public housing budgets around the country.

   “I wouldn’t say that what Mr. Chedda came into was a well-oiled machine,” says CHRA board member Rick Jones.—J.B.

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