Anatomy of an eviction: The Parrish family and the city’s public housing debate

Janelle Parrish and her six children were evicted from their Westhaven apartment last month, causing a storm of protest from public housing residents. Photo: Graelyn Brashear. Janelle Parrish and her six children were evicted from their Westhaven apartment last month, causing a storm of protest from public housing residents. Photo: Graelyn Brashear.

When 50 members of the Public Housing Association of Residents and their supporters marched up the Downtown Mall last week to protest recent efforts by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) and its director, Constance Dunn, to raise rents and make it easier for the agency to evict those who don’t pay, Janelle Parrish was near the front of the crowd. Forced out of her Westhaven apartment with her six school-age kids the week before, Parrish toted a sign that carried extra emotional weight: “EVICT CONNIE DUNN.”

The Parrish family’s story has galvanized PHAR in part because it’s heart-wrenching. A family of seven is crammed into two hotel rooms, paid for by friends, churches, and strangers. The oldest son, a 19-year-old senior at the Henry Avenue Learning Center, is just weeks away from graduation.

But there’s more to it than that. The Parrish eviction is the first since the release of a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last month that called out the CRHA for a number of institutional failings: not training staff properly and not updating its tenant policy, but also charging residents too little, being too lenient with evictions, and, more broadly, not realistically planning for a future with less federal financial support.

Part of the CRHA’s response to the report was a new Admission and Continued Occupancy Policy (ACOP) that proposed raising the minimum rent from $25 to $50, rolling back the monthly late-rent date, and increasing late fees from $10 to $15, among other changes.

Dunn, who took over as CRHA director just over a year ago, had been pushing for some of those changes since she arrived. But PHAR activists said the new rules were an unfair crackdown, and on April 24, just before the new ACOP was about to go before the CRHA Board of Commissioners, the Parrish family’s highly public eviction gave PHAR a rallying point, and they’ve been pushing back—hard.

Last Thursday afternoon, Janelle Parrish sat at a desk in the Westhaven Clinic, a neat stack of apartment listings in front of her. Her family had been homeless for eight nights, and the money PHAR raised to put them up at the Red Roof Inn was set to run out in a few days. The kids were taking things pretty hard.

“They hurt, but you gotta make the best out of it,” she said. “We’re still together, still a family.”

As she flipped through the listings, she told her story. In April 2012, she got hired as a cook at The Boar’s Head. Joy Johnson, vice-chair of PHAR and CRHA Commissioner, told her at the time she had to report the new job to the CRHA. Rent is 30 percent of residents’ income, so a pay increase means a mandatory readjustment.

“And that was my intention, to report it,” Parrish said. But long hours made it difficult to find time to meet with her property manager—and she kept forgetting.

In February, she got a letter from the CRHA that said her rent had jumped from $100 to $729, and that she owed $5,822 in back rent. March 8 court records show a judge granted CRHA possession of her apartment. There was no appeal.

But Parrish said she was told she could stay as long as she got caught up by turning over her sizable pending tax return to the CRHA. There was also the question of HUD’s earned income disallowance program, which lets public housing residents adjust to paying a rent increase over four years. Parrish said her Legal Aid Justice Center lawyer was talking to Dunn, trying to apply the disallowance retroactively.

Then came the eviction notice. When friends and PHAR members learned she was about to lose her home, they launched a last-ditch effort to grant her an extension until her kids finished school the following week.

A chief architect of the push was 26-year-old high school teacher and City Council candidate Wes Bellamy. Four of Parrish’s kids are in his youth mentoring program, and he’s gotten to know the family well in the last year and a half. The night before the move-out date, he called CRHA Board Chair and Mayor Satyendra Huja, Board member Hosea Mitchell, and his fellow campaigning Democrat, City Councilor Kristin Szakos. Their inquiries and e-mails kicked up a storm of concern over the eviction. Huja initially offered to help pay her rent if it would keep the family in their home longer. City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins paid Parrish a visit. But in the end, the family had to pack up and move out.

“There was a breakdown in the process,” Bellamy said, echoing the sentiment of many PHAR members. Parrish erred in not reporting her income, he said, but the CRHA should be doing everything in its power to keep people who can pay rent in their homes. “To just throw them on the street without there being some communication—that has to change,” he said.

Dunn had a different take. CRHA waited more than a month to evict Parrish, she said, but in that time, “she made no effort to retain her housing or communicate with me at all.” Other lease compliance issues surfaced. Dunn didn’t elaborate, beyond saying that “some were very serious.”

Ultimately, Dunn said she had no choice. “My responsibility is to be consistent with the application of rules and regulations without regard towho might call the news media selectively on only some of those residents,” she said.

She also pointed out that evictions have dropped significantly in recent years. “CRHA evicted 23 families in 2011, and I do not think there were protests,” she said. There have been just two evictions in 2012, she said. Only the Parrishes’ got any attention.

The implication is that PHAR’s storm of protest was opportunistic. And maybe it did move the needle. In the wake of the high profile departure of the Parrish family from Westhaven, the CRHA Board voted to adopt a version of the ACOP that scrapped the minimum rent hike, the increased late fees, and other proposed tougher regulations.

“The Board felt that there was little or no value from a financial perspective” in applying the new rules, Hosea Mitchell said last week. “The additional funds it would raise were minimal and would only burden residents even more.”

PHAR hasn’t let up. At last week’s protest, organizers underscored the need for residents to keep pressure on the CRHA to back down from another item in the ACOP: a policy that would allow the agency to “select applicants to deconcentrate poverty levels.” The PHAR members passing around the megaphone outside City Hall called it gentrification. The marchers, Parrish among them, showed their displeasure by signing their names to a piece of posterboard and, chanting, filed into a basement hallway to hand-deliver it to Dunn.

She wasn’t there, but she’d already expressed her feelings on PHAR’s public displays of anger. The residents weren’t trying to work with the CRHA, she said earlier that week via e-mail, “or they would have some respect for the Housing Authority’s obligations.”