Still Speaking Up: PHAR celebrates 20 years of empowering low-income residents

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Longtime housing activist Joy Johnson helped found PHAR two decades ago, and still leads its board of directors. 
Photo: Eze Amos Longtime housing activist Joy Johnson helped found PHAR two decades ago, and still leads its board of directors. Photo: Eze Amos

When Joy Johnson moved to Westhaven in 1983, she was a single mom with four young children. She barely had time for everything that needed to be done, let alone those things that seem like you can put them off indefinitely.

But the fliers kept showing up – in her mailbox, on her door, by her street, at her neighbor’s – and she kept reading them.

They came from the Westhaven Tenants Association, which was comprised of mostly older residents and focused on updates to the project’s apartments, which had been built two decades earlier.

Johnson was busy, but she was interested. “People said to me, ‘You like to read all that stuff,’” she says. “They told me I should get involved.”

From those early tenant association meetings, Johnson went on to become an integral leader in the organization and became known for speaking up. (In the annals of Charlottesville’s local news, Johnson’s name is hard to miss.) In 1998, she helped the city’s disparate public housing associations and tenants’ groups band together into a single advocacy organization: the Public Housing Association of Residents.

PHAR gave Johnson and all of the residents of the city’s 376 public housing units a vehicle to make themselves heard. Two decades later, the organization’s role has grown from advocating for repairs and improvements to individual public housing developments to becoming a voice in the city’s ongoing debate around low-income and affordable housing.

From leading a class-action lawsuit against the city’s housing authority for excessive utility fees to making sure residents have a say in redevelopment, members of PHAR have fought for the rights of Charlottesville’s low-income, chronically underrepresented citizens. Sixty-seven residents have taken part in PHAR’s internship program, and most have gone on to serve on PHAR’s board of directors. A handful have served on the board of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which controls the city’s public housing, and more have worked on various other city boards and commissions.

Rather than passively allowing the city to determine housing policies, PHAR’s members seek to lead the city’s public and affordable housing redevelopment and improvement process. And the years of showing up at meetings, getting in front of the microphone, and saying what residents want and need has paid off. CRHA Director Grant Duffield says PHAR’s 2016 policy publication, “Positive Vision for Resident-Directed Redevelopment,” has become “a guiding document for CRHA and the community as a whole.”

“For 20 years, PHAR has shown anyone who might think otherwise that the most vulnerable members of our community can speak up and advocate for themselves,” says UVA researcher Laura Goldblatt, a member of the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition. “They’re a model of what responsible and respectful community organizing and solidarity looks like.”

On September 29, PHAR celebrated its 20th anniversary with a party at Carver Recreation Center. Photo: Eze Amos

Charlottesville’s history with public housing, like most cities’, is tainted by its direct connection to urban renewal in the 1960s,” says Brandon Collins, PHAR’s lead organizer.

The city’s first public housing development, Westhaven, was built for residents displaced by the destruction of Vinegar Hill, a 20-acre historically black neighborhood situated just west of downtown. Commercially, the land was in an incredibly valuable location, and the city used a measure allowing the new housing authority to demolish “unsanitary and unsafe” homes to force residents out. But while the neighborhood may have had some issues, like any other, it was also home to the city’s largest concentration of black-owned businesses. Former residents say it was a tight-knit, independent community.

“This taking of black land and community was fundamentally unfair, and left a once thriving community in ruins” says Collins. It’s something he says people have “barely had a chance to try to recover from.”

The Westhaven Tenants Association, began by its residents, was a step toward that recovery. For two decades prior to Johnson’s arrival it had been advocating for tenants’ rights—but on a relatively small scale.

“Even though the tenant organization was well-organized and on point with what they were saying, their biggest fear was to speak in front of City Council,” Johnson says. But she was more than happy to take on that role.

At her first City Council meeting, Johnson highlighted the issues the group wanted addressed—trash in yards, lack of fencing, and deteriorating conditions. At the time, the city councilors were also the housing authority board of commissioners, and they questioned Johnson’s motives, wondering if she was speaking for herself or for everyone at Westhaven.

“The idea was to make it like it was just me complaining,” she says. “They had been the city councilors and housing authority commissioners for years but had not set foot in public housing.”

Soon after that first meeting, the city councilors and other city officials toured Westhaven. After that, Johnson says, things started to move more quickly.

Still, by the late ’90s, the city had an unimpressive rating from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on its public housing management and maintenance. Charlottesville had eight public housing developments, most built in the 1970s and not significantly updated or improved since their construction. And while each of the housing developments had its own advocacy association, like Westhaven’s, they were generally focused on individual improvements, and sometimes pitted against one another. When it came to citywide housing policy, low-income residents still didn’t have a seat at the table.

Johnson and other resident association leaders realized they needed  a collective voice to advocate for their rights. The groups “passed a hat,” as Johnson puts it, to cover the cost of filing an application for nonprofit status, and PHAR was born.

Westhaven, Charlottesville’s first public housing project, was built in the 1960s to house residents displaced by the destruction of Vinegar Hill. Photo: Jack Looney

As Johnson’s advocacy experience grew, she began traveling to national housing conferences and learning from other activists, like Willie “J.R.” Fleming.

Fleming calls himself a human rights enforcer. He was born in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes and spent his formative years at Cabrini-Green, one of the country’s most notorious public housing complexes.

Cabrini-Green, at its height, had 3,607 units and housed more than 15,000 people on Chicago’s Near North Side. Though infamous for violence and neglect, Fleming says it’s often overlooked that the housing development also served as a community for its residents. People knew their neighbors and looked out for each other, they shared what they had with others who didn’t have as much or any, and they felt a sense of place.

Just like at Westhaven, there were Cabrini-Green residents who were actively advocating for their rights as tenants—even as the buildings were coming down around them. J.R. (stands for “Just Righteousness”) saw how his sister was forced to relocate when the city began demolishing the complex in 1995, and he was inspired to act.

At 45 years old, J.R. has now been a housing activist for more than half his life, but he says he was “an infant in organizing” when he met Johnson.

“PHAR was determined to fight off bad public housing policy regardless of who stood with them,” Fleming says. “I was impressed by their willingness to work in a collective and their commitment to learn different ways of fighting for residents’ rights.”

Fleming and members of his Anti-Eviction Campaign, which he co-founded in 2009, partnered with PHAR to offer their expertise working in public housing advocacy.

One result is a project PHAR began last year, in collaboration with the housing authority and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville. The program trains public housing residents to repair and maintain homes, paying them to work 40 hours a week alongside Habitat volunteers and learn construction skills. With money the housing authority had allocated to repair 20 vacant public housing units, the first group of trainees set to work last spring.

 

Richard Shackelford, a 65-year-old Charlottesville native, is a resident of Crescent Halls and serves on PHAR’s board of directors. Photo: Eze Amos

 

Richard Shackelford—”Shack” to his friends and neighbors—grew up in Charlottesville, on the corner of Fifth and Harris Streets. In 2014, in his 60s, he moved to Crescent Halls, a public housing high-rise for elderly and disabled residents, after he and his wife lost their house.

Residents of Crescent Halls have long complained of poor maintenance and deterioration in the 105-unit building, which was built in 1976. In 2016, protesters outside the Monticello Avenue complex told of broken air conditioners and roaches. According to media reports, the cooling problems continued in 2018, when a backed-up sewage line also caused foul-smelling flooding.

When Shackelford heard about PHAR’s six-month internship program, which teaches residents to become advocates, he decided he wanted to be part of a group fighting for change.

The training initiative, begun not long after PHAR’s founding, remains one of the organization’s flagship programs, and a major part of its efforts to build capacity, or “people power,” as Johnson likes to say. The goal is to continue to build the network of community organizers and activists fighting for housing rights.

“At first, we had to help residents understand that they already had the skills, they were already ‘organizing,’” Johnson says. “In their day-to-day lives, they are organizers. Getting kids ready for school, having a cookout, planning a trip—that’s organizing. We’re teaching them to use those skills they already possess to become leaders.”

Nearly all the residents who complete the program go on to find jobs, the group says, and many have continued to work actively as housing advocates. Two former interns, LaTita Talbert and Audrey Oliver, are currently commissioners on the CRHA board

Shackelford completed the internship in 2016. It not only showed him that his concerns were bigger than himself, it taught him how to advocate for those concerns as a part of the policy-making process.  “The internship program got me motivated to help people do better,” he says. “I thank God for PHAR.”

Now, Shackelford serves as a member of PHAR’s board of directors and the CRHA Redevelopment Committee, and he is vice-president of the Crescent Halls Tenant Association. He’s committed to addressing the problem of housing affordability in Charlottesville.

“I’ve been here 65 years,” he says. “I’ve got some history.” He says that working people like teachers, police officers, and nurses, who could afford to own homes in the city decades ago, are now priced out.

The median home price in Charlottesville is currently $412,700, according to Zillow.com. The median rent is $1,600—that’s roughly $1,200 more than someone making minimum wage (which is set at $7.25) could afford, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Fair market rent,” set by HUD at 40 percent of typical rents, is higher in the Charlottesville area than in 95 percent of the state.   

In taking on the affordability crisis, PHAR tries to lead by example, paying its interns $11 an hour—a sum that’s significantly higher than minimum wage, if still not enough to cover Charlottesville rents.

PHAR has also incorporated the larger issue into its advocacy work. In 2017, the group worked with the Legal Aid Justice Center and other community leaders to create a new advocacy organization, the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition, to push for a city housing strategy that respects low-income residents and to raise awareness of gentrification.

 

Over the years, PHAR has had some contentious moments with city government, and even within the organization—some residents have criticized it as too confrontational and reactive. So the group’s Positive Vision for Redevelopment plan was built around the idea of focusing on public housing initiatives residents support, rather than those they are against.

The organization worked with hundreds of residents to find a consensus on ways they can help lead the city’s process of improving public and affordable housing. The resulting 18-page document outlines residents’ key priorities, including green space, workforce development, and access to medical care, childcare, grocery stores, and other businesses. Residents also say they want to be kept informed and involved in decision-making, and want to preserve the positive aspects of existing communities.

Much of what residents are seeking in the ‘Positive Vision’ is what was lost in Vinegar Hill. Rather than simply calling for redevelopment, PHAR organizer Collins says, the document asks for an approach that places residents in control, increases affordable housing stock, confronts gentrification, and makes some amends for urban renewal and the rest of Charlottesville’s negative racial history.

CRHA Director Duffield says that while his agency and PHAR haven’t always gotten along, he is looking to change that: “I am imparting on my staff the tremendous value that PHAR brings to the issue of affordable and low-income housing,” he says.

Charlottesville’s public-housing discussion differs from the conversation in much of the rest of the country, because the city is investing not just in maintaining or renovating current properties, but in building more.

“Charlottesville is unique in saying that public housing is valuable,” Duffield says. “A system that solely embraces private, voucher-based affordable housing, which is what many cities are moving toward, does not serve many of the individuals we are proud and committed to serving here.”

Plans call first for developing new public housing on city-owned land on South First Street and on Levy Avenue. Crescent Halls tenants would move there, and that complex would be redeveloped. PHAR members and CRHA are working together to hammer out the details, ensuring that residents have a say as development moves forward.

PHAR is also working on a program that will provide economic and employment opportunities for residents as the city undertakes redevelopment and development programs, like the partnership with Habitat for Humanity. The group is no longer just “at the table,” Collins says: PHAR is setting the table, serving the food, and letting folks know when it’s time to eat.

 

Johnson has led PHAR now for two decades. As its members celebrate those years and look to the future, many of them, Johnson included, are seeking the next generation of leaders to take the helm.

“To quote my co-worker’s 5-year-old, ‘It’s important work,’ says Wandae Johnson, PHAR’s new intern coordinator. “There is a large group of people who are no longer part of our community because they couldn’t keep pace with the rising cost of living facing us over the last decade.

“Housing is related to my child’s educational outlook, my job satisfaction…It’s related to my sense of safety, and my ability to be active within my community.”

“It’s important,” she concludes. “Why isn’t everyone involved?”

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