‘People can’t afford to live where they grew up’: Advocates want more protections as Norfolk overhauls St. Paul’s

Ryan Murphy, The Virginian-Pilot
·3 min read

On the site where the first apartment building has come down to make way for Norfolk’s biggest redevelopment, advocates renewed calls Wednesday for the city to make sure public housing residents aren’t left behind.

Organizers with New Virginia Majority, a group that has been coordinating with St. Paul’s residents to push back against the planned overhaul of the area, erected a 6-foot-tall symbolic “final notice” for the “debt” they said the city owed its St. Paul’s residents and the rest of Norfolk’s citizens.

Monet Johnson, one of the group’s organizers, called for more guarantees that residents will be able to return to the rebuilt community, a plan to replace every demolished unit and more affordable housing across the city to combat a brutally tight housing market.

“Norfolk has a housing problem. It’s not a St. Paul’s problem. People can’t afford to live where they grew up,” Johnson told the crowd of about 15 standing on the corner of Fenchurch and Wood streets in Tidewater Gardens on a cold, gray afternoon.

Norfolk and local housing authority officials have promised that any of the 4,200 residents of the three public housing communities in St. Paul’s will be able to return to the rebuilt community if they want, via a combination of reserved units and housing choice vouchers, formerly known as Section 8, which provide subsidies for use in renting private apartments or houses.

But residents and advocates have been saying for years that the city’s plan to remake the area will leave many current residents out in the cold. They’ve asked why the city can’t wait until some of the first new buildings are constructed before pushing people out of their homes.

They’ve also taken aim at the city’s plan to move most residents out via housing choice vouchers.

A recent analysis by The Virginian-Pilot found that less than 30% of those moving out of Tidewater Gardens, the first St. Paul’s neighborhood to be redeveloped, are going to so-called “opportunity areas” with racial diversity and lower poverty rates.

The analysis also found that the bulk of voucher holders in Norfolk — not just those moving out of St. Paul’s — live in areas with higher minority populations and fewer opportunities.

“What we’re finding with this … is people are winding up in the exact same situation” with respect to lack of access to education, jobs, transportation and opportunities, Johnson said Wednesday. “Vouchers are not a solution to what’s happening here.”

The city has said residents are choosing where they move, often because they want to live near family or in neighborhoods they know.

The dispute mirrors key arguments in a federal lawsuit filed over a year ago seeking to halt the redevelopment, in which New Virginia Majority is one of the plaintiffs. The suit alleges the city, housing authority and HUD have violated federal fair housing rules meant to prevent segregation based on race.

That lawsuit is ongoing, and city officials have declined to discuss the allegations.

Ryan Murphy, 757-739-8582, ryan.murphy@pilotonline.com