Social Justice

…I’d write about this week’s cover article in Style about gun crime.

I’d probably title the post with this quote from a gun dealer: “Richmond is kind of like a bad neighborhood…”

I’d write about the poor logic of statements like this: “ Some people may want tougher gun laws, but the point between a legal sale and a crime can be a long, winding road.”

I’d write about how the people lobbying for and profiting from liberal gun laws are not bearing the high societal cost of their actions.

Crime and the health of urban environments is clearly within the scope of my blog, yet I’ve taken on so much in my personal life right now that I just can’t find the time to write a well-reasoned, well-researched response to this article.  And I know you can’t criticize gun laws in this country without entering a political minefield.  So for now, I’ll just point out that this article, particularly its conclusions, should be read with your critical thinking skills fully engaged.

Several of you have noticed and commented on my lack of blogging lately- thanks for your support of this blog and I hope to get back into the game soon.


The following post is part of my periodic good ideas series, where I highlight good ideas from other cities that could improve Richmond if implemented here.

San Francisco’s mayor Gavin Newsom recently echoed a recurring theme in state- and city-level politics:

The political dialogue must change, Newsom insists. “If it’s not going to happen through national leadership or statewide leadership,” he says, “then it has to happen on a local level.” [VIA Time Magazine]

Sound familiar? It should. Politicians have been hammering that theme as their reason for enacting anti-immigrant legislation.

Newsom, however, isn’t talking about the federal government’s failure to enact meaningful immigration reform- he’s talking about the millions of Americans who lack health insurance.

And he’s got a plan: Healthy San Francisco.

The idea is not to provide universal insurance for San Francisco’s 82,000 uninsured residents, but rather universal access to health care.

Uninsured San Francisco residents can enroll in the Healthy San Francisco program, pay monthly fees and co-pays according to an income-based sliding scale, and then go to any number of participating clinics, hospitals, and doctors. A key difference between this program and insurance is that the benefits don’t travel- outside San Francisco you can’t get care.

From the program’s website:

The following services are included with Healthy San Francisco:

  • Preventive and Routine Care
  • Specialty Care
  • Urgent Care
  • Emergency Care
  • Ambulance Services
  • Hospital Care
  • Alcohol and Drug Abuse Care
  • Laboratory Services and Tests
  • Mental Health Care
  • Family Planning
  • Durable Medical Equipment
  • Prescription Medicine

Not covered are vision, dental, organ transplants, and many other important services and procedures.

The big question, of course, is funding. Amazingly, they’re attempting to fund the program without a general tax increase.

The city estimates that it spends $111 million on emergency care for uninsured residents. So by providing basic preventative care they can trim that figure and redirect the excess.

Program director Tangerine Brigham (great name!) addressed where the remaining funds would be found:

Brigham said the program should cost $200 million the first year, and officials expect to finance it without a tax increase. They will also receive a federal grant of $24 million a year. In addition to membership fees and co-payments, the city will also receive money for the program from employers with more than 20 employees, who, starting in 2008, will be required to contribute a set amount to health care. [VIA The Cincinnati Post]

Of course, the bit about employers contributing has been controversial- for those interested in that debate opposing views were printed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. See the supporting editorial here and opposing one here.

Could this work in Richmond? I can’t even pretend to make an authoritative statement about that. But I’m thrilled that a city is attempting a truly innovative approach to solving this perennial moral problem in American society.

And beyond the social justice aspect, could offering health care to all Richmond residents stem the tide of population loss? Would folks choose to stay in the city when their children reached school age if their medical bills were lower?

Would we see increased entrepreneurship and small business start-ups as the crushing financial burden of providing for your own health care was lifted?

Or would this exacerbate the problems created by our independent city form of government by giving another incentive to businesses to locate in the counties (assuming that the counties would not participate in a program like this)?

I’m sure the country will be watching San Francisco to see how this plays out. I’m hoping it becomes a model for the rest of the country.

I attended a breakfast meeting this morning sponsored by the non-profit group, Hope in the Cities. The keynote speaker was former Mississippi Governor William Winter, a champion of public education who succeeded in passing major education reform legislation for Mississippi while in office.

Considering the massive political upheaval surrounding everything related to the Richmond Public Schools, Gov. Winter’s visit was timely.

Attendees were very diverse in terms of age, race, and the organizations they represented. City and suburban school districts sent representatives, as did major corporations (e.g. Capital One, Bon Secours), non-profits (e.g. YMCA, Red Cross), and faith-based organizations.

Sadly, out of hundreds of people there, only 1 was an elected official, Sheriff Woody. Considering the theme of the breakfast, Innovating for the 21st Century: Healthy Integrated Public Schools,’ it was disappointing that NONE of our school board officials came, and NONE of the members of city council or county boards of supervisors came.

Considering the distinguished reputation of Hope in the Cities (who’ve been around for almost 30 years and recently helped bring about the reconciliation statue in Shockoe)- and the who’s who of non-elected officials who were there, I was a bit surprised that no elected officials who deal with education were there. Former Richmond Mayor Walter Kinney and former City Manager (and current DC City Manager) Robert Bobb both attended.

Griping about politicians aside, Winter’s address was inspiring.

The main point he made was that until we address the racial divides in our community, we’ll never be able to solve the education problem.

As long as black and white folks live separate lives without coming together for honest conversation about our similarities and our differences, then we will continue living out segregated and isolated lives- in education and in other areas.

People from every walk of life share a common goal: quality education for their children.

Gov. Winter suggested finding ways to come together, across the divides of race, class, and jurisdiction, to achieve that goal.

But as long as we still have racism, racial prejudice, and massive disparities in educational attainment and income which we don’t talk about or address as a community, then we won’t be able to achieve healthy public schools in the Richmond region.

Urban renewal. Who can be against it? Who opposes renewal, or rebirth, or renaissance of our urban areas?

The phrase “urban renewal” is semantically loaded- it conjures mental images of a dying city in need of new life. I imagine a neighborhood filled with dilapidated housing, crime, broken street lights, and few, if any, stores. The promise of renewal- of new homes and shops, of a neighborhood with little crime- who can say no to that?

Or, if urban renewal isn’t your phrase, you might prefer, “the dire need to create more flourishing neighborhoods across the city…” [said by our own Mayor Wilder, via]

Style’s cover article this week, however, provides a cautionary tale about these promises of urban renewal. “The Greatest Place on Earth” details the history of the Fulton community and its demise at the hands of the government.

First, there was the decay of the neighborhood from a complex array of factors: death of the streetcar that formerly terminated in the neighborhood, suburban sprawl, shopping malls, neglect by the city (who admittedly didn’t enforce building codes).

Second, there was the demonizing of the newly-crumbling neighborhood:

In 1966, city leaders had gone so far as to declare Fulton its “worst slum.” City Council commissioned a study looking at options for revitalization.

“Fulton Bottom is, for the most part, an aged and ragged neighborhood wracked by crime and poverty,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in 1969. “Most of its houses are officially classified as dilapidated, and many are considered unfit for human occupancy. Most people, no doubt, regard the East End community as a blot upon the city, a place to shun if possible.”

Third, there’s promises to take care of residents and redevelop the neighborhood:

So its revamped plan called for tearing down Fulton in phases. Some $32 million in federal grants were secured, some of which was intended to help property owners revitalize existing homes that were structurally sound. Fulton residents were to be offered the opportunity to live in the new development as well.

Then there’s the subsequent political reality which sets in after the old neighborhood is torn down:

Despite the plan to phase in the development and preserve some homes, [Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority] RRHA wound up demolishing the entire neighborhood using the power of eminent domain. The funding dried up, and the new housing, particularly in the valley, would take more than 30 years to come to fruition.

I’m no libertarian or conservative anti-government republican, nor am I a radical leftist who wants to dismantle every government function. I can, however, learn from Richmond’s history and say with confidence that government promises to help low-income folks are too often worthless.

Fulton and Randolph were both to be redeveloped for its residents more than 30 years ago. Neither is finished today. The gap between the subsidized Blackwell project’s demolition and the beginning of construction (not the completion, mind you) was more than 5 years.

So while Scott Bass’ excellent Style article about Fulton is interesting (much is taken from Seldon Richardson’s also excellent book Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond, VA), I found myself comparing the history of Fulton to the current conversations about demolishing the housing projects.

There are, of course, key differences, most obviously the historic import of the neighborhoods and architecture. But the story is the same- the politicians want to redevelop a low-income neighborhood and make lofty promises to the current residents about creating thriving mixed-income neighborhoods. Then, as was the case with Fulton, Randolph, and Blackwell, those promises are broken, and redevelopment happens incredibly slowly.

One of the greatest critiques I hear from politicians and from Richmond residents about subsidized housing projects is about the “entitlement mentality” of the residents, who supposedly take housing for granted and take no personal ownership of their property and neighborhood.

I would argue that redevelopment schemes like those in Fulton- and like those being floated for the current housing projects- perpetuate that mentality by not adequately involving the residents affected and not adequately taking their concerns into account.

If we truly wish to increase the ownership people take in their housing, we need to make sure we include them in any process that affects them and honor their input.

The blogosphere has been abuzz about the recent charrette process and celebrating public involvement in the planning process. Let’s make that a basic principle of our city- always involve the public – and not let disasters like Fulton’s demolition and painfully slow redevelopment happen again.

Then we need to hold the politicians’ responsible when they fail to take us into account.

The city has compiled a page of information on the draft Downtown Master Plan, including wonderfully detailed maps that can keep you entertained for days- that is if you’re anything like me and often find yourself dreaming about what Richmond could become.

While scanning these fascinating maps, I discovered a whole slew of new parking lots and garages planned. Fortunately, the master plan calls for them to be “lined with habitable spaces to create a pedestrian-friendly street frontage.”

The suggested locations of these new parking lots are scattered throughout the downtown area. Unfortunately, one of them appears to be on the “Burial Ground for Negroes,” located north of Broad St., squeezed between I-95 and the train tracks. The map of the Shockoe area has the clearest view of this planned lot.

The story of the burial ground is told partially by the historical marker located on the nearby stretch of Broad St.:


Near here is the early site of the Richmond gallows and “Burial Ground for Negroes.” On 10 Oct. 1800, Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith from Brookfield plantation in Henrico County, was executed there for attempting to lead a mass uprising against slavery on 30 Aug. 1800. A fierce rainstorm delayed the insurrection, which then was betrayed by two slaves. Gabriel escaped and eluded capture until 23 Sept., when he was arrested in Norfolk. He was returned to Richmond on 27 Sept. and incarcerated in the Virginia State Penitentiary. On 6 Oct. he stood trial and was condemned. At least 25 of his supporters were also put to death there or in other jurisdictions.

The burial ground is currently located under a privately owned parking lot. Nevertheless, it has become an officially recognized “stop” on the city’s slave trail walk.

VCU is also interested in developing the site, and lists it as an “area of future consideration” on their master plan (scroll to page 20).

It’s unclear to me how large the burial ground is. Currently the draft master plan has unlabeled green space for a block between Broad and Marshall, then parking north of Marshall. It’s possible, though seems unlikely, that the burial ground is only one city block.

Researching and memorializing this burial ground is an important task for our city. We need to preserve this site, not let VCU develop it, and certainly not let it remain a parking lot.

If I’m able to make it to the next round of public meetings, I would like to raise this issue if there’s appropriate space to do so. If any of you know whether this site was discussed during the charrette process, kindly comment about it below.

The next meeting to discuss the draft master plan is Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 6:30pm at The Renaissance Conference Center (located at 107 W. Broad Street at the corner of W. Broad and Adams Streets).

According to the city, “Free parking for the event will be available to the rear of the conference center.”

“I don’t see where that helps a school by combining a school district.” – Robert Setliff, chairman of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors [VIA]

Seriously? Well, perhaps Chairman Setliff needs to read the article in which he was quoted. There he’ll see some research referenced which clearly refutes his baseless claim:

Federal studies show that school systems with more than 50 percent of students reliant on free lunch programs simply do not succeed, Cowles [Executive Director of Richmond-based Initiatives of Change] says. Considering the overwhelming number of city schools that face such a scenario, he says, “the city can’t address it alone.”

So does Chairman Setliff not know that poverty is concentrated in one jurisdiction in our region?

Does Chairman Setliff not know about education research that shows that concentrated poverty has an adverse affect on student academic performance?

Does Chairman Setliff not know how suburban Richmond-area counties actively prevent affordable housing from being built through zoning laws, thus continuing the economic segregation which keeps some jurisdictions saddled with high poverty levels?

Either he doesn’t know these things- and should therefore not be publicly commenting on what helps schools, or he does know these things- and is claiming ignorance in order to prevent change which would benefit our most educationally disadvantaged children.

Either way, it’s a striking statement of ignorance from a highly-place suburban official.

Let’s hope other officials will at least acknowledge the disadvantage created by our unique county-city divisions, even if they don’t intend to change them. Because statements like this obscure the real issue- children are not being served by our current school systems.

Let’s analyze this statement:

For some business owners in areas where the GRTC buses don’t reach, finding employees willing to walk from the bus stops to the workplaces isn’t easy…

“There is a huge disconnect between where the jobs are and where potential employees are coming from,” said William H. Baxter, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants Association…

“Some businesses are having some real challenges finding employees to work in retail locations,” Baxter said. “It’s going to have a negative impact as growth and expansion continues.” [VIA]

How do businesses decide where to locate their stores? By going to neighborhoods where there are plenty of folks who will buy their products- folks with high disposable income.

How do they keep their prices competitive? By cutting costs wherever possible, including offering few benefits and low salaries.

Where do the employees come from? Obviously not from the neighborhoods the stores serve, who could not afford the goods for sale in the stores if they worked in them. They come from neighborhoods where there’s so-called affordable housing.

And the TD’s diagnosis: Bus routes are too short.

Am I the only one who thinks this is a band-aid solution to a much larger problem?

Of course I support expanded transit. I’ve written about it many times on this blog.

Of course I support connecting employees with employers and decreasing our society’s auto-dependency in the process.

But that’s not the problem described in this article. The problem is employees who are willing to work for low wages live far away from low wage jobs. The problem is retail which caters to wealthy folks is located in neighborhoods that exclude lower-income people who cannot afford the housing nearby.

The problems are economically segregated housing development and single-use zoning.

Ever since zoning laws were declared legal by the Supreme Court in 1926 (Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co.), which found that there is a “valid government interest in maintaining the character of a neighborhood,” politicians and planners have segregated land use- keeping industrial, commercial, and residential land uses separate from one another.

That Court decision and the subsequent spread of zoning laws paved the way for our auto-dependency by making it possible – and even desirable- to locate employment and retail out of walking distance from residences.

And perhaps even more devastating to our communal life in this country, the Court’s decision paved the way for segregating housing by economic status. By validating government interest in controlling the “character” of neighborhoods, the Court opened the door to excluding “undesirable” people through zoning. Subsequently, many suburban localities only allowed zoning for low-density, large lot single-family homes and refused to zone for high density small lot and multi-family housing.*

It’s this legacy of excluding poor folks through zoning that has contributed to employment centers completely out of transportation range of people who need to work there. Expanding bus routes is important and will help in the short run, but why not talk about expanding affordable housing?

In order to not name problems without offering solutions, I suggest the Richmond region discuss enacting inclusionary zoning laws, which require residential building projects of a certain size to include affordable housing. Montgomery Co., MD is the pioneer of this zoning law; 10,000 affordable housing units have been built there since 1974. The county is the 6th wealthiest in the nation.

Other communities with inclusionary zoning laws:

  • Burlington, Vermont
  • Barnstable County, Massachusetts, which contains Cape Cod
  • Princeton, New Jersey
  • Frederick County, Maryland
  • Fairfax County, Virginia, the wealthiest county in the US
  • Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • Davidson, North Carolina
  • Tallahassee, Florida
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Boulder, Colorado
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • San Francisco, California
  • Palo Alto, California
  • San Mateo County, California
  • Sacramento, California
  • West Hollywood, California
  • Huntington Beach, California
  • San Diego, California
  • New York, New York
  • Montclair, New Jersey

Inclusionary zoning isn’t without problems or controversy. But changing zoning laws to require that politicians and developers build housing for all budgets would be a tremendous step towards alleviating the social problem of economic segregation.

*”For instance, one of the most commonly cited exclusionary [zoning] practices is the stipulation that lots must be of a certain minimum size and houses must be set back from the street by a certain minimum space. In many cases, these housing ordinances have prevented affordable housing from being built, because the large plots of land required to build within code are cost-prohibitive for more modest homes. Communities have remained only available to the upper classes because of these ordinances, effectively shutting the poor out of access to desirable communities.” [VIA]

** Another problem, of course, is income inequality. But that’s another post- this one is in response to the Times Dispatch article about short bus routes.

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