Thursday, January 1, 2009

Making a Frontal Assault on Poverty in Charlottesville

2009 is shaping up to be the year in which Charlottesville finally gets serious about attacking the poverty in our midst. A number of initiatives are underway in this regard that should start to bear real fruit this year:

* First and foremost, we're going to launch a long-overdue Master Planning process for the revitalization of our public housing neighborhoods, working in conjunction with public housing residents and other key stakeholders to transform these neighborhoods from isolated, segregated pockets of poverty and neglect to integrated, mixed-income communities with better quality housing, better neighborhood amenities and better opportunities for residents. Redevelopment of public housing in Charlottesville is the best opportunity we have for (1) increasing both the quality and quantity of our City's affordable housing stock, (2) changing the dynamics of poverty in our community, and (3) enhancing the long-term financial sustainability of the Charlottesville and Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA), which is entirely too dependent on federal subsidies. If my time on City Council is remembered for nothing else, I want it to be remembered for having seen this redevelopment process off to a successful start.

* Perhaps the most critical barrier to a successful public housing redevelopment process is the understandable fear among residents that the City/CRHA is going to "pull a Vinegar Hill" on them and repeat the top-down failures of urban renewal that we've seen in far too many cities across the country (both during urban renewal's heyday in the 1960s and in some of the Hope VI projects of the last decade). One of my proudest moments as a City Councilor came just a couple of weeks ago, when Council acted to reassure residents that we are NOT going to repeat the mistakes of the past, by unanimously adopting (as the CRHA Board did in November 2008) a far-reaching Residents' Bill of Rights for Redevelopment. Drafted by the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR) and the Legal Aid Justice Center, this document guarantees rights and opportunities for residents in the redevelopment process, foremost among them the right to live free from the fear of long-term displacement or homelessness as a result of redevelopment. Interestingly, PHAR is already getting requests from resident groups across the country for the text of this Bill of Rights, and PHAR's leadership will be in DC this spring to push for some of these same provisions to be incorporated into federal law. When it comes to protecting and advancing residents' rights, PHAR and Legal Aid are making Charlottesville a true national model.

* As the old saying goes, the best anti-poverty program in the world is a good job. Appropriately, then, 2009 is the year in which Workforce Development takes center stage in City deliberations. City Council has already established it as a top strategic priority for this year; it doesn't hurt that 2 of our members (myself and Holly Edwards) have prior professional experience with a local initiative (Connecting People to Jobs) that worked to remove barriers to living-wage employment and prepare low-income residents for career-ladder jobs. Expect to see an effort made to revive CPTJ in some form or fashion, particularly as we look to marry upcoming infrastructure investments (such as the redevelopment of our public housing neighborhoods, referenced above) with opportunities for training and employing local residents. Piedmont Virginia Community College, as the operator of our One Stop Workforce Center, is likely to play a lead role in making this happen, with the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development acting as a key catalyst for employer engagement and recruitment. Part and parcel of this effort will be (1) strengthening our local economy to retain and attract good jobs and (2) reducing barriers to gainful employment through a substantially improved public transportation system, increased access to quality affordable child care, etc. Stay tuned.

* Hopefully 2009 will be the year that we take concerted action to end chronic homelessness in Charlottesville by supporting the creation of permanent supportive housing for the homeless (in the form of a new Single Room Occupancy [SRO] facility in town), among other measures for improving access to housing and services for those of our neighbors who would otherwise be out on the streets or dependent on groups like PACEM or the Salvation Army for emergency shelter. The size of our chronically homeless population is not large, and we know what it takes to get them off the streets. Let's get to it.

* Breaking the cycle of poverty means improving opportunities for low-income youth. Our community is in the process of making the largest investment in youth enrichment programs in generations. Between the new Boys & Girls Club and Smith Aquatics Center next to Buford Middle School, the new YMCA Aquatics & Recreation Center next to Charlottesville High School, new & enhanced neighborhood-based parks & recreation programs and facilities, new athletics programs at Buford Middle School, an expanded summer employment/apprenticeship program for City youth, the Quality Community Council's wonderful Urban Farm program, a new Big Brothers Big Sisters of America chapter for Charlottesville, a new website ( to link caring adults with young people in need of positive mentors, and new initiatives in the schools to reach kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks and provide them opportunities for academic and personal success, Charlottesville is making significant strides in steering our young people toward a brighter future. We still have a long way to go.

* Where local government -- or any level of government, for that matter -- doesn't have as much of an impact on a given child's prospects is in what happens in that child's home. When a child's home life is marked by domestic violence, child abuse/neglect, drug addiction, an absent/incarcerated father, housing instability, chronic illness (physical or mental), illiteracy, hopelessness, oversaturation of media messages glorifying violence and playing to the basest of human instincts, etc., it affects that child's ability to escape the cycle. But even here, we as a community are not entirely powerless to act, nor should we consign that child to any predetermined fate; as President Bush once said, we must resist the "soft bigotry of low expectations." And resisting we are. Witness, for example, the small program that Children, Youth and Family Services initiated last year (with City support) to help absent or incarcerated fathers become "REAL Dads" to their children. Witness the heroic efforts of Piedmont Court Appointed Special Advocates and Child Protective Services and the Shelter for Help in Emergency to bring victims of violence and abuse out of harm's way. Witness the countless teachers and guidance counselors and social workers and coaches and pastors and tutors and mentors and relatives and friends who refuse to give up on a child lest that child give up on him or herself.

* Last but not least, as Chiara Canzi writes in this week's C-Ville Weekly, 2009 will be the year that Charlottesville takes a good look at how to improve race relations in our community, including what steps we can take to create a City workforce that is more representative of (and responsive to) the diverse community that we serve. Since there is an unfortunate correlation between race and poverty in Charlottesville and in this country, any effort to reduce racial disparities is likely to benefit our anti-poverty efforts as well.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this rather long-winded post. And my apologies to the many good organizations (like MACAA or the United Way or the Free Clinic, among many others) who didn't get plugged here, but who will spend 2009 continuing to do yeoman's work in the everyday battle against poverty in our community. Will poverty in Charlottesville be eradicated by December 31, 2009? Definitely not (especially not in the current economic climate). As of December 31, 2009, will we be a lot farther down the path of developing and implementing solutions to poverty so that more of our residents, both young and adult, will have the chance to realize their highest potential? I hope and expect that we will.

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