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November 9, 1968
Guest post by Madeleine Jordan-Lord, undergraduate student at University of Richmond.
The article “Tight Situation: Housing For Poor Crowds Big Family,” written by James L. Srodes for the Norfolk Journal and Guide on November 9, 1968, examined data gathered about public housing projects in urban areas and began to delve into the flaws of the system at that time. The article detailed the findings of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Commission on Urban Problems, which was an independent agency appointed by the president to conduct research specifically to survey planned housing in seven cities. Richmond, Virginia, was one of the cities studied. Along with Richmond, housing communities in Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis, Denver, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. were surveyed to gather data on the number of residents per household and whether or not the public housing units available at the time of the survey were adequate to house large families. The study found that public housing neglected families of five or more; 103,464 families from the seven-city survey were five to sixteen members large, and the number of housing units planned greatly underestimated this need. Due to poor planning, it was estimated that more than 340,000 children were affected by overcrowding in 1968.
James Srodes’ opening line to this article stood alone, “The rich get richer and the poor get crowded.” This concept is threaded through the article by explaining the insufficient planning that went into many urban public housing initiatives and the negative effects of that planning on low-income families. Srodes specifically placed blame on public housing planners who were disconnected from the communities they were serving and, instead of conducting research, based the construction of units on statistical standards of average families. City planning that disadvantaged low-income, predominantly African-American communities was the result of local governments neglecting and disenfranchising minorities. These inequalities were persistent in housing even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act of LBJ’s Great Society. Historically, federal funding had been granted to jurisdictions that wished to address public housing for low-income residents, but the task fell to local governments to decide if and how to allocate these funds. In the case of Richmond, Virginia Senator Harry Byrd in 1937 introduced legislation which set the absolute limit on funds that could be set per unit in public housing developments as $5,000; due to objections to public housing by white residents in Virginia, public housing units were built in densely populated urban areas with already high poverty rates.”141 These planning choices, which were seen as problematic in 1968, continue to plague low-income families.
These same commentaries are relevant to Richmond and other urban areas today. Nearly fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, severe housing disparities still exist in cities like Richmond. Political marginalization of minorities, particularly African Americans, can be seen physically in the planning of cities like Richmond through the severe crowding, segregation, and isolation from resources in many housing communities. Since this article was written in 1968, nonprofit organizations like Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia (HOME) have been created to bridge the gap between city planners and city residents, particularly in low-income areas. In HOME’s “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice” for 2013–2015, they attribute many of the issues facing public housing redevelopment in Richmond today as historical. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) has been working to stabilize neighborhoods through various partnerships and initiatives, but this arm of city government must work within the structure for public housing that was established in the past and the repercussions of those ineffective planning policies. Despite civil rights legislation like the 1968 Fair Housing Act and organizations like HOME, inefficiency, inequality, and racism in city planning has left legacies in Richmond that continue to exist unhealed.