When it comes to affordable housing, Alexandria continues its race to the bottom


Since 2000, the very small city of Alexandria, Virginia, outside of Washington, DC, has “lost” 12,000 affordable apartments, most of whose residents were African American, Latino, and then African immigrants. In the past, the alibi was “development.” In the most recent episode, that of Ramsey Homes, it’s “heritage”. Either way, the result is the same.

Ramsey Homes is 74 years old and in terrible shape. It was originally built for African American defense workers, and so was always “very Spartan”. It has no air conditioning, inadequate heating and electricity, deteriorating plumbing, and the list goes on.

The residents want and deserve better. Many want to tear down the buildings and start anew, with promises that they will be among the new. They know the history of `urban renewal’ in Alexandria, and they know it hasn’t included them. But they believed that if they could make their case, this time the City would act differently.

It didn’t. Along with much bungling among city agencies responsible for housing, the City Council couldn’t move forward because some of its members listened to a call for `historic preservation.’

Charkenia Walker, a resident of Ramsey Homes, has tried to get the City Council and other city agencies to understand the situation: “It’s hard to believe the historic significance and relevance outweighs the standard of living in 2015. I just want neighbors to understand the construction of new units will benefit us as a whole. There are working-class citizens who cannot afford to live in the neighborhood in which they have grown, me included … The units are old. Think of an aging person. When you get old, you don’t walk as good as you used to, you don’t climb stairs as good as you used to, your mechanisms begin to change. The same thing is happening inside of these units, they are falling apart.”

Ramsey Homes is the architecture of affordable housing in Alexandria: disregarded by public officials and public policy for decades, crumbling, and toxic. The residents have struggled to secure decent housing, here and now, here where they live and have roots and commitments, and now. The residence may be Spartan, but the neighborhood is home.

Once again, the City has failed them, and this failure is nothing new. It’s systemic, longstanding and part of the plan. It’s time, it’s way past time, to reverse the past two decades of loss and violence.

 

(Photo Credit: Alexandria Times)

Youth United: We have a solution – restorative justice

 

My name is Haydi Torres, and I am a member of Alexandria United Teens.  I am also a student at T.C. Williams High School in the International Academy. I am here today to lift up the voices of students who, every day, face the suspension problem in Alexandria schools.

Too many of my friends and classmates—and too many of our little brothers and sisters in middle and elementary school—are getting suspended. As students, we watch what happens when our friends and classmates get suspended, and we know it doesn’t work.

When students are suspended, we don’t get a chance to work on whatever it was that made us act out in the first place. And being sent home from school makes us feel like we don’t matter, that our school does not care about or believe in us.

For example, there was someone at my school who was suspended recently for getting in a fight with another student. Suspending the student for fighting did not solve anything. One student got to stay home, sleep, play video games, and get a vacation from school. The other student got more and more angry waiting for the first student to come back to school. Whatever the students were fighting about became an even bigger issue because they never talked about it. The school never actually made them deal with it.

Even though I’ve never been suspended, when things like this happen, I am affected too. It makes me feel like school is a place just interested in pushing us out when we make mistakes, instead of helping us to learn from them.

What makes the situation worse is that we know some students are suspended more than others. In 2010-11, the District shared data with us that showed that black students were 5 times more likely to receive a suspension than white students. Latino students were almost 3 times more likely to receive a suspension than white students. Suspensions, which we know don’t work, are especially used to punish students of color.  Students who look like me.

I am sad to know that this is happening in our schools. I know that teachers, our school leaders, and the city I love are also saddened by this.  I know we all believe we can and must all work together to fix it.

The good news is we already know that there is a better, proven way to handle student behavior than suspensions: restorative justice.

Restorative justice practices help teachers, students, and others talk about the root causes of conflicts, mistakes and bad behaviors. In the example of my classmates who got in a fight, a teacher or a counselor could have talked to each student separately. If they agreed, they could have then brought them together in a circle to talk about what caused the fight and how the fight affected each person.

It sounds so simple, but with the right training, we know it can reduce suspensions and improve school relationships.

My name is Glancy Rosales and I am a member of Alexandria United Teens.  I am also a student at T.C. Williams. As Haydi said, the bad news is that too many students are getting suspended. The good news is that we have a solution: restorative justice.

Today is not the first time students and community members have raised the issue of bringing restorative justice in our schools.  Since the fall of 2011, I have been part of a group of youth and community members that served as part of the “Student Empowerment Work Group. That group was part of the Student Achievement Advisory Committee. For many months, we attended meetings with the school district.

One of our key recommendations during that process was restorative justice.             In the end, after all that work, restorative justice disappeared from the Work Group’s final recommendations. Although we were frustrated by the way that the community was treated in this process, we think there is now a new chance to work together: the Alexandria City School Board, the school district, and the community.

Great things are possible when the community and the school system works together to make changes. We actually have a successful history of doing that with the district. For example, TWU worked with School Superintendent Dr. Sherman, the District, and our ally Advancement Project on the creation of the ICAP, the Individual Career and Academic Plan.

Getting restorative justice in our schools is another opportunity to work together.

Our ally Advancement Project is a national organization that supports community groups like TWU, the Tenants and Workers United. In Denver, Colorado, Advancement Project worked with Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a community group, and their school district to implement restorative justice. Their work has created a great relationship between the community and the district, and has reduced suspensions.

We are proud of our city and our school and we hope we can be a part of that kind of process and success in Alexandria. So today, we have three requests for the Alexandria City School Board.

First, express your support for restorative justice in words and in actions. Many School Board members have listened carefully to the voices of the students and the community.  We are thankful for that. We would like to hear support from the whole board.

Second, make funding available to bring restorative justice into our schools. Recently, the district expressed interest in having a pilot at TC Williams High School. We support this proposal.

Third, Please make sure youth and community, the people who are most harmed by suspensions, are very involved in implementing restorative justice. We ask you to make sure we get to work with the District to implement restorative justice. As we know, school systems are strongest when we work in partnership and when the voices of youth and community are heard and respected.

(Haydi Torres and Glancy Rosales are high school students in the Alexandria City Public Schools. They are also members of Alexandria United Teens, a project of the Tenants and Workers United. They recently gave a version of the above as testimony to the Alexandria City School Board. Thanks to Haydi and Glancy, to the Alexandria United Teens, and to the Tenants and Workers United for this collaboration.)

 

(Photo Credit: The Connection / Vernon Miles)

The Iron Women who resist eviction

At the beginning of the 20th century, the slum dwellers of Glasgow, Scotland, were faced with predatory landlords, rising rents and a government that was hand-in-glove with the slum owners, the `urban developers’ of the day. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the working poor of Alexandria, Virginia, face predatory landlords and, again, a local government that is hand-in-glove with the latter-day developers. In both instances, the weapon du jour is mass eviction. From Glasgow to Alexandria, from then to now, women have organized to stop the evictions and to secure justice.

On Saturday, April 13, 2013, the Alexandria City Council voted, 6 – 1, in favor of redevelopment with a vengeance, in this instance of the Beauregard neighborhood, the last redoubt of affordable housing in the city. After 30 years of actively and energetically reducing the number of available affordable housing units, and after 30 years of engaging in mass displacement of working communities and families, primarily people of color, the City Council decided to continue on the same path.

But there was opposition, in the streets and on the Council, and, while the immediate results are discouraging and the tone and content of discussion at the Council level was depressing, there is reason for hope.

The City Council heard technical, passionate, eloquent testimony after testimony from residents and from their supporters. Beauregard tenant organizer and leader Veronica Calzada spoke through tears of the stress of three years of facing evictions, and a future that promised only bleaker and grimmer vistas. Longtime Beauregard resident Neota Hall described the fear her neighbors lived with, the palpable sense of persecution and harassment, and of her own difficulties, at 70 years of age, of planning for the future. Longtime activists, such as Sammie Moshenberg, described the meaning of demolition, and the alternatives that still remain. Victoria Menjivar, President of the Tenants and Workers United, described in detail the dire mathematics of mass displacement and, again, the alternatives still available. Woman after woman described the conditions, protested the injustices and lack of vision, offered alternatives, and told the human story of possible, attainable justice.

Seven people sit on the Alexandria City Council. Only one, Allison Silberberg, Vice-Mayor of Alexandria, listened. She insisted on the centrality and value of people’s lives. She insisted on listening, critically and compassionately, to what the actual residents of the actual units were saying. Silberberg insisted on placing these people at the center of the discussion and, more importantly, at the center of public policy, municipal and regional development, and justice.

Silberberg withstood the visible and verbal scorn and derision of some of her `fellow’ Council members for her refusal to accept a plan that included mass eviction. Hers was the single and singular opposing vote.

Later that night, when the residents of Beauregard gathered to eat and share their sense of the day’s events, they talked of Silberberg’s courage and vision, and they talked, with dismay and pain, at the inhumanity of the rest of the Council. They said this a government that does not want us. This is a government whose vision is measured in the dollars and wealth of some at the expense, and exclusion, of the labor and worth of others.

So, the vote went down, 6 – 1. The Council and the developers worked hard to make it unanimous, and in this they failed. Silberberg stood with the Iron Women of Alexandria, not alone.

This is an old, even redundant story, one of `municipal development’, mass removals, and resistant women.

For example, in 1914, in Glasgow, Scotland, slum owners saw that many men were off to the wars and many others were coming in, suddenly, to work in the munitions industry. In other words, they saw women heads of households, on one hand, and new migrants, on the other. They saw both as vulnerable, and so raised the rents astronomically.

Mary Barbour, housewife and mother, began organizing to stop the rent increases and to repel the sheriff’s officers who came to evict tenants. She helped organize the South Govan Women’s Housing Association, which grew into the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. She organized and led “Mrs. Barbour’s Army”, which physically stopped the sheriffs. Barbour’s organizing led to the passage of the Rent Restriction Act. It was an army of women who changed the laws, who secured housing, who insisted on the dignity of all people, equally.

From Glasgow then to Alexandria now, women have insisted that the working poor are people. The working poor have a right to their homes, to their neighborhoods, to their communities. That’s the history of Mary Barbour, the Iron Lady of Glasgow, and it could be the future in Alexandria. In Alexandria, women are organizing in households and on the streets, as well as in the City Hall.  When it comes to housing and the concrete, lived right to the city, women are leading the struggle for human decency and for justice. From Glasgow then to Alexandria today … and beyond.

 

(Photo Credit: alextimes.com)