Connecting the Dots
The Richmond Housing Authority Crisis and the Big Picture
By Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles
There has been a great deal of attention directed toward Richmond's Housing Authority after recent negative media coverage alleging gross mismanagement. Although there have been challenges to the truthfulness and questions about the accuracy in the reporting, what we know for certain is that real harm was done, and we must take the health and wellbeing of our residents as seriously as we do our own.
The residents of our public housing deserve that much respect and action on our part at a minimum. To ensure sustainable solutions, it is critical to find the systemic underlying causes and to make both the short and long term changes necessary. Although it is premature to say what the ultimate outcome will be, I support the full independent investigation that Richmond Mayor and Housing Authority Board Chair, Gayle McLaughlin has called for.
I appreciate the independent press and I support the right of the people to know what is going on. I also recognize that reporting outrageous acts of mismanagement, deplorable living conditions and finger pointing make for good press, but there is a bigger picture and another story that is not being told. That story is one of income inequality, historic and systemic oppression, poverty, racism, classism and the politics of economics that contribute to the resulting problems. Because the full truth is complex and neither sensational nor simple, that story does not fit neatly into a sound bite that tugs at heart strings or elicits indignant gasps.
Local governments all over the country are being asked to do more with less, and are then held accountable for all the things can and do go wrong. Of course, we and they must take some responsibility, but under the circumstances, some of the responsibility must also be fairly shared and things must ultimately shift. As income inequality has dramatically increased, we have witnessed the systematic shredding of the social safety net. There are constant cut backs in funds, often resulting in the cut backs in staff and lowered morale for the staff in place. This results in far reaching systemic problems. These are the real and concrete consequences of the austerity measures national and state governments have been promoting and enacting. When an agency is working with limited resources, where there is not enough to cover basic needs, it is fertile ground for discontent, low morale, corruption and incompetence. Not many competent people want to stay at a job they are expected to do but can't do well for lack of resources. This does not in any way excuse the alleged rude or disrespectful treatment of residents; on the contrary. Neither does it justify unresponsive department action. But unless we start dealing with the underlying issue of poverty, finding people jobs, and rebuilding the safety net, there is no real or lasting solution. All other efforts are simply band aids and cosmetics.
One of the many reasons that I am promoting a fair living wage is to make a local attempt to begin to decrease the ever widening disparity faced by workers - in this case those who may happen to be public housing residents, as well those who provide any number of services to the residents, and of course all other workers. Everyone deserves a chance at a decent life and a decent place to live. I also believe that given a choice, workers prefer to work with integrity. The current economy does not support living wages that provide a sufficient income to many individuals to make a living and afford market rate housing. As long as income disparity remains egregiously high, people will struggle with housing and there will be public housing. As long as there is public housing, we the stewards of the public funds, must be vigilant in ensuring that it is responsibly and respectfully managed.
The City Council alone cannot remedy the larger issue of national economic disparity and income inequality. Fortunately, organized communities can and are fighting for justice and equity in these areas. I stand with my colleagues and the community in the belief that government works for and with the people. I welcome ongoing dialogue on this issue and look forward to discovering what more will be revealed. I will continue to initiate and support public policies for appropriate and necessary action for the good of the residents of Richmond.
This article first appeared in the Feb. 22 San Francisco BayView National Black Newspaper.