By Sasha Graham-Croner, Staying Power Fellow, 2017
I am truly grateful to be part of the Staying Power Fellowship, a six-month participatory action research and art fellowship about housing and belonging in Richmond. It allowed me to speak to the truths of my community. My family and friends have been affected by the issues set forth in this report. To be able to participate in a collaborative manner with others who share the vision of a strong, unified Richmond has brought hope to those assumed forgotten. The opportunity for my fellows and I to work alongside our community to ensure their future through this work is something I will never forget. I will never give up on this place I call home. The mural I helped to envision and create is now for all to see, I am now known as a warrior in my community and I intend to live up to it for as long as I am alive.
According to Abraham Maslow’s "Hierarchy of Needs," the first and second tiers of human need include meeting our physiological needs and basic safety: housing is necessary for both. By providing this foundation, housing creates the opportunity for operating at our full potential.
The need for quality housing for in Richmond has reached a critical point and must be addressed with a multidimensional set of lenses. When we look at housing through different lenses—through stories, histories, policies, statistics, economics, arts—the theme of belonging emerges as central to addressing housing needs. Belonging within a city is not about being born there. It is not even about owning a home there. Belonging represents the communal spaces that are genuinely inclusive and supportive to all.
Many of the issues in Richmond seem to be tied to a disconnection between housing and belonging among its leaders. As residents, there is a need to educate ourselves on the historical, social, economic, and political contexts that have brought the long growing problem of housing to its current critical point. During the Staying Power fellowship, we looked at overlapping factors to design methods of analyzing the conditions and needs of marginalized and oppressed populations in Richmond. Many Black families in Richmond have endured rent increases without limits and eviction without just cause. Many immigrants, particularly undocumented Latinx families in Richmond have endured horrible living conditions because of their status. And for many formerly incarcerated individuals, homelessness is the name of the game. These atrocious realities have left individuals and families with no home and, just as importantly, hopeless and with no sense of belonging.
Research that employs various methods can be very useful here. By engaging directly through oral histories and interviews with populations who have been the most affected, and integrating those with data and statistics, we can create the type of real-world analysis needed to develop and implement real, sustainable solutions.
Ongoing activism around housing issues in Richmond has aided in the passing of laws to help address and rescue many families from displacement and despair. However, laws are ineffective without accountability. Many families have still suffered displacement and harassment from landlords that refuse to acknowledge the new ordinances. Historically excluded from benefits of the legal system, how could a mother know or believe she could challenge her landlord when she was disconnected from a decision made in the halls of the city government? In Richmond it will take accountability from our leaders to step up and give priority to the housing crisis. “Affordable” housing excludes many people who are “low income” or have no income—delving into terminology and the details of development shows the lack of concern for those who have no names behind politically closed doors.
We cannot rest on these successes. We must call for the construction and renovation of even more low-income housing within the city. Laws need to be fully enforced by the powers of the city. In my own experience, in 2017 I was pressured to leave the home I was renting. I was not given a 30-day notice, nor any explanation, just a threat of violence if I did not vacate within a couple days. When the person tried to attack my family and me, the police were called; when they arrived, their only advice was for me to vacate for my safety. Even with the Just Cause for Eviction ordinance, the police suggested that my rights as a renter did not matter and that the only way to keep myself from violence was to leave with my child and be homeless. I did just that. I left, but with nowhere to go. This trial motivated me to keep going with the Staying Power Fellowship and to make sure the mural project I was leading lifted up the rights of those whose voices are not heard by some city leaders or its protectors. To do this requires a sense of belonging that emanates from those who live here and serve here.
The need for community—real community—is an integral part in solving the housing crisis. We must have knowledge and respect for those who we call neighbors, constituents, and leaders. This respect will lead us to think first of stabilizing the homes and lives of those who have been neglected and who deserve to stay in Richmond.
Leaving your home, the place and community where you belong, should be a choice you have made, not an inevitable result of displacement for capitalistic interests.