Alice Washington knew it was real when the port-a-potties arrived last week.
And when the construction fencing went up the next day, she could finally, truly, believe it: After more than 20 years of redevelopment promises made and broken over and over again, after 20 years of advocating for better living conditions for herself and fellow Crescent Halls residents, renovations are about to begin on the eight-story building with 105 public housing apartments for seniors and people with disabilities.
On Wednesday afternoon, between spates of April rain, the sun shone silver through the clouds just long enough for Washington and other Crescent Halls residents to kick off the hard-won and overdue resident-led renovations with brief speeches from local housing advocates and community leaders, local and state-level dignitaries, construction project managers and others. The celebration began with a moment of silence for those folks who advocated for and helped envision these changes but who did not live to enjoy them: Richard “Shack” Shackelford, Curtis Gilmore, Edna Walker, Eve Snowden, Michael Parham, Edith Durette, Michael Blair, Tom Jackson and many others.
Over the course of the next 18 months, just about everything inside the Monticello Avenue building — which was built in 1976 — will get an upgrade. The heating, cooling, electrical, lighting, plumbing, sprinkler, elevator and security systems will be replaced, and the structure will be topped off with a new roof. Communal spaces on the first floor will be renovated, and each apartment will be updated with new appliances, cabinets, bathrooms, windows, and other finishes. Only the building structure will remain the same. Residents of Crescent Hall often gather on and around the benches outside the building, and with the renovations, they’ll have more outdoor gathering space, too, as well as more ADA-accessible parking spaces. The renovations will cost an estimated $17 million to $18 million.
Crews will renovate two floors at a time while residents remain in the crescent-shaped building throughout the process. Most residents will have to relocate just once before moving back into the permanent spots after October 2022.
“It will be tough.”
“It won’t be easy.”
“It’s going to be noisy; it’s going to be loud.”
“Call me when you need something.”
Those refrains echoed throughout the afternoon’s various speeches, and Brandon Collins, lead organizer with the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR) assured, to quiet laughter throughout the crowd, “the housing authority has earplugs for you.” The noise won’t be pleasant, he said, but it’s better than the alternative. “The worst that could happen is that nothing gets done.”
Harriet Carter says that even before she moved in in 1999, residents were organizing, planning, and advocating for better living conditions in the deteriorated, poorly-maintained apartment building.
“I’ll be happy to get it done,” she said after co-emceeing the event with fellow Crescent Halls residents Washington and Judy Sandridge. “It’s been years and years and years.”
In 2016, residents held a protest over the presence of roaches and a broken cooling system; two years later, a clogged sewage line caused flooding in the building.
The building is owned and operated by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA), an organization founded in the mid-1950s that would eventually be responsible for the razing of the thriving, predominantly Black Vinegar Hill neighborhood in the name of “urban renewal,” and thus the displacement of many Black residents into substandard public housing projects (including Crescent Halls in the 1970s). The organization also participated in and promoted exclusionary zoning practices throughout the city. Legitimate complaints about living conditions to the CRHA were ignored for many years, speakers pointed out throughout the event, due to racism and classism.
In more recent years, the CRHA has become a resident-centered organization and has worked with PHAR to ensure that residents — and not outside architecture and design firms — direct the redevelopment of Charlottesville’s public housing units, of their homes. Crescent Halls is the second resident-led redevelopment project currently in the works; the South First Street community broke ground on its own renovations last month.
“Everybody deserves not just housing to go to, but housing that has been created with intention and with love,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker said to the small crowd gathered near the Crescent Halls entrance on Wednesday.
“Once we understand that and act on that, then we start the process of showing people that we honor them. […] People shouldn’t have to wait for decades for their basic needs to be met, and that happens when a community does not own its responsibility,” she continued, adding that she’s thankful to be part of a City Council that listened to these calls to action, that supports resident-led redevelopment both financially and ideologically.
“We owe it to you. You all are deserving of it. Agitate,” she encouraged them. “It is our responsibility.”
“I’m also thankful to be a part of a community who, even though we did not get it right for a long time, finally has come together to get it right and to make the commitment to make sure that people have housing, that when they walk through the door, that things look the way that they should look. That you are fulfilled by the way your housing looks when you walk in it. And that when something breaks, it doesn’t take a year, five years, ten years, to fix it. Because it doesn’t take that long to fix it in other places. So this is not just about the overhaul of Crescent Halls today. We also have to be invested in the maintenance of it in the future,” Walker added, noting that when Charlottesville claims itself a “world-class city,” it does so off of what Crescent Halls and other public housing residents have contributed to the community, from physical labor to civil rights advocacy, for raising children who’ve become advocates and business owners and more.
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, told the residents, “you are not just leading our community. You are leading Virginia. As delegate, it is my job to take the good news from our community to Richmond […] and you have so much to teach the rest of the commonwealth. […] There are others waiting to follow your lead” on resident-led redevelopment, she said, especially as communities across the commonwealth and the country disinvest from this kind of housing and put it into the hands of private developers.
CRHA commissioner Carolyn Slaughter spoke next. “I’m gonna say it again. I can’t say it enough: I feel like a new mom!” she said, adding that as public housing residents, it’s affirming to know that “we can fight for our goals and what we want.”
A few minutes later, PHAR board Chair Joy Johnson, a longtime public housing resident and advocate for her peers, said that private developers don’t often listen to resident needs, don’t ask, “What can we do?” But the developers (Red Light Management, GMA Construction, and Martin Horn) in this case have listened. She also spoke about what it’s been like “to learn about how much power residents have, and how much we release to the people.”
“I couldn’t sleep last night; I was so excited. I was up all night texting until 4 a.m.,” Johnson said before sweeping her hand swiftly through the air, drawing the people, the building, even the porta potties and the construction fencing together in a circle. “All things come together for the greater good.”