Although PHAR residents arrived during normal business hours, lights in the housing authority offices were out.
Even police initially couldn't get cowed housing staffers to open the door.
photo by lisa provence
Nothing says May Day quite like a protest. Around 50 public housing residents and supporters, chanting, "C-R-H-A, stop evicting us today," marched the Downtown Mall on May 1 to deliver a message to the city housing authority– only to find that the agency had locked the doors, cut off the lights, and were pretending they weren't home.
The Rally for Dignity and Justice in Public Housing, led by red t-shirted Public Housing Association of Residents members who were joined by anarchists, socialists, living wagers and Legal Aiders, gathered in front of City Hall. By then it had swollen to around 75 people. Noticeably absent: elected officials. Only one City Council candidate showed up.
Several in the crowd carried signs that said, "Evict Connie Dunn," referring to the executive director of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Angry residents denounced what they called "disrespectful treatment" by the housing authority.
"They treat people like animals," decried march leader and PHAR staffer Brandon Collins. "Are you animals?"
"No," shouted the protesters.
Crescent Hall resident Miss Mary Carey, as she was referred to by other residents, said she's been complaining about mold in her building for five years, and last week the housing authority closed a building– one that houses property managers, not tenants.
"I think what they want to do is get all the poor people out of Charlottesville so the yuppies can come in," observed Miss Carey.
"Just shameful," said PHAR vice-chair Joy Johnson, who declared that people making $15,000 or $20,000 could not afford housing in Charlottesville. She also criticized last week's eviction of Jeanelle Parrish and her six kids. "Shameful," reiterated Johnson.
"It's about affordable housing in Charlottesville," she added.
The average rent in city public housing for a three-bedroom apartment is $274, according to the housing authority.
"Nobody can afford to pay $1,400 for an apartment," said Deirde Gilmore, speaking of market rate housing prices. "And why should we? We work hard."
The fed-up residents wanted to deliver a letter to the CRHA board of directors, Dunn, Mayor Satyendra Huja, and City Council entitled, "Enough is Enough."
"We are tired of the disrespect shown to residents by the CRHA staff," was one of 21 grievances listed in the letter and signed by protesters.
About 30 demonstrators and residents entered City Hall around 4:30pm and went to the basement where the housing authority offices are located, only to find the lights were off and the door locked– although office hours are 9am to 5pm.
"They're in there," claimed one protester. When housing authority staffers didn't respond, PHAR staffer Brandon Collins taped the letter to the door.
"It's fairly indicative of how things go with this housing authority," Collins later told a reporter. The activist said he's been in a lot of demonstrations, including in the offices of congressmen and in the Rotunda.
"I've never been completely shut out," he said. "At least one person would come out."
Is closing down a local government office in the face of disgruntled clients a new customer-service strategy for the city? Phone calls to Mayor Satyendra Huja, City Manager Maurice Jones, City Councilor Kathy Galvin, and CRHA director Dunn were not returned.
Housing authority staffers "were intimidated and didn't know what to do," says CRHA board member Bob Stevens, who heard from one of the staffers holed up in the darkened offices. "They had to call police."
Stevens, who wasn't at the march, says Dunn was out for the week and the staffers heard insults. "There were two or three people in the office when the protesters dropped by– or swarmed by."
He says he was surprised by the vitriol from the residents. "We've had three very productive meetings with residents," he says. They discussed directives from HUD, which funds the city's public housing, that included increased late fees and pet fees. "We took a lot of resident suggestions," he says. "We came up with a deal we thought the residents were happy with."
Could the eviction of mom-of-six Parrish have anything to do with it?
"We can't talk about it because of privacy issues," says Stevens. "If she or any other evicted resident wants us to conduct a public review, we can do that if they sign a release of confidential information."
The protesters had been in the hallway outside CRHA for about 10 minutes when two police officers showed up, soon joined by four more. One asked the people in the hall what they were doing.
"I want to pay my rent," said Miss Carey. "Open the door."
The officers knocked and one shined his flashlight into a window on the door, to no avail.
"I guess you guys startled them by showing up with so many people," said an officer, who unsuccessfully attempted to call the people inside.
At 4:55pm, the door opened a crack and a couple of officers went in.
"What about us?" asked a resident.
"Let us in, let us in," shouted the anarchist faction of the crowd.
A few minutes later, Charlottesville Police Lieutenant S.J. Upman emerged and told the crowd, "Today is the first. Late fees are not assessed until the 10th. Come back during normal business hours."
"We were here during normal business hours," one of the protesters pointed out.
After a last bit of challenge by one of the anarchists, the marchers drifted toward the exit, chanting, "C-R-H-A. How many kids did you evict today?"
Correction May 8: The Rally for Dignity and Justice in Public Housing was misidentified in the original version.