January 29, 2013

By Sam Tepperman-Gelfant

Earlier this month the City of Richmond completed a full update of its legally-required Housing Element for the first time in nearly 20 years. This key planning document identifies sites where new homes can be built and lays out an action plan for promoting and preserving affordable housing.

The plan does not go far enough in some areas – for example delaying much needed just-cause eviction protections and stronger inclusionary housing standards by calling for unnecessary studies rather than taking action to implement them. But in opening the door for more affordable homes and better protections for low-income Richmond residents, it represents a giant step forward for the city.

The adoption of this Housing Element is a testament to more than six years of advocacy by the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI) – a broad-based coalition of grassroots, faith and policy organizations, including ACCE, CCISCO, APEN, and Urban Habitat, who are together advocating for a more equitable and progressive General Plan. REDI’s success in these efforts provides a great example of the power of simultaneously working toward tangible victories and strengthening community voices – a hallmark of how Public Advocates approaches our work.

I inherited the role of legal adviser to REDI from my colleague, Liz Voigt, in 2008, shortly after I started working at Public Advocates. My first meetings with the collaborative still stick in my mind – community members were fired up, organized, and ready to change their city for the better. What’s more, due in part to the work Liz had done with them, they understood the technical levers of power in urban planning and local government. And they were determined to pull them.

In the years since then, REDI has managed to transform the community dialogues and politics of Richmond. Hearings and community meetings today are filled with community voices placing health and fairness at the heart of public debate. And the City Council and Planning Commission are filled – if not yet dominated – by public officials who understand and prioritize these issues. As Richmond moves to implement its Housing Element, and to update the plan in 2014, the power of these community voices will be just as important to increasing healthy and affordable housing options in the city as the policies written down in the city’s General Plan.

Creating change takes time – lots of time. Fully integrating health and equity into city planning that has been dominated by Chevron for generations won’t happen in one year or even in one decade. Similarly, one Housing Element won’t solve all the city’s housing issues. But working with REDI has driven home for me that the process of working toward a policy change can be just as transformative for a community as the “victory” itself.


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