Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones turned the spotlight on concentrated poverty in March 2011 when he announced the launch of the city's Anti-Poverty Commission. Aimed at de-concentrating poverty and building community wealth in the city, the commission has looked at Richmond's public housing, among other things.
Another voice joined the public-housing debate this year with the publication of "More Than Shelter: Activism and Community in San Francisco Public Housing" by Amy L. Howard.
Howard, executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and an associated faculty member in American studies, began researching public housing while a doctoral student of American studies at the College of William and Mary.
"A professor leading a cultural-studies seminar mentioned in passing that early public-housing units housed veterans returning from World War II," Howard said. "It was fascinating for me to think about how people who were revered lived in public housing.
"How did we get from that to where we are 70 years later? What does it mean for people to live in a space that has been so stereotyped in U.S. culture and media?"
"More Than Shelter" dispels some of those misconceptions.
"Amy's book shatters all the stereotypes about the location of public housing, the design of public housing, and most important, life within public housing," said John Moeser, CCE senior fellow and VCU urban studies professor emeritus.
"In the discussion of community life in public housing, she stresses the intentional relationships and community building—the coalition building, including cross-racial, cross-ethnic, and cross-sector mobilization," he said.
The interracial, multi-ethnic nature of San Francisco's public housing contrasts with the homogeneity of many East Coast public-housing complexes, including those in Richmond, which often represent de facto segregation for low-income African-Americans.
But regardless of the racial make-up of housing projects on the West Coast versus the East Coast, Howard asks the same questions: What does it mean to be a community? What is home?
"I found the ways in which tenants at three very different San Francisco public-housing projects used community engagement to shape and enrich their communities. From participating in housing-commission meetings to rent strikes, public-housing residents used different tools to improve their homes," Howard said. "Understanding this history can inform Richmond's debate on the redevelopment of housing projects.
"We must recognize the importance of establishing city-wide principles to guide redevelopment. People who live in public housing should generate these principles and have a strong voice in shaping the future," Howard said.
"We should acknowledge, appreciate, respect, and uphold the bonds of community when redevelopment happens and help people stay connected when their neighborhoods are changed.
"And we should find ways to build pride in a community through art and design."
Meanwhile, Howard practices her own brand of community engagement through her scholarship, teaching, and involvement on community boards and committees.
In 2013, she chaired the housing task force of Mayor Dwight Jones' Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty. She currently serves on the board of the Better Housing Coalition and is a member of the City of Richmond Planning Commission.
And she's already working on another book—this one about leadership and politics in Richmond, Va.—with Richmond professor Thad Williamson, director of the city's Office of Community Wealth Building.
Listen to Howard's podcast interview about "More Than Shelter."