Housing chief thinks agency should develop Norfolk, not enemies — The (Hampton Roads VA) Virginian-Pilot, 12/2/04

By Battinto Batts

There’s been no hiding from the challenges of the job for Shurl Montgomery in his first three months of leading [the Norfolk VA] housing authority.

A well-publicized court battle over a condemned used auto parts lot rekindled the image problem that the agency has fought for years.

Nationally, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority is widely regarded as one of the country’s best housing authorities and is responsible for many high-profile city developments. Still locally, agency officials admit that distrust lingers in some segments of Norfolk.

“One of my roles is to be more engaging in the community and improve the image that I feel is unfair on the agency,” said Montgomery, who became NRHA executive director after working in the city administration for more than 20 years.

Property owners have long claimed that NRHA didn’t offer a fair price for condemned land. Others have claimed the authority defaulted on promises to allow them to return to their neighborhood once revitalization plans were complete. And some say that while the authority’s intentions are good, it simply takes too long to get some projects done.

As Montgomery and other NRHA officials see it, the authority can’t change its role, which is to devise and implement revitalization. And considering Norfolk’s age and the condition of some of its neighborhoods, the authority has to be aggressive. But maybe NRHA can be perceived as a kinder, gentler agency, one whose role, though not always liked, is at least understood and appreciated.

Montgomery has made improving the image of NRHA one of his top priorities. That is why housing authority officials are attending more civic association meetings and increasing their presence in the community to answer questions and solicit ideas.

“We want to eliminate or decrease the negative energy where NRHA is back on its heels in a defensive mode,” Montgomery said. “Instead of it being, 'W atch out for the bogeyman,’ it will be, 'NRHA is coming to help improve your community.’

“Change is painful, but we have to be sensitive about what we do and hear as we bring about that change.”

With a $100 million budget, the authority maintains 4,000 public housing units, provides 2,500 housing vouchers for low-income residents and has played a central role in downtown developments such as MacArthur Center and Waterside. It has helped remake some of Norfolk’s largest neighborhoods, including Ghent, Park Place and Ocean View.

Montgomery took over after the resignation of Ernie Freeman, who served as executive director for two years.

There was disenchantment with Freeman’s leadership on several fronts. That included his stewardship of the Broad Creek project, an 87-acre development near Norfolk State University that will transform two public housing projects into a mixed-use housing development. It will be the site of next year’s Homearama.

Prior to that announcement a few weeks ago, progress had lagged. The Broad Creek Renaissance has implications beyond what it will do for the neighborhoods it encompasses, authority officials say. Residents of other housing projects have inquired about when such a redevelopment would come to their communities. In short, that makes it imperative that Broad Creek be successful in order to build a trust that NRHA can deliver as promised.

Moreover, lingering distrust over NRHA’s urban renewal efforts date back to the early 1950s. Starting then and running through the early 1960s, scores of families were displaced, contributing heavily to the agency’s image problem.

“They still have work to do,” said Joshua Paige, a former chairman of NRHA’s board of commissioners. “It takes so long for them to get things done. They destroy a community and it takes them forever to put it back together. That’s people’s lives you are messing with.”

“Look how long it took them to do Church Street. It took them 30 years to do Church Street. If we are looking at Roberts Park, it will take them almost 30 years to get over and finish that. It’s a problem when you have the power that the housing authority has. You have people’s hopes and dreams in your hand.”

To critics, the eminent domain case involving Downtown Auto Parts has been a high-profile example of the authority’s power at work.

The lot, at 316 E. 22nd St., is within an NRHA conservation area. The authority has condemned the land, which has been mentioned as a possible site for the neighboring Coca-Cola bottling plant to expand its parking.

Charles Andrews, owner of the business, claims the authority’s $560,000 offer is too low and is contesting the agency’s use of eminent domain. After two days of testimony last month, Circuit Judge John C. Morrison Jr. is expected to rule some time next year on whether the authority can use eminent domain in this case.

Joe Waldo, the attorney representing Andrews, said that notwithstanding this and other court battles over NRHA’s reach, he respects the agency.

“Norfolk is recognized as a leader in redevelopment and revitalization,” Waldo said. “I fight them in court all the time, but I think we should be proud. Not only in Norfolk, but throughout the region.”

But that doesn’t give the authority the power to run amok, Waldo said.

“They have awesome power to take somebody’s home away from them or their business. The power of eminent domain is so important. It should be used sparingly,” he said.

One of Waldo’s former clients, Hollis Robertson, is still bitter from his dispute with NRHA. Robertson used to own a group of cottages in East Ocean View that was condemned by the agency as part of the neighborhood redevelopment plan.

Robertson fought NRHA for three years over the property’s value. He said the agency initially made an offer that was $9,000 less than his mortgage. The parties settled in April 1996 when the authority agreed to pay $237,500 for the property.

But Robertson has been unable to get over the experience. “I know one thing, I would never live in Norfolk.” said Robertson, of Virginia Beach . “I don’t trust the NRHA. Maybe they are kinder and gentler. They’ve been beat over the head enough times.”

As Norfolk’s revitalization continues to spread, the housing authority will have a vital role in shaping the city’s future. Although there is no schedule or plan yet, the authority will one day have to redevelop the downtown public housing communities.

But with federal funding limited, the agency may need to develop alternative means of financing such projects, including public/private partnerships, authority officials said. That makes it even more important that the agency be perceived well in the community.

“No developer is going to want to come in here and be a partner with an organization with a bad public perception,” said Ed Ware, NRHA’s director of communications and marketing.

Mayor Paul D. Fraim said the agency should not be judged solely on its past. The agency operates separately from the city administration.

“They have a very tough role to play. They have to be firm and tough at times.” Fraim said. “Overall, they have an outstanding record, They are well respected on the national level. I think for the most part the community respects the role they have played.”

Paige, although a critic, is confident that Montgomery can improve the authority’s image.

“I think Shurl will do a fine job,” Paige said. “I have my money bet on him. He was one of the people that we wanted in the housing authority in the first place. He gets along well with people, and he understands what is needed. I just believe that he will do a good job over there.”

Montgomery said he already has noticed a change in how the agency is perceived. “There has been progress, but there is much work to be done.”

He’ll measure progress for the agency when Norfolk residents from all communities spread the word of its success.

“We have to try to build public consensus and teams for public support for projects,” Montgomery said. “It would be great to have teams of support groups in the community. When we do that, we will know that we have turned the corner on our image building.”

The Virginian-Pilot: www.hamptonroads.com/pilotonline