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Council Members Pushing For More Funding For Affordable Housing, Public Defenders

city council chambers
FILE PHOTO: Roberto Roldan/VPM

Earlier this year, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney proposed increasing funding for public defenders and affordable housing. That was scrapped when the pandemic hit, causing economic uncertainty.

Two City Council members, Ellen Robertson and Stephanie Lynch, are now urging the mayor to make good on his original proposal. City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch has put forward a resolution, asking the city fund salary supplements for public defenders. Currently, Richmond’s public defenders make about 40 percent less than their prosecutor counterparts. 

Lynch said pay parity between prosecutors and public defenders is fundamental to a fair system.

“I really hope that we can adopt the best practices of neighbors in other localities who have chosen to recognize that the office of the public defender is a critical support and line of defense for reducing disparities in our own criminal justice system,” she said. 

Another resolution from Councilwoman Ellen Robertson asks the mayor to increase funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to $10 million starting next year's fiscal year. That’s above and beyond even the record $5 million Stoney had initially proposed, which was cut to around $3 million. Until last year, yearly funding for the trust fund hadn’t exceeded $1 million. 

Robertson, who is on the board of the trust fund, said the unemployment and evictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic makes funding for affordable housing programs more necessary.

“We’ve already talked about how much it’s costing us for emergency shelter for the homeless and we talk frequently about what it costs us for eviction prevention,” Robertson said. “The only way we are going to get in front of this cost is to provide more stable housing opportunities.”

According to the Partnership for Housing Affordability, nearly half of all Richmond residents are cost-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income just on housing. Richmond’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund provides grants of up to $250,000 to fill funding gaps in the development of income-restricted housing. 

Both Lynch’s and Robertson’s resolutions were approved by Richmond City Council’s Finance Committee on Thursday. Councilwoman Kristen Larson, who is the committee vice-chair, voiced concerns about making funding priorities ahead of next year’s budget, which could be significantly smaller due to the pandemic. 

The resolutions are expected to be up for a vote by the full council later this month. Because City Council resolutions are non-binding, it will ultimately be up to Stoney to decide whether to introduce budget amendments to increase funding for the trust fund and Public Defender’s Office.