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Interwoven Equity | PC Draft

Vision: In 2040, Roanoke is both a diverse and an inclusive community with access and opportunities available to all including: education, housing, healthcare, employment and quality of life. Roanoke recognizes how these opportunities are interconnected and how past actions created barriers that limited opportunity for underserved communities, particularly the African-American community, and eroded trust in institutions. To maintain a high level of Interwoven Equity inclusion, the community is engaged continuously to identify and predict changes that could become opportunities or barriers and to adapt appropriately to those changes.

Defining Equity

Roanoke will not reach its full potential as a community unless each citizen has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Equity involves the fair distribution of investments and services and the removal of institutional or structural policies that can be barriers to success. Equity is the idea that different groups have different needs and should be provided services determined by their needs. If the City gives everyone equal treatment regardless of their individual needs, then it may be unintentionally creating disparate outcomes.

Visualizing Health Equity: One Size Does Not Fit All Infographic by RWJF on RWJF.org

In this plan, the term interwoven equity means that ideas about equity are woven into or embedded within each theme of the plan.

The intent of this plan is to ensure equity in our policies as they relate to race, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, and any other characteristics upon which people are discriminated against, oppressed, or disadvantaged. This plan dedicates most discussion to racial equity because of its profound impact on the physical development of the city.

A History of Inequity

Any conversation on equity must acknowledge racist policies that existed throughout the country and were present here in Roanoke. While openly racist laws may have come and gone, implicit or proxy policies took their place and some have yet to be completely left behind.  The consequences of these policies are still felt today, manifested in de facto housing segregation along with persistent disparities in income, education, employment, incarceration rates, community health, and a pronounced wealth gap.

Restrictive Covenant from 1945

Throughout much of the 20th century, African Americans were subjected to a coordinated effort of government and real estate interests that limited where they could live. Jim Crow laws started spreading through the south just as Roanoke was incorporated in 1882. In 1911, Roanoke adopted residential segregation ordinances that remained in place for years until a 1917 Supreme Court decision declared such laws unconstitutional. Roanoke eventually repealed these ordinances, but private interests continued to enforce segregation effectively through private restrictive covenants in deeds and through redlining. Redlining was the practice of mortgage and mortgage insurance companies that rated neighborhoods based on perceived risk of default.  “Hazardous” or “Fourth grade” classifications were given to low income neighborhoods disproportionately occupied by African American families.

These practices, individually and cumulatively, had insidious results. Limiting African American families to a relatively small area of the city and limiting the number of housing units available to them. Segregation induced scarcity which drove up rents for Black residents. For those who could get a mortgage within the redlined areas, the interest rates were much higher. Barriers to home purchase put constraints on opportunities to build wealth through home equity. Denial of those opportunities for many decades is largely responsible for today’s large wealth gap between Whites and African Americans in the United States.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to discriminate in renting and selling homes but that would not be the end of racist policies. Passed nearly two decades earlier, the Federal Housing Act of 1949 allowed the federal government to aid cities in clearing what was termed as blighted conditions to allow for newer development. Ironically, the substandard conditions were usually a result of decades of municipal neglect.

Disguised as a way to help low-income blighted communities, the Federal Housing Act of 1949 paved the way for the removal of low-income minority communities for development projects that benefitted other communities. The government paid residents an average of $3,000 for their homes with a promise that new, affordable, and better houses would be built in the neighborhood for the displaced residents to purchase. However, in most cities including Roanoke, that promise was never met.

These programs often resulted in the destruction of African-American neighborhoods, perceived as blighted through biased eyes. Residents of these neighborhoods viewed these neighborhoods differently than those looking in from the outside. What may have seemed to be run down areas were actually vibrant, complete neighborhoods where residents had access to stores, pharmacies, schools — everything needed for day-to-day life. Residents knew their neighbors and there was a strong sense of community.

Bishop, Mary. “Street by street, block by block: How urban renewal uprooted black Roanoke.” The Roanoke Times (1995).

In Roanoke, neighborhood urban renewal projects were focused on the African-American neighborhoods in northeast and northwest Roanoke adjacent to downtown. All told, 83 acres were cleared for Interstate 581, the Civic Center, Post Office, Coca-Cola plant, and other commercial and industrial uses. No houses were built back in the area forcing residents to relocate to other parts of the city, primarily in the northwest sector. Residents lost wealth in the form of home equity, as homes were purchased at low dollar amounts and displaced residents were resettled, often in rental units or public housing.

Urban renewal wasn’t just a housing issue, but the displacement shattered an intangible sense of community .  In Roanoke, this effect was discussed in Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It by Mindy Fullilove and documented in Mary Bishop’s special report to the Roanoke Times: How Urban Renewal Uprooted Black Roanoke.

Moving Forward as an Equitable City

The consequences of segregation laws, real estate practices, and urban renewal are evident today, not just in the city’s development patterns physically, but also socially, economically, and psychologically. Today, consequences are manifested in identifiable neighborhood patterns that show worse health outcomes, less economic mobility, poorer education levels, and lower employment.

Those disparate outcomes are pronounced in the African American communities located in the northwest quadrant of the city. However, these disparate patterns of health outcomes, economic mobility, educational attainment and employment are not isolated to those neighborhoods.

As a community, we must understand how intentional practices created barriers to the success of African Americans and other residents of Roanoke. As we learn and reconcile these inequities, we must also look forward to how we can apply these lessons to all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, and any other characteristic upon which people are discriminated against, oppressed, or disadvantaged.

As the city continues to grow and becomes increasingly more diverse, we must understand the needs and concerns of all residents and strive to build trust, support upward mobility, remove barriers affecting neighborhood choice, champion an inclusive community, and provide services equitably.

Interwoven Equity is the idea that decision making and policy making are based on principles of equity and are examined for bias and potential unintended consequences for any specific group of people. To that end, five priorities emerged:

  • Trust
  • Break the Cycle of Poverty
  • Neighborhood choice
  • Inclusion Culture
  • Service Delivery

Welcoming Roanoke

As the city moves forward, it is vital that we project an atmosphere of inclusiveness to lifelong residents and newcomers. The Welcoming Roanoke Plan addresses how we can better serve new residents in our city and gives the city a roadmap to creating a welcoming city for all including immigrants and refugees. While the Welcoming Roanoke Plan is a separate document, the spirit of being a welcoming city is present throughout this plan.

Urban Sustainability Directors Network’s Video on Driving Toward Equity

This video outlines the many ways racism is reflected in today’s society and ways municipal leaders can work to stop it. This video has the following goals:

  1. Gain an increased understanding of a racial equity framework, including definitions of key terms such as racial equity, implicit and explicit bias, and individual, institutional, and structural racism.
  2. Learn about examples of structural racism and the relationship between structural racism and sustainability.
  3. Consider opportunities to use your work on sustainability to move a racial equity agenda in your own city

Priority One: Trust

While overtly discriminatory policies of the past have largely been removed, there is still a responsibility for city government and its current leadership to regain trust following the trauma experienced by African American communities. For the community to thrive as a whole, the city government must work to build trust through its actions.

Action Items:

  • Review and eliminate city codes and policies based on explicit or implicit biases, and advocate the same approach for state laws and policies
  • Advocate for criminal justice reforms that address systemic and interrelated issues of our time such as mass incarceration, militarization of police, implicit bias, school–to-prison pipeline, the war on drugs, and mandatory sentencing
  • Enable complete neighborhoods to develop within the framework of the zoning code (access to affordable housing, services, employment, etc.)
  • Ensure the diversity of advisory and decision-making bodies reflects the diversity of Roanoke

This policy recognizes that healing is a complex, long term process, requiring engagement of Roanoke’s communities to determine meaningful ways to acknowledge past injustices and build trust.

Action Items:

  • Create an office or Council-appointed commission that evaluates existing and proposed policies through an equity lens
  • Initiate community dialog on equity and community issues
  • Develop an educational component in schools on the historical experience of African Americans in Roanoke and embrace statewide changes to history curricula that accurately depicts the Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Build capacity (ability and experience) for neighborhood-based organizations to carry out or direct appropriate community improvements and services
  • Complete visible community-identified public facility improvements to demonstrate commitment, especially those that were previously recommended in neighborhood plans
  • Commit to ensuring that the diversity of City staff, commissions, and boards reflects the diversity of Roanoke and require the same of larger community organizations the city supports financially

The idea behind this policy is embed equity ideas into the institution of local government to ensure that work carries on even as leadership and personnel change.

Action Items:

  • Create a commission that focuses on evaluating policies through an equity lens
  • Create equity measures or requirements for each theme within the Comprehensive Plan and compare with peer cities
  • Develop an equity lens for policy and regulation review at the staff level and research best practices to create accountability within government, for example Government Alliance on Race and Equity
  • Create an office that coordinates government actions and reviews policy and regulation to determine their effect on equity in the community
  • Inventory and report projects completed in CDBG eligible target neighborhoods

Priority Two: Break the Cycle of Poverty

A variety of factors affect people in poverty in ways that make it difficult to break the cycle of poverty.  This priority focuses on policies that provide pathways to upward mobility and remove the obstacles that get in the way of success.

Many neighborhoods in the core of the City have underused commercial and industrial zones in the neighborhood (for example, Shenandoah Avenue, NW, Campbell Avenue, SE, and Plantation Road, NE). Economic development efforts are often directed toward more remote industrial centers that are less accessible for people. This policy favors turning the focus back to central areas that already have infrastructure in place and are accessible by walking, biking, or transit.

Action Items:

  • Inventory central area commercial and industrial districts to develop strategies and incentives for redevelopment
  • Create accessible information about starting a business
  • Create programs to facilitate new business startups by local entrepreneurs
  • Provide incentives for new business development in core districts
  • Ensure incentives are conditioned on living wage job creation

This policy is about establishing gateways for people to gain access to the best set of resources available to meet their needs. Interventions should be supportive in the sense that they fill an immediate need and should then go further to make sure the support provides for the overall well-being of the individual as they look to improve their immediate situation.

Action Items:

  • Support programs that help people deal with multiple issues holistically through referrals to the varied forms of support an individual may need
  • Ensure preventive mechanisms are in place for helping at-risk people to prevent more serious issues (e.g., underemployment, homelessness, health issues, and unsafe housing conditions)
  • Make gateways to services accessible in neighborhoods (such as in libraries and schools)
  • Prioritize employment preparation and workforce development for groups that need more support
  • Ensure convenient access to employment networks (build social capital)
  • Support and improve financial literacy services
  • Connect the Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness with the Police and other City staff to better serve people who are experiencing homelessness

Education is key to a successful life. As early as third grade, one’s reading level can predict success or failure later in life. At the elementary level, it is vital that all children have access to the same opportunity of learning, but some schools simply have children that face much different obstacles in life than children in other schools.

There is a general pattern of schools that perform poorly because of where the children start in terms of social and economic factors like race, family income, (or both) as well as their home environment. Beyond education fundamentals, schools that serve low to moderate income neighborhoods should emphasize building the self-worth/self-esteem of students and aspire them to seek opportunities in life. Applying the principle of equity would mean those schools get special programs and additional resources to help students succeed.

“At the beginning of the twenty first century, education is more pivotal than ever in deciding children’s fate. Those with an education have a chance; those without face prison and/or early death. That said, let us acknowledge that it is difficult to educate children living in unstable conditions. This poses a catch-22: we cannot educate children if we do not get them out of unstable conditions, and we cannot get them out of unstable conditions if we do not educate them.” from Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, Mindy Fullilove (p. 231).  Learn more at rootshock.org.

Action Items:

  • Attract and retain highly qualified, diverse teachers who want to teach in an urban environment including recruitment from historically black colleges and universities
  • Provide salary incentives to retain talent in schools with greater need
  • Continue programs that provide focused opportunities to at-risk students
  • Provide high-quality supportive services in schools (e.g., medical services, mental health services, nutrition)

Just as the school system provides special programs and additional resources to those students most in need, the school district will also offer top-notch educational opportunities for all residents. High quality school curriculum not only helps support the success of current students but also helps support population and economic growth within the City. In order to increase our working age population, the City must have quality schools that retain families and are competitive regionally.

Action Items:

  • Continue our partnerships with institutions of higher learning in our area
  • Expand opportunities for virtual education to help provide a variety of opportunities for children
  • Attract and retain highly qualified administrative leaders and top-notch educators
  • Strengthen joint partnerships with the Roanoke City Police Department, Sheriff’s Department, fire and emergency medical services, Department of Social Services, and mental health agencies to continue to improve safety
  • Identify and cultivate collaborative opportunities with businesses, non-profits, community organizations, and faith-based organizations within each school neighborhood
  • Support the Roanoke City Public Schools Strategic Plan

Priority Three: Neighborhood Choice

When overt racial segregation laws were struck down in early 20th century, other segregation strategies emerged. A widespread practice by developers placed private restrictive covenants into land deeds to preclude sales to African American people. Owning a single-family house on a large lot was out of reach for many African-American families, so governments began using single-family zoning districts and minimum lot sizes to have the effect of excluding them. Financial policies favoring homeownership emerged as a proxy strategy for legal segregation.

Even though Roanoke became segregated by race and income through intentional policies, reversing those injustices means making sure that barriers to housing choice, including ones that are not readily apparent, are removed.

Action Items:

  • Reconsider housing policies rooted in racial segregation efforts such as exclusionary zoning districts that exclude all but single-family houses
  • Work to reduce tenure bias, that is, the favoring of owner-occupants over renter occupants, by reviewing City policy and plans to eliminate such bias
  • Ensure the Fair Housing Board is active in removing barriers by providing community education, paired testing, and assessment of barriers to housing choice

Action Items:

  • Review and reexamine how and where zoning codes permit group care facilities and group homes providing housing and supportive services and support distribution of such housing in neighborhood settings dispersed throughout the City
  • Continue housing first programs and test other innovative housing approaches
  • Improve connections among local service providers for the homeless and those experiencing poverty
  • Expand/extend after care resources for previously homeless individuals
  • Inventory the existing group care/transitional living facilities; disperse such facilities and amend policy as needed to meet the needs of the community
  • Support and improve financial literacy services
  • Better promote and improve literacy action

The Greenlining Instituted promotes greenlining as the solution to redlining. Per their website greenlining.org, they define greenlining as “the affirmative and proactive practice of providing economic opportunities to communities of color.” While greenlining may not undo all the negative impacts experienced as a result of redlining and systemic racism, it is an equitable approach for moving forward.

Action Items:

  • Assemble a package of greenlining resources such as down payment assistance, access to fair credit for mortgages, housing finance counseling, and Live Near Your Work  incentives

Affordable housing is a significant issue in larger cities and will become more of an issue in Roanoke as our population grows and as minimum wages fail to keep pace with inflation. Availability of affordable housing options creates stability for families. When a family has affordable, stable housing, opportunities for employment and education are more easily pursued.

There is a generally accepted principle that no more than one-third of family income should be spent on housing (rent or mortgage).  Anything above one-third is considered “cost-burdened.” Families of all incomes have the potential to be cost burdened according to that definition.  The problem becomes quite acute for families with lower incomes where little is left over for other necessities after paying rent.

A generally accepted definition of affordable housing is defined as that which can be afforded by a household with the median income for the area. The Housing Affordability Index looks at income ranges that are less than the median income and assesses affordability for, say, a family making only 80% of median household income.  Families at this income level, in Roanoke at least, can typically find housing that does not make them cost burdened.  Households making 60% of the median, however, will be cost burdened, paying about 40% of their income for housing.  Someone making near minimum wage can expect to pay nearly 80% of their income for housing – obviously an unsustainable situation.

Source: Housing Virginia and SOURCEBOOK (Housingvirginia.org).

Post-WWII Roanoke followed the same housing direction of most communities: growing by adding residential subdivisions oriented to cars, separated from goods and services, and remote from places of employment. This model of suburban sprawl, unsustainable from an environmental standpoint, also has had serious implications for equity. It has led to a concentration of poverty, intensified racial segregation, and limited transportation options for those who do not drive.

We are now seeing fundamental changes in how people live. The endless expansion of single-family residential subdivisions no longer seems sensible given that people are having fewer children and  having them later in life and while more people are renting (by choice or not). Cities with one singular resource – land – are questioning the sustainability of low-density residential districts.

Because an in-depth analysis of housing is warranted but typically beyond the scope of a comprehensive plan, such a plan is recommended soon after adoption of this plan.

Action Items:

  • Develop a housing plan as a component of the comprehensive plan
  • Ensure affordable housing is available in all neighborhoods in the city
  • Promote complete neighborhoods, so all neighborhoods have a broad range of housing types, including multifamily housing
  • Pursue legislative opportunities to increase affordable housing options and opportunities
  • Incentivize housing that is affordable and/or is built with universal design standards

In community development, there is a complex dilemma: people don’t want their neighborhoods to stay the same or get worse, nor do they want rapidly increasing rents that displace existing residents.  Merriam Webster defines gentrification as “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” While the first part sounds pretty good, it’s the second part—displacement—that is a worrisome and serious concern.

There has not been any evidence of significant gentrification in Roanoke. Old Southwest is probably the closest Roanoke has come to a gentrifying neighborhood. That transition—which has been taking place gradually over decades—has resulted today in a diverse, mixed income neighborhood.

Action Items:

  • Maintain vigilance by monitoring data to identify emerging gentrification patterns
  • Put decision-making about neighborhood improvements at the neighborhood level. Consider intensive public deliberation processes to determine neighborhood improvement priorities
  • Use funds to rehabilitate existing housing stock to help current residents remain in their home
  • Support the development or rehabilitation of affordable rental housing
  • Educate community on the Homestead Exemption law

Priority Four: Inclusive Culture

The City should lead an effort to foster an environment where community members recognize and celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

Action Items:

  • Sponsor opportunities for learning and discussion about the root causes of discrimination and how to address those issues
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue among residents from all neighborhoods
  • Provide educational opportunities to help community leaders become champions in their communities
  • Promote dialogue with nonprofits and businesses on equity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Consider inclusiveness and diversity when programming city-supported events
  • Engage immigrant and refugee populations in community organizations
  • Celebrate community successes

Roanoke initiated a neighborhood partnership model in the 1980s that worked to engage community organizations, businesses, and governments. As the model was often cited as a best practice throughout the country, Roanoke’s neighborhoods built a strong network of neighborhood groups actively engaged in improving their communities.

These groups were governed and operated essentially as homeowner associations. In the last decades, those groups have found it increasingly difficult to engage people.  Some groups, active and strong through the 1990s, became completely inactive.  Others are struggling with dwindling membership.

Active Roanoke Neighborhood Organizations

The reasons are varied.  Some with multiple jobs may struggle accomplishing daily tasks and dedicating time to attend neighborhood meetings may be difficult.  Social media has radically changed the ways we communicate and the typical monthly meeting may no longer be the best method for engagement. Alas, many neighborhood groups have traditionally held strong biases against renters and thus have alienated a large and growing segment of residents.

The city remains committed to community engagement because it is essential to identifying community needs and developing appropriate interventions to meet them. Radical adaptation of our past model of engagement is warranted.

Action Items:

  • Provide training on equity and coalition building
  • Use public deliberation techniques for informed decision making by citizens
  • Facilitate connections among neighborhood leaders
  • Continue grant funding to support neighborhood organizations
  • Develop neighborhood-level capacity to decide and implement neighborhood improvements
  • Ensure neighborhood engagement in civic governance

Priority Five: Service Delivery

This priority focuses on services provided by the City of Roanoke. It is crucial that services are provided equitably and in ways that are accessible to all residents.

Discussions during planning meetings revealed that many are not aware of certain community or city services. There was a realization that it is not enough to actually provide services, but ensuring awareness of them is a critical part of service delivery.

Action Items:

  • Employ best practices to promote available services in order to reach all residents regardless of age and income
  • Consider neighborhood-based service information in civic facilities like libraries
  • Support information and referral programs that help people connect with the resources they need
  • Ensure government meetings are accessible at convenient times and there are accommodations for disabled people, and when appropriate, provide multiple opportunities for engagement by holding multiple meetings in neighborhood settings (such as at libraries), at different times of day
  • Provide programs that help educate residents on city services and processes such as the Mayor’s Starting a Business Summit, Leadership College, and the Roanoke Planning Academy
  • Develop Spanish language versions of informational programs and online content

The policy approach is to improve service delivery to citizens by enhancing their ability to access the service location or by mobilizing the service to convenient locations.

Action Items:

  • Ensure services are accessible by transit (i.e., on or near a route)
  • Provide services in neighborhoods with mobile units or by rotating services among libraries or other community facilities
  • Convene community walks with residents and government service providers to establish communication and information-sharing (e.g., police, fire and EMS, planning/code enforcement, parks and recreation, teachers/school staff, etc.)

In determining how limited funding for infrastructure and public facilities is spent, equitable prioritization should ensure that each neighborhood has adequate infrastructure to meet the needs of residents and businesses. Public facilities and infrastructure projects should be used to support overall neighborhood revitalization efforts, especially in target neighborhoods.

Action Items:

  • Consider CDBG target neighborhoods as priorities for infrastructure improvements (e.g., sidewalks, curbs, streets, storm drainage, bike lanes, greenways, and street trees)
  • Consider CDBG target neighborhoods as priorities for improvements to public facilities (e.g., fire stations, libraries, schools, parks, recreation centers, and other community services)

Defining Equity

Roanoke will not reach its full potential as a community unless each citizen has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Equity involves the fair distribution of investments and services and the removal of institutional or structural policies that can be barriers to success. Equity is the idea that different groups have different needs and should be provided services determined by their needs. If the City gives everyone equal treatment regardless of their individual needs, then it may be unintentionally creating disparate outcomes.

Visualizing Health Equity: One Size Does Not Fit All Infographic by RWJF on RWJF.org

In this plan, the term interwoven equity means that ideas about equity are woven into or embedded within each theme of the plan.

The intent of this plan is to ensure equity in our policies as they relate to race, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, and any other characteristics upon which people are discriminated against, oppressed, or disadvantaged. This plan dedicates most discussion to racial equity because of its profound impact on the physical development of the city.

A History of Inequity

Any conversation on equity must acknowledge racist policies that existed throughout the country and were present here in Roanoke. While openly racist laws may have come and gone, implicit or proxy policies took their place and some have yet to be completely left behind.  The consequences of these policies are still felt today, manifested in de facto housing segregation along with persistent disparities in income, education, employment, incarceration rates, community health, and a pronounced wealth gap.

Restrictive Covenant from 1945

Throughout much of the 20th century, African Americans were subjected to a coordinated effort of government and real estate interests that limited where they could live. Jim Crow laws started spreading through the south just as Roanoke was incorporated in 1882. In 1911, Roanoke adopted residential segregation ordinances that remained in place for years until a 1917 Supreme Court decision declared such laws unconstitutional. Roanoke eventually repealed these ordinances, but private interests continued to enforce segregation effectively through private restrictive covenants in deeds and through redlining. Redlining was the practice of mortgage and mortgage insurance companies that rated neighborhoods based on perceived risk of default.  “Hazardous” or “Fourth grade” classifications were given to low income neighborhoods disproportionately occupied by African American families.

View Interactive Map | Johnny Finn

These practices, individually and cumulatively, had insidious results. Limiting African American families to a relatively small area of the city and limiting the number of housing units available to them. Segregation induced scarcity which drove up rents for Black residents. For those who could get a mortgage within the redlined areas, the interest rates were much higher. Barriers to home purchase put constraints on opportunities to build wealth through home equity. Denial of those opportunities for many decades is largely responsible for today’s large wealth gap between Whites and African Americans in the United States.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to discriminate in renting and selling homes but that would not be the end of racist policies. Passed nearly two decades earlier, the Federal Housing Act of 1949 allowed the federal government to aid cities in clearing what was termed as blighted conditions to allow for newer development. Ironically, the substandard conditions were usually a result of decades of municipal neglect.

Disguised as a way to help low-income blighted communities, the Federal Housing Act of 1949 paved the way for the removal of low-income minority communities for development projects that benefitted other communities. The government paid residents an average of $3,000 for their homes with a promise that new, affordable, and better houses would be built in the neighborhood for the displaced residents to purchase. However, in most cities including Roanoke, that promise was never met.

These programs often resulted in the destruction of African-American neighborhoods, perceived as blighted through biased eyes. Residents of these neighborhoods viewed these neighborhoods differently than those looking in from the outside. What may have seemed to be run down areas were actually vibrant, complete neighborhoods where residents had access to stores, pharmacies, schools — everything needed for day-to-day life. Residents knew their neighbors and there was a strong sense of community.

Bishop, Mary. “Street by street, block by block: How urban renewal uprooted black Roanoke.” The Roanoke Times (1995).

In Roanoke, neighborhood urban renewal projects were focused on the African-American neighborhoods in northeast and northwest Roanoke adjacent to downtown. All told, 83 acres were cleared for Interstate 581, the Civic Center, Post Office, Coca-Cola plant, and other commercial and industrial uses. No houses were built back in the area forcing residents to relocate to other parts of the city, primarily in the northwest sector. Residents lost wealth in the form of home equity, as homes were purchased at low dollar amounts and displaced residents were resettled, often in rental units or public housing.

Urban renewal wasn’t just a housing issue, but the displacement shattered an intangible sense of community .  In Roanoke, this effect was discussed in Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It by Mindy Fullilove and documented in Mary Bishop’s special report to the Roanoke Times: How Urban Renewal Uprooted Black Roanoke.

Moving Forward as an Equitable City

The consequences of segregation laws, real estate practices, and urban renewal are evident today, not just in the city’s development patterns physically, but also socially, economically, and psychologically. Today, consequences are manifested in identifiable neighborhood patterns that show worse health outcomes, less economic mobility, poorer education levels, and lower employment.

Those disparate outcomes are pronounced in the African American communities located in the northwest quadrant of the city. However, these disparate patterns of health outcomes, economic mobility, educational attainment and employment are not isolated to those neighborhoods.

As a community, we must understand how intentional practices created barriers to the success of African Americans and other residents of Roanoke. As we learn and reconcile these inequities, we must also look forward to how we can apply these lessons to all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, and any other characteristic upon which people are discriminated against, oppressed, or disadvantaged.

As the city continues to grow and becomes increasingly more diverse, we must understand the needs and concerns of all residents and strive to build trust, support upward mobility, remove barriers affecting neighborhood choice, champion an inclusive community, and provide services equitably.

Interwoven Equity is the idea that decision making and policy making are based on principles of equity and are examined for bias and potential unintended consequences for any specific group of people. To that end, five priorities emerged:

  • Trust
  • Break the Cycle of Poverty
  • Neighborhood choice
  • Inclusion Culture
  • Service Delivery

Welcoming Roanoke

As the city moves forward, it is vital that we project an atmosphere of inclusiveness to lifelong residents and newcomers. The Welcoming Roanoke Plan addresses how we can better serve new residents in our city and gives the city a roadmap to creating a welcoming city for all including immigrants and refugees. While the Welcoming Roanoke Plan is a separate document, the spirit of being a welcoming city is present throughout this plan.

Urban Sustainability Directors Network’s Video on Driving Toward Equity

This video outlines the many ways racism is reflected in today’s society and ways municipal leaders can work to stop it. This video has the following goals:

  1. Gain an increased understanding of a racial equity framework, including definitions of key terms such as racial equity, implicit and explicit bias, and individual, institutional, and structural racism.
  2. Learn about examples of structural racism and the relationship between structural racism and sustainability.
  3. Consider opportunities to use your work on sustainability to move a racial equity agenda in your own city

Priority One: Trust

While overtly discriminatory policies of the past have largely been removed, there is still a responsibility for city government and its current leadership to regain trust following the trauma experienced by African American communities. For the community to thrive as a whole, the city government must work to build trust through its actions.

Action Items:

  • Review and eliminate city codes and policies based on explicit or implicit biases, and advocate the same approach for state laws and policies
  • Advocate for criminal justice reforms that address systemic and interrelated issues of our time such as mass incarceration, militarization of police, implicit bias, school–to-prison pipeline, the war on drugs, and mandatory sentencing
  • Enable complete neighborhoods to develop within the framework of the zoning code (access to affordable housing, services, employment, etc.)
  • Ensure the diversity of advisory and decision-making bodies reflects the diversity of Roanoke

This policy recognizes that healing is a complex, long term process, requiring engagement of Roanoke’s communities to determine meaningful ways to acknowledge past injustices and build trust.

Action Items:

  • Create an office or Council-appointed commission that evaluates existing and proposed policies through an equity lens
  • Initiate community dialog on equity and community issues
  • Develop an educational component in schools on the historical experience of African Americans in Roanoke and embrace statewide changes to history curricula that accurately depicts the Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Build capacity (ability and experience) for neighborhood-based organizations to carry out or direct appropriate community improvements and services
  • Complete visible community-identified public facility improvements to demonstrate commitment, especially those that were previously recommended in neighborhood plans
  • Commit to ensuring that the diversity of City staff, commissions, and boards reflects the diversity of Roanoke and require the same of larger community organizations the city supports financially

The idea behind this policy is embed equity ideas into the institution of local government to ensure that work carries on even as leadership and personnel change.

Action Items:

  • Create a commission that focuses on evaluating policies through an equity lens
  • Create equity measures or requirements for each theme within the Comprehensive Plan and compare with peer cities
  • Develop an equity lens for policy and regulation review at the staff level and research best practices to create accountability within government, for example Government Alliance on Race and Equity
  • Create an office that coordinates government actions and reviews policy and regulation to determine their effect on equity in the community
  • Inventory and report projects completed in CDBG eligible target neighborhoods

Priority Two: Break the Cycle of Poverty

A variety of factors affect people in poverty in ways that make it difficult to break the cycle of poverty.  This priority focuses on policies that provide pathways to upward mobility and remove the obstacles that get in the way of success.

Many neighborhoods in the core of the City have underused commercial and industrial zones in the neighborhood (for example, Shenandoah Avenue, NW, Campbell Avenue, SE, and Plantation Road, NE). Economic development efforts are often directed toward more remote industrial centers that are less accessible for people. This policy favors turning the focus back to central areas that already have infrastructure in place and are accessible by walking, biking, or transit.

Action Items:

  • Inventory central area commercial and industrial districts to develop strategies and incentives for redevelopment
  • Create accessible information about starting a business
  • Create programs to facilitate new business startups by local entrepreneurs
  • Provide incentives for new business development in core districts
  • Ensure incentives are conditioned on living wage job creation

This policy is about establishing gateways for people to gain access to the best set of resources available to meet their needs. Interventions should be supportive in the sense that they fill an immediate need and should then go further to make sure the support provides for the overall well-being of the individual as they look to improve their immediate situation.

Action Items:

  • Support programs that help people deal with multiple issues holistically through referrals to the varied forms of support an individual may need
  • Ensure preventive mechanisms are in place for helping at-risk people to prevent more serious issues (e.g., underemployment, homelessness, health issues, and unsafe housing conditions)
  • Make gateways to services accessible in neighborhoods (such as in libraries and schools)
  • Prioritize employment preparation and workforce development for groups that need more support
  • Ensure convenient access to employment networks (build social capital)
  • Support and improve financial literacy services
  • Connect the Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness with the Police and other City staff to better serve people who are experiencing homelessness

Education is key to a successful life. As early as third grade, one’s reading level can predict success or failure later in life. At the elementary level, it is vital that all children have access to the same opportunity of learning, but some schools simply have children that face much different obstacles in life than children in other schools.

There is a general pattern of schools that perform poorly because of where the children start in terms of social and economic factors like race, family income, (or both) as well as their home environment. Beyond education fundamentals, schools that serve low to moderate income neighborhoods should emphasize building the self-worth/self-esteem of students and aspire them to seek opportunities in life. Applying the principle of equity would mean those schools get special programs and additional resources to help students succeed.

“At the beginning of the twenty first century, education is more pivotal than ever in deciding children’s fate. Those with an education have a chance; those without face prison and/or early death. That said, let us acknowledge that it is difficult to educate children living in unstable conditions. This poses a catch-22: we cannot educate children if we do not get them out of unstable conditions, and we cannot get them out of unstable conditions if we do not educate them.” from Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, Mindy Fullilove (p. 231).  Learn more at rootshock.org.

Action Items:

  • Attract and retain highly qualified, diverse teachers who want to teach in an urban environment including recruitment from historically black colleges and universities
  • Provide salary incentives to retain talent in schools with greater need
  • Continue programs that provide focused opportunities to at-risk students
  • Provide high-quality supportive services in schools (e.g., medical services, mental health services, nutrition)

Just as the school system provides special programs and additional resources to those students most in need, the school district will also offer top-notch educational opportunities for all residents. High quality school curriculum not only helps support the success of current students but also helps support population and economic growth within the City. In order to increase our working age population, the City must have quality schools that retain families and are competitive regionally.

Action Items:

  • Continue our partnerships with institutions of higher learning in our area
  • Expand opportunities for virtual education to help provide a variety of opportunities for children
  • Attract and retain highly qualified administrative leaders and top-notch educators
  • Strengthen joint partnerships with the Roanoke City Police Department, Sheriff’s Department, fire and emergency medical services, Department of Social Services, and mental health agencies to continue to improve safety
  • Identify and cultivate collaborative opportunities with businesses, non-profits, community organizations, and faith-based organizations within each school neighborhood
  • Support the Roanoke City Public Schools Strategic Plan

Priority Three: Neighborhood Choice

When overt racial segregation laws were struck down in early 20th century, other segregation strategies emerged. A widespread practice by developers placed private restrictive covenants into land deeds to preclude sales to African American people. Owning a single-family house on a large lot was out of reach for many African-American families, so governments began using single-family zoning districts and minimum lot sizes to have the effect of excluding them. Financial policies favoring homeownership emerged as a proxy strategy for legal segregation.

Even though Roanoke became segregated by race and income through intentional policies, reversing those injustices means making sure that barriers to housing choice, including ones that are not readily apparent, are removed.

Action Items:

  • Reconsider housing policies rooted in racial segregation efforts such as exclusionary zoning districts that exclude all but single-family houses
  • Work to reduce tenure bias, that is, the favoring of owner-occupants over renter occupants, by reviewing City policy and plans to eliminate such bias
  • Ensure the Fair Housing Board is active in removing barriers by providing community education, paired testing, and assessment of barriers to housing choice

Action Items:

  • Review and reexamine how and where zoning codes permit group care facilities and group homes providing housing and supportive services and support distribution of such housing in neighborhood settings dispersed throughout the City
  • Continue housing first programs and test other innovative housing approaches
  • Improve connections among local service providers for the homeless and those experiencing poverty
  • Expand/extend after care resources for previously homeless individuals
  • Inventory the existing group care/transitional living facilities; disperse such facilities and amend policy as needed to meet the needs of the community
  • Support and improve financial literacy services
  • Better promote and improve literacy action

The Greenlining Instituted promotes greenlining as the solution to redlining. Per their website greenlining.org, they define greenlining as “the affirmative and proactive practice of providing economic opportunities to communities of color.” While greenlining may not undo all the negative impacts experienced as a result of redlining and systemic racism, it is an equitable approach for moving forward.

Action Items:

  • Assemble a package of greenlining resources such as down payment assistance, access to fair credit for mortgages, housing finance counseling, and Live Near Your Work  incentives

Affordable housing is a significant issue in larger cities and will become more of an issue in Roanoke as our population grows and as minimum wages fail to keep pace with inflation. Availability of affordable housing options creates stability for families. When a family has affordable, stable housing, opportunities for employment and education are more easily pursued.

There is a generally accepted principle that no more than one-third of family income should be spent on housing (rent or mortgage).  Anything above one-third is considered “cost-burdened.” Families of all incomes have the potential to be cost burdened according to that definition.  The problem becomes quite acute for families with lower incomes where little is left over for other necessities after paying rent.

A generally accepted definition of affordable housing is defined as that which can be afforded by a household with the median income for the area. The Housing Affordability Index looks at income ranges that are less than the median income and assesses affordability for, say, a family making only 80% of median household income.  Families at this income level, in Roanoke at least, can typically find housing that does not make them cost burdened.  Households making 60% of the median, however, will be cost burdened, paying about 40% of their income for housing.  Someone making near minimum wage can expect to pay nearly 80% of their income for housing – obviously an unsustainable situation.

Source: Housing Virginia and SOURCEBOOK (Housingvirginia.org).

Post-WWII Roanoke followed the same housing direction of most communities: growing by adding residential subdivisions oriented to cars, separated from goods and services, and remote from places of employment. This model of suburban sprawl, unsustainable from an environmental standpoint, also has had serious implications for equity. It has led to a concentration of poverty, intensified racial segregation, and limited transportation options for those who do not drive.

We are now seeing fundamental changes in how people live. The endless expansion of single-family residential subdivisions no longer seems sensible given that people are having fewer children and  having them later in life and while more people are renting (by choice or not). Cities with one singular resource – land – are questioning the sustainability of low-density residential districts.

Because an in-depth analysis of housing is warranted but typically beyond the scope of a comprehensive plan, such a plan is recommended soon after adoption of this plan.

Action Items:

  • Develop a housing plan as a component of the comprehensive plan
  • Ensure affordable housing is available in all neighborhoods in the city
  • Promote complete neighborhoods, so all neighborhoods have a broad range of housing types, including multifamily housing
  • Pursue legislative opportunities to increase affordable housing options and opportunities
  • Incentivize housing that is affordable and/or is built with universal design standards

In community development, there is a complex dilemma: people don’t want their neighborhoods to stay the same or get worse, nor do they want rapidly increasing rents that displace existing residents.  Merriam Webster defines gentrification as “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” While the first part sounds pretty good, it’s the second part—displacement—that is a worrisome and serious concern.

There has not been any evidence of significant gentrification in Roanoke. Old Southwest is probably the closest Roanoke has come to a gentrifying neighborhood. That transition—which has been taking place gradually over decades—has resulted today in a diverse, mixed income neighborhood.

Action Items:

  • Maintain vigilance by monitoring data to identify emerging gentrification patterns
  • Put decision-making about neighborhood improvements at the neighborhood level. Consider intensive public deliberation processes to determine neighborhood improvement priorities
  • Use funds to rehabilitate existing housing stock to help current residents remain in their home
  • Support the development or rehabilitation of affordable rental housing
  • Educate community on the Homestead Exemption law

Priority Four: Inclusive Culture

The City should lead an effort to foster an environment where community members recognize and celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

Action Items:

  • Sponsor opportunities for learning and discussion about the root causes of discrimination and how to address those issues
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue among residents from all neighborhoods
  • Provide educational opportunities to help community leaders become champions in their communities
  • Promote dialogue with nonprofits and businesses on equity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Consider inclusiveness and diversity when programming city-supported events
  • Engage immigrant and refugee populations in community organizations
  • Celebrate community successes

Roanoke initiated a neighborhood partnership model in the 1980s that worked to engage community organizations, businesses, and governments. As the model was often cited as a best practice throughout the country, Roanoke’s neighborhoods built a strong network of neighborhood groups actively engaged in improving their communities.

These groups were governed and operated essentially as homeowner associations. In the last decades, those groups have found it increasingly difficult to engage people.  Some groups, active and strong through the 1990s, became completely inactive.  Others are struggling with dwindling membership.

Active Roanoke Neighborhood Organizations

The reasons are varied.  Some with multiple jobs may struggle accomplishing daily tasks and dedicating time to attend neighborhood meetings may be difficult.  Social media has radically changed the ways we communicate and the typical monthly meeting may no longer be the best method for engagement. Alas, many neighborhood groups have traditionally held strong biases against renters and thus have alienated a large and growing segment of residents.

The city remains committed to community engagement because it is essential to identifying community needs and developing appropriate interventions to meet them. Radical adaptation of our past model of engagement is warranted.

Action Items:

  • Provide training on equity and coalition building
  • Use public deliberation techniques for informed decision making by citizens
  • Facilitate connections among neighborhood leaders
  • Continue grant funding to support neighborhood organizations
  • Develop neighborhood-level capacity to decide and implement neighborhood improvements
  • Ensure neighborhood engagement in civic governance

Priority Five: Service Delivery

This priority focuses on services provided by the City of Roanoke. It is crucial that services are provided equitably and in ways that are accessible to all residents.

Discussions during planning meetings revealed that many are not aware of certain community or city services. There was a realization that it is not enough to actually provide services, but ensuring awareness of them is a critical part of service delivery.

Action Items:

  • Employ best practices to promote available services in order to reach all residents regardless of age and income
  • Consider neighborhood-based service information in civic facilities like libraries
  • Support information and referral programs that help people connect with the resources they need
  • Ensure government meetings are accessible at convenient times and there are accommodations for disabled people, and when appropriate, provide multiple opportunities for engagement by holding multiple meetings in neighborhood settings (such as at libraries), at different times of day
  • Provide programs that help educate residents on city services and processes such as the Mayor’s Starting a Business Summit, Leadership College, and the Roanoke Planning Academy
  • Develop Spanish language versions of informational programs and online content

The policy approach is to improve service delivery to citizens by enhancing their ability to access the service location or by mobilizing the service to convenient locations.

Action Items:

  • Ensure services are accessible by transit (i.e., on or near a route)
  • Provide services in neighborhoods with mobile units or by rotating services among libraries or other community facilities
  • Convene community walks with residents and government service providers to establish communication and information-sharing (e.g., police, fire and EMS, planning/code enforcement, parks and recreation, teachers/school staff, etc.)

In determining how limited funding for infrastructure and public facilities is spent, equitable prioritization should ensure that each neighborhood has adequate infrastructure to meet the needs of residents and businesses. Public facilities and infrastructure projects should be used to support overall neighborhood revitalization efforts, especially in target neighborhoods.

Action Items:

  • Consider CDBG target neighborhoods as priorities for infrastructure improvements (e.g., sidewalks, curbs, streets, storm drainage, bike lanes, greenways, and street trees)
  • Consider CDBG target neighborhoods as priorities for improvements to public facilities (e.g., fire stations, libraries, schools, parks, recreation centers, and other community services)

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