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Lawsuit Over Controversial St. Paul’s Redevelopment Project Is Moving Along, Lawyers Say

Photo by Sam Turken. Advocacy groups and residents sued over details of the St. Paul's redevelopment project last year.
Photo by Sam Turken. Advocacy groups and residents sued over details of the St. Paul's redevelopment project last year.
Lawsuit Over Controversial St. Paul’s Redevelopment Project Is Moving Along, Lawyers Say

A lawsuit challenging Norfolk’s massive plan to redevelop the St. Paul’s public housing neighborhood continues to move through the legal process with no set trial date and any settlement possibly months away.

Several St. Paul’s residents and advocates filed the lawsuit in January 2020, arguing the controversial billion-dollar project violates federal housing law meant to prevent racial segregation.

Norfolk aims to demolish three aging public housing complexes near downtown in phases and replace them with a mixed-income residential and commercial neighborhood. Altogether, about 4,200 people — most of whom are Black — would have to relocate from the area. 

St. Paul’s families have the option of receiving Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers to find somewhere else to live. City officials have said residents can move back once construction is completed.

Norfolk’s main position is that the project will deconcentrate poverty around the St. Paul’s area and give people opportunities to find better housing. But the plan has faced stiff pushback from residents and housing advocates who believe it could displace Black families.

The lawsuit filed in federal court argues that Norfolk’s project will reduce housing options for St. Paul’s residents and further residential segregation. The city’s housing market is already tight, and “what little affordable housing that exists in Norfolk today is for the most part located in highly segregated, high poverty areas,” the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs also note that Norfolk has received $30 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund the project. They argue Black residents around St. Paul’s will not benefit from that money.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits policies like this redevelopment plan that have what’s called a disparate impact or disproportionate impact on people who are protected from discrimination,” said Thomas Silverstein, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Lawyers involved in the lawsuit are currently exchanging documents and interviewing witnesses and experts.

It’s still unclear when the case will be resolved or whether both sides will settle without going to trial. Any settlement could involve months of negotiation. 

“[We] continue to move as quickly as we can through an expedited schedule to ultimately achieve some sort of changes in the redevelopment,” said Robert Wolinsky, another attorney for the plaintiffs.

Despite the lawsuit, the city is moving forward with its plans. Officials have begun relocating residents of Tidewater Gardens and will demolish the public housing complex’s 618 housing units in phases.

LaVonne Pledger, a member of the St. Paul’s tenant group that filed the lawsuit, said Norfolk should pause the redevelopment and relocation process at least until the case is resolved. He said he’s hopeful the lawsuit will lead to a court order forcing the city to change its plans. 

“At the point where we are now where residents have spoken up, where people have said, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t fair,’” he said, “I think the lawsuit is literally the only thing at this point that’s going to have the city understand that we need to do something different.”

Spokespeople for Norfolk and HUD — another defendent in the case — declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

Norfolk has a history of discriminatory housing policies. In the 1960s and 70s, the city forced thousands of Black residents out of East Ghent, converting the area into a predominantly white neighborhood.

Housing advocates say the St. Paul’s project would be more equitable if it provided better housing options to outgoing residents. Silverstein said Norfolk hasn’t done enough to help St. Paul’s voucher-holders find quality housing in higher-income areas. 

“We’re talking about a lot of proactive outreach,” Silverstein said. “Taking people on tours of neighborhoods they may be unfamiliar with. On the policy side, adjusting the payment standards which set the purchasing power of the voucher.”

Norfolk officials have said they are committed to providing “ultimate choice and opportunity to St. Paul’s residents.”

The city has held events to persuade landlords to accept the vouchers. Officials also point to Norfolk’s effort, called “People First,” which is meant to provide families with resources to find new housing.


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