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People At Work: Harris Works to Empower ARHA Residents
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People At Work: Harris Works to Empower ARHA Residents

Opening up the political process.

Kevin Harris, president of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) Resident Association (ARA) says one of the major goals they have achieved since he has been president has been to engage in the city's political process.

"For the first time we held forums before the City of Alexandria elections with the candidates for City Council and the School Board and later a town hall with the newly-elected mayor so that ARHA residents could express their concerns,” he said. “We had a good turnout, about 100 residents, for the City Council forum. Residents were concerned about should the city have more affordable housing and Resolution 830 that made a commitment to replace housing. The agreement was one-to-one but what did that mean — the same number of units or exactly the same unit?"

Another issue was parking. He explains some ARHA (low income housing) properties are located across the street from houses with garages but their residents sometimes choose to park on the street anyway, thus using up available spaces for ARHA residents. Another question asked of the candidates was: "Did you knock on the doors of ARHA residents." Sometimes the answer was yes, sometimes no.

Harris said that one of the things residents expressed in the School Board forum was confusion about the grading system for elementary school students that didn't allow parents to gauge their children's progress. In addition, they questioned why African-American students were suspended three times more often than other students and asked for the reasons for the disparity rates. Parents also indicated African-American students were more likely identified for remedial classes than chosen for TAG.

Harris says one of his goals is to empower residents civically and financially to help them get jobs. "At some point I'd like to see ARHA residents on the City Council and School Board. We're working on that." He says it's a two-way street "because the city is also coming to us to get our participation."

Harris says his job is to kind of oversee all of the different ARHA properties and to come up with vision and strategies and help it happen. He points out that ARHA has the greatest concentration of any property company in the city with 16-18 properties and over 1,500 households. For the first time there is now a volunteer tenant representative at each ARHA site who helps spread the word about flu shots, special programs and job opportunities available to residents and to connect with the community through participation in local events.

Part of the vision is to develop programs for children as well as scholarships and training and to work on resident business development. "We work on job opportunities through Section 3 which says that to greatest extent possible you go to residents first to offer jobs if you are getting money from HUD."

Another part of the job is acting as a liaison fielding resident concerns that can't get resolved. "I can 'cut to the chase' because I know all of the case workers and officers. I do a lot of advocacy."

"I would like to see the lives of residents to be better, their quality of life." He continued, "I also want to see their voices reflected so that people hear them. There have been times when people were speaking for them but we didn't speak for ourselves."

President of ARA is a volunteer job "where I spend many hours" when he's not running his Hoop Life business which provides basketball services such as camps, clinics, classes and after-school programs for the City of Alexandria, the Springfield Youth Club and Annandale. Harris said, "I am an ARHA resident so I can empathize with the situations of people who live here. I want to make things better for people than when I came in. ARA was established in 2010 to provide input to the agency on the needs of residents and to determine how residents can become engaged in their community as part of ARHA’s development of a long-term Strategic Plan.

"If you see the opportunity to make things better and you have the capacity to bring change, it doesn't make sense to just stand by. Bringing everything together and making a difference is important. Getting things done — it's a matter of seasons and times being right, the stars aligning."