Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

RIGHTS-US: Made Homeless by Katrina, Now Gov’t Bulldozers

Abra Pollock

WASHINGTON, Dec 7 2007 (IPS) - Low-income residents of New Orleans are frantically struggling to secure the right to return to their homes before the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) begins demolishing thousands of public housing units next week.

New Orleans public housing residents and advocates gather in the French Quarter to demand afforable housing.  Credit: Craig Morse

New Orleans public housing residents and advocates gather in the French Quarter to demand afforable housing. Credit: Craig Morse

Current redevelopment plans call for replacing 4,000 units at five major public housing projects with mixed-income developments, and setting aside a varying percentage of the apartments for affordable housing.

This overhaul would eliminate 82 percent of the city’s public housing, thereby excluding 3,800 families, according to the Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition, which coordinates research and grassroots organising efforts to support the needs of Hurricane Katrina survivors.

This news came as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced last week that it would begin dismantling the trailer parks it set up for those made homeless by the storm in August 2005, many of whom are former residents of public housing.

Displaced residents of public housing and their activist supporters have raised an outcry about the housing demolition, which many fear will result in a widespread reconfiguration of the city’s demographic makeup.

“This is massive-scale, en masse gentrification,” said Rev. Jeff Connor, a United Methodist minister whose New Orleans East Cooperative Parish encompasses many of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by the hurricane.


“What’s at stake is the very essence of New Orleans. Jazz music came out of [New Orleans'] black community – their way of living life, their way of celebrating life. Louis Armstrong was a part of the community that is now being made homeless by this destruction,” Connor said.

Indeed, New Orleans’ homeless population has now skyrocketed to 12,000 – more than double it was prior to the storm, social service groups say.

Sam Jackson is a resident of the B.W. Cooper public housing development in the city’s Uptown neighbourhood. While he was able to move back to his home, he described the experience of friends who had returned to other developments after the storm, only to find fences erected around the perimetres and “No Trespassing” signs posted, which prevented them from entering their apartments to gather their belongings.

“When you come back to your home, you find you’ve been locked out. Where are you going to go from there?” Jackson asked. “These are disabled folks, old folks.”

Among the reasons offered by HUD and HANO, the Housing Authority of New Orleans, for the destruction of public housing developments is that these complexes encourage a problematic “concentration of poverty”. But some experts question this reasoning, and point out that most of the units were untouched by the storm and didn’t suffer any significant damage.

“Is the problem that we have concentrations of poverty? Or is the problem that these neighbourhoods don’t have the services that they need in order to flourish and grow?” asked Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, director of the research, public policy and information centre at the National Council of Negro Women.

Community groups and other organisations have been scrambling to appeal to all levels of government in order to stop the demolitions.

On Thursday, a multiracial group of public housing residents, former public housing residents, housing advocates and supporters gathered on the steps of the New Orleans City Hall to demand that their council members oppose the demolition and recognise the “right of return for all New Orleanians”.

Council members offered only lukewarm support, however, with two of the five city officials responding that they would “work on it”, while the other three remained silent.

Connor’s group, Churches Supporting Churches (CSC), represents 36 congregations across New Orleans that have been working in partnership with other religious groups around the country to help advocate for affordable housing and the rebuilding of congregations’ facilities.

One CSC member, Rev. Charles Duplessis of the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, organised a petition that gathered 130,000 signatures asking the state’s Republican Senator David Vitter to reverse his opposition to Senate bill 1668, the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act, which would provide for a “one-to-one” replacement of public housing units in New Orleans so that low-income residents could afford to return.

The bill otherwise has the support of the entire Louisiana delegation.

As reported by Loyola University New Orleans law professor Bill Quigley, some analysts believe Vitter is withholding his support from the bill for political reasons – to prevent its Democratic sponsor, Sen. Mary Landrieu, from winning a big legislative victory prior to the 2008 elections, and possibly to influence the voting patterns of New Orleans, whose black population overwhelmingly votes democratic.

Activists and public housing residents aren’t the only ones who have been working to stop the demolitions. Also involved is the AFL-CIO, the United States’ largest federation of trade unions, with 54 unions representing 10 million members.

AFL-CIO Gulf Coast Recovery Programme director Tom O’Malley has steered a months-long partnership between the New Orleans office of his organisation’s Housing Investment Trust and the residents of the St. Bernard public housing complex, which served as a home to 866 residents prior to the storm and is now scheduled for demolition.

Through this partnership, residents were able to form their own St. Bernard Housing Recovery and Development Corporation, O’Malley told IPS prior to leaving for a meeting with the St. Bernard residents.

The AFL-CIO’s plan would also rebuild 1,045 units of affordable housing on the site. But O’Malley is not optimistic that organising at the local or national government levels would save St. Bernard or any of the other public housing complexes.

“Whatever development happens, it certainly will not be in the interest of the working poor,” he said.

If the working poor cannot afford to return to New Orleans, not only will the city’s demographics and character be altered, but its economic and social fabric will be deeply impacted, experts say.

According Jones-DeWeever, the vital social networks that sustained the city’s poorest residents will never be reconstructed unless communities are allowed to return to their neighbourhoods and housing developments.

“There is no population that is more deeply affected than low-income, single mothers,” Jones-DeWeever said. “These women didn’t have a lot before Katrina. The way these communities were able to survive was through the network of extended family.”

Economically speaking, while there may be new jobs available in New Orleans for working people, a public housing shortage could prevent these workers from finding affordable housing to live in the city.

Both O’Malley and Vincent Sylvain, a New Orleans small businessman, agreed that demolishing public housing could disrupt the city’s labour force.

“There simply won’t be places for working people to live,” said Sylvain, who also serves as the director and convener of the Louisiana Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “Ship them in, drive them in, bus them in, is that what we’re going to turn to?”

Sylvain spoke to IPS while helping a family move in to one of the residences he manages, after they had been evicted from their FEMA-sponsored trailer park. Prior to living in the trailer, the family had lived in New Orleans public housing.

Yet if the demolition plans move forward as planned, not all New Orleans families may be as lucky. As FEMA vouchers for displaced residents currently living in Houston, Baton Rouge, and elsewhere run out, these people will look to return to New Orleans, Connor explained.

“They’re going to come back home. And when they get back home, they will not have houses. And we will have a problem of even more homeless people. And we will have created it because we didn’t stop this demolition,” he said.

 
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