The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

Date: Thu, 7 Feb 2008 22:32:58 -0500
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: New Orleans: Vanishing City

New Orleans: Vanishing City

Post-Katrina Redevelopment excludes 'poor and working-class
black New Orleanians from returning home'

By Michelle Chen

February 7, 2008, The Women's International Perspective

It took Kawana Jasper over a year, and all the stubborn will
she could muster, to get back to New Orleans. Broke and
exhausted, she arrived in the city last spring from Houston,
only to find that the last leg of her journey-back to her
apartment at the St. Bernard housing project-would be the
toughest yet.Her home survived Hurricane Katrina, but it will
crumble under the city's plan to demolish low-income housing
in the name of 'redevelopment.'

To the 33 year-old single mother of three, the officials
pushing to raze St. Bernard are carrying out disaster by
design. 'How could they just get away with it?' she asks.

The pending demolition of the St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper, C.J.
Peete, and Lafitte projects has confirmed the fears of the
city's poorest, blackest, and hardest hit communities: that
New Orleans' 'recovery' in the wake of the storm is built on
the city's old demons of racial and class strife.

Residents have responded to the demolition plans with street
demonstrations and heated outcry at public meetings. But the
government has continued to steadily advance its
redevelopment scheme. Late last year, a district court
thwarted a legal challenge to the demolitions in a class-
action civil-rights lawsuit. In December, the newly elected,
majority-white City Council voted to approve the
redevelopment proposal, while outside, police clashed
violently with throngs of protesters locked out of the

Audrey Stewart, an advocate for displaced residents with the
Loyola University Law Clinic, says the destruction of public
housing reflects a wholesale abandonment of the city's most
vulnerable. 'We just see it as a pattern of excluding poor
and working-class Black New Orleanians from returning home -
from participating in the process of rebuilding their

Crippled Homes

Katrina's fury swept Gloria Williams further from home than
she'd ever been. But after a few weeks stranded in rural
California, the 61 year-old grandmother boarded a bus back to
Louisiana, determined to return to her cozy apartment at C.J.
Peete, her home of over twenty years.

But the Housing Authority of New Orleans has barred Williams
and other residents from moving back. Their outrage boiled
over last year, when she and some neighbors temporarily
reoccupied the worn but sturdy units, unauthorized, to show
they were still habitable. Now, the redevelopment plans
threaten to settle that dispute by tearing the whole project

Williams today clings to a modest house on the West Bank,
scraping by on disability income and a rental voucher
provided by the government. On a typical afternoon, she stays
in bed, battling emphysema and heart trouble, wondering what
she'll do when the last few eggs in her refrigerator are

'Our people are slowly dying,' she says, noting that many
people from her community are already living on the streets.
'They don't want the black people back in New Orleans,' she
says, 'That's why, that's the problem.'

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which
took control of the New Orleans housing authority in 2002 due
to management failures, estimates that around 5,100 families
lived in public housing prior to Katrina. Many of these solid
structures emerged from the hurricane relatively unscathed.

But local and federal housing authorities say the old
projects were cesspools of crime and poverty, which both
tenants and the city would be better off without. Officials
want to demolish about 4,500 units and replace them with
'mixed income' developments, which supposedly promote
economic integration.

When redevelopment is finished in 2010, HUD projects, New
Orleans will have roughly 3,300 low-income public housing
units-a reduction of a few thousand -plus around 1800
voucher-subsidized apartments and a comparable number of HUD-
developed 'market rate' units.

But under the mixed-income rubric, politics and profit
motives may ultimately determine the distribution of higher-
and lower-income homes. Activists say the concept often masks
segregation as progress, as development interests gentrify
neighborhoods and price poor families out.

So far, according to a funding analysis by the housing think-
tank Policylink, the redevelopment projects now underway
would abandon more than 60 percent of HUD's pre-Katrina
affordable housing stock-homes within reach of families
earning under $15,900 per year. Meanwhile, since the
hurricane, average market-rate rents have jumped by nearly 50

ACORN, an advocacy group that is helping rebuild storm-
battered working-class communities, questions the human costs
of reconfiguring neighborhoods to achieve a certain income

'You have people who lived in these neighborhoods for
generations,' says ACORN organizer Tanya Harris, who herself
is from the Lower Ninth Ward, a tight-knit and historically
rooted black enclave. 'The strength of my community came from
the fact that we had a history and a bond, that we knew each
other, and that we were linked together through our
experiences. That was a beautiful thing.'

Julie Andrews, a resident of the Abundance Square housing
complex, temporarily settled with her family in remote
Alabama after the storm, but couldn't bring herself to stay.
In New Orleans, she knew she'd have little to start over
with-but something called her back.

'Maybe it wasn't perfect before, but at least you knew your
neighbor,' she says.

That sense of community is missing from the prevailing view
of 'development,' she says: '‘Bricks and mortar' does not
bring a better quality of life to people, when their economic
status and their moral status has not been increased.'

Redevelopment or Exclusion?

HUD claims it is working diligently to provide housing for
displaced residents who want to return. The agency has moved
some families into vacant public housing units and issued
several thousand vouchers to help people rent apartments at
the current inflated rates.

Aside from former HUD-housing residents, the agency
subsidizes rent for thousands of other families through the
Disaster Housing Assistance Program. The government will be
decreasing these payments, however, to push households toward
'independence'-basically, forcing people to pay $50 more each
month until their subsidy disappears.

In the long term, critics argue, vouchers and subsidies will
barely dent the overwhelming need for affordable housing.
They point out that landlords are under no obligation, and
often refuse, to rent to low-income voucher holders, and that
thousands of families were on the waiting list for voucher-
assisted housing before the storm.

Katrina pummeled nearly 51,700 rentals in the area. More than
29,000 affordable-rent units vanished. The social-service
coalition UNITY estimated last year that homelessness had
roughly doubled to about 12,000 people across New Orleans and
neighboring Jefferson Parish.

Yet HUD has opposed a recent proposal in Congress to mandate
that all demolished units are comparably replaced in the
redevelopment process. Meanwhile, using HUD's data, advocates
estimate that restoring the projects would cost less than
demolition and redevelopment.

The underlying assault on the city's poor, critics say, is
the free-market philosophy that drives the politics of
rebuilding and aims to dismantle public resources.

The Brookings Institute, a centrist think tank, reports that
over two years since Katrina made landfall, the area still
counts among the casualties about two fifths of its public
schools and two fifths of its hospitals. Of over $2 billion
in federal funds allocated for infrastructure restoration in
Orleans Parish, only about 30 percent has actually been
distributed to projects.

'It's a self-fulfilling prophecy on the government's part,'
says Anita Sinha, an attorney with the Advancement Project,
one of the groups litigating the class-action suit. 'They're
making it such that people can't come home.'

From the Ground Up

While officials move forward with demolition, community
groups are launching alternative rebuilding efforts: small
initiatives that articulate a grassroots counterpoint to the
material focus of conventional development schemes.

Tanya Harris, who is working on restoring her neighbors'
homes as well as her own, says that although the government
offers funds for reconstruction, returnees need more global
supports, to ensure that once they come home, they have the
means to stay.

'It's very difficult, I think, for a lot of people who are
putting out the funds for rebuilding, and who also are
staring down the barrel of: ‘Will my utilities be out of
control? Will my insurance be out of control? I can put this
house back together, but can I afford to live in it?"

ACORN has created a redevelopment plan focused on preserving
communities like the Lower Ninth Ward, through measures like
a job-training project, expanded resources for local public
schools, and a rent-stabilization program.

The volunteer-led Common Ground Collective has mobilized New
Orleanians through both political organizing and a grassroots
social-service infrastructure. Since 2005, the organization
has seeded free clinics and legal aid, environmental-
restoration programs, and an alternative energy project. To
foster economic self-sufficiency and youth development, the
group also trains local young people in housing-restoration

'There is so much to be done,' says Common Ground volunteer
Sakura Kone. 'There's no will on the part of the power
structure. It's only grassroots like ourselves that are
making a difference in their lives.'

Local residents, too, see the housing struggle as a test of

Knowing that she didn't fight her way back to New Orleans
just to founder at her own doorstep, Kawana Jasper doesn't
plan on going anywhere.

'Sometimes I feel like, ‘What I came back for?' Because they
don't want us here,' she says. 'But I'm not going to give
them what they want.'

[Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. Formerly on
staff at the independent, now-defunct, news publication, The
NewStandard, her other recent occupations include living in
Shanghai as a Fulbright research fellow, freelance writing
and dish-washing. Her work has also appeared in Extra!, Legal
Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-
published zine, cain.]

Copyright (c) 2008 The Women's International Perspective


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