New Orleans' epic housing crisis
May 31, 2008 is the deadline for their move out of the trailer park.
Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed nearly 52,000 rental units in the city and the homeless population has doubled to about 12,000, writes Ethan Brown
On February 28, United Nations human rights experts proclaimed that New Orleans' plans to demolish four massive public housing complexes would deny its "predominantly African-American residents … [their] internationally recognised human rights."
The UN declaration came far too late - in December the city council voted unanimously to approve the demolition of 4,500 apartments at BW Cooper, CJ Peete, St Bernard and Lafitte – and the UN human rights experts have been criticised for issuing the statement without visiting New Orleans. Yet while the UN's condemnation of the demolitions - and the riot just outside city hall that preceded the city council vote - has received most of the attention, the loss of these units is just one part of an epic housing crisis in New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed nearly 52,000 rental units in the city and the homeless population has doubled to about 12,000. Meanwhile, rents in most sections of the city have increased by nearly 50% and thousands of homes that could have been rehabilitated are being demolished by the city under an ordinance passed in the storm's wake that allows for razing homes that pose a "serious, imminent and continuing threat to the public health, safety and welfare".
"The city is not encouraging people to find the means and methods to rehabilitate their homes," said Karen Gadbois, a New Orleans activist whose website, Squandered Heritage, tracks demolitions. "The attitude is 'You want to demolish it, fine.' This policy is defacto dis-investment."
A lawsuit filed by Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley in federal court on behalf of about a dozen plaintiffs charges that city officials inflated the damage estimates of nearly 2,000 homes in New Orleans to expedite the demolition process (by city law, any property that is deemed to have been damaged by 70% or more may be torn down without the approval of the Housing Conservation District Review Committee, or HCDRC). Under a settlement brokered by the city, property owners who believe that their houses should not be subject to demolition can appeal to an independent body.
The settlement may stall the demolition of some private homes and a January 14 decision by the HCDRC to reject nearly one third of the 91 demolitions requested by the Nagin administration proves that the committee is becoming more circumspect.
Yet the demolition process remains Byzantine. "It's like an octopus," Gadbois said. "Just when we think we have a firm grasp of how this works, out comes another tentacle." Plus, HCDRC hearings often are scheduled when homeowners are unlikely to attend. One took place on New Year's Eve.
There are few incentives for landlords to renovate their rental properties. The Louisiana Recovery Authority's "Road Home" program offers incentives for "small rental property owners" but it is not popular with mom-and-pop landlords, according to Annie Clark of progressive policy and research institute PolicyLink.
"A landlord says, 'Yes I am going to rehabilitate my rental units,'" Clark explained, "but then he or she has to get a bank loan which is then paid back by Road Home. Banks are very hesitant to give loans to people this way."
Clark added that Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has rehabilitated only about 1,500 units of the 4,600 units it has set aside for seniors, the disabled and poor working families in New Orleans. "HUD really has shirked its responsibility in these units," Clark said. Gadbois has been tracking abandoned HUD scattered site housing on Squandered Heritage and the results are astonishing: usable housing that could be rehabilitated left to rot.
The "mixed-income" goals pursued by HUD in New Orleans have fared little better. When the St Thomas housing projects in the Lower Garden District were bulldozed pre-Katrina and replaced by the mixed income "River Garden" apartments, only about 130 affordable housing units were made available of 1,500 total. The UN's human rights experts predict a similar fate for the units that will replace those lost at Lafitte, BW Cooper, CJ Peete and St Bernard: "only a portion of the new housing units will be for residents in need of subsidised housing and the remainder will be offered at the market rate."
Just weeks after the demolitions of these public housing complexes were approved, it appeared that the wrecking ball would fall on many more units than expected. Demolition permits have been filed with the city for nearly one dozen buildings in the Lafitte housing complex that were not approved for demolition on December 20.
A surprising aspect of the debate was the anti-public housing reporting by the local paper, the Times Picayune. On December 16 the Times Picayune ran a pro-demolition news piece headlined, "Demolition protests ignore some realities," that said protesters' asserted "public housing residents have no place to live," and characterised such claims as "demonstrably false". It was a caricature of the anti-demolition forces who acknowledged the often-neglected state of public housing but argued that the projects could and needed to be rehabilitated. New York Times architecture critic Nicholas Ouroussoff wrote that the buildings slated for demolition "rank among the best early examples of public housing built in the United States, both in design and quality of construction" and that the drive to destroy them "reflects a ruthless indifference to local realities".
The Times Picayune also charged: "the rhetoric has planted a perception that the scheduled demolition of the aging complexes is a result of Katrina, in reality it stems from a national policy shift launched well before the flood." That is precisely the protesters' lament - namely that the demolitions represent an extension of HUD's projects such as "HOPE VI" public housing redevelopment program that has according to a 2002 report "False HOPE" by the National Housing Law Project played "upon inaccurate stereotypes about public housing to justify a drastic model of large-scale family displacement and housing redevelopment that increasingly appears to do more harm than good."
Perhaps its support for HUD's purported "mixed income" approach might explain why a December 20 Times-Picayune editorial supported Louisiana Republican senator David Vitter's refusal to support the "Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act" (co-sponsored by Louisiana Democratic senator Mary Landrieu and Connecticut Democratic senator Chris Dodd) which would require that demolished public housing units be replaced on a one-to-one basis.
The Times Picayune's stance is baffling as Louisiana's Republican governor-elect Bobby Jindal supports the legislation and Vitter's stance is widely seen as a political move meant to deny Landrieu a legislative victory.
"The fact that Mary Landrieu is widely identified as the most vulnerable Democrat coming into the next election cycle, you certainly don't want to give her big victories in helping the state," Louisiana State University political science professor Kirby Goidel told Congressional Quarterly recently. "[Vitter] probably feels safe enough to hold it up as long as it's not too obviously political and he has some policy-related cover."
The ugliness of national politics pales in comparison to the nastiness of the racial politics surrounding the debate. A Times Picayune photo of Sharon Jasper, a former resident of the St Bernard projects who is living in a subsidised unit in the Fauborg St John neighborhood, brought howls of "welfare queen" from the newspaper's online commenters because Jasper was pictured in her living room next to a big screen TV. The Atlantic Monthly's Ross Douthat pointed to Jasper as proof that Reagan's use of "welfare queen" rhetoric was not racist but an objective critique of abusers of the dole. Douthat denounced Jasper as a "welfare duchess." New Orleans bloggers fought back. The Dangerblond blog captured the ludicrousness of the outrage over Jasper's supposed good fortune best: "Elderly black woman caught with TV: Lacks proper level of humility and appreciation."
As the demolitions of the projects began in February, even its most enthusiastic supporters must concede that it is difficult to believe HUD's pledge that it will provide adequate public housing for the poor because the agency and HANO (the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is controlled by HUD) has long failed to bring real relief to public housing residents and perhaps more importantly, has been mired so deeply in scandal.
In the spring of 2006, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson declared to a meeting of minority executives in Texas that he would never give a contract to someone who did not like President Bush. In November 2007, National Journal reported that federal investigators are looking into Jackson's role in securing lucrative contract work at HANO for a friend and golfing buddy named William Hairston. National Journal reported that Hairston, a Hilton Head, South Carolina-based stucco contractor, received $485,000 for working as a construction manager at HANO for 18 months; on top of that, a Georgia company associated with Hairston was paid approximately $186,000. Allegations of HUD's impropriety have recently spread far beyond New Orleans: on March 1, Philadelphia Housing Authority Director Carl Greene charged that Jackson threatened the agency's funding when it refused to award a lot worth nearly $2m to Universal Community Homes, a real estate development firm with ties to Jackson that is run by none other than Kenny Gamble of famed soul songwriting team Gamble and Huff.
The mix of crony capitalism, tasered protesters and a complacent corporate media is sheer Shock Doctrine. Indeed, Naomi Klein herself the public housing demolitions as "the shock doctrine in action". When I told Gadbois that recent events seem to be pulled straight of the pages of Klein's bestseller, she replied: "My only question is: what chapter are we on?" For New Orleanians suffering from woes ranging from a sky-high murder rate to a bulldozed public and private housing, it seems, unfortunately, that the post-Katrina tale of hardship and struggle has only just begun.