New Orleans: Vanishing City
by Michelle Chen
Post-Katrina Redevelopment Excludes “poor and working-class black New Orleanians from returning home”
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 meeting.
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 neighborhoods.”
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 down.
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 gone.
“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 percent.
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 “mix.”
“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 work.
“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 self-will.
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.