NEW ORLEANS — On Dec. 20, police clashed with residents and housing activists at New Orleans City Hall. That was the day the city council voted unanimously for the demolition of four massive housing developments as promoted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Shortly before the vote, a number of people inside the meeting room chanted, “Let the people in,” as a number of empty seats were still available, according to one video on YouTube.com. Outraged citizens were brought under control with tasers and handcuffs. Many folks chained themselves to the railings of the developments, chanting, “No demolition.” A Louisiana state court order forced the council to decide the fate of the more than 4,500 units before HUD could proceed with its plans to spend more than $760 million to demolish units and replace them with mixed-income developments. The issue continues to divide housing officials, as the amount of homeless individuals in the Big Easy has doubled.
“It is very unfortunate that the city council voted the way they did without significant reassurances that HUD and HANO [the Housing Authority of New Orleans] will be held accountable for the mistakes of the past,” said James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “They gave them permission to build something new that also doesn’t meet the needs of the citizens of New Orleans. Whose fault is it that the properties were in such poor condition? HUD and HANO controlled those properties.”
HUD has run HANO since 2002 because of serious management problems at the housing authority.
“It was a very difficult decision that the city council made,” said Milton Bailey, president of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency. “It’s probably the most significant [decision] that has come out of New Orleans in the past 70 years. I applaud the city council. The developments were centers of poverty in New Orleans that continued to serve as a corrosive influence on the community, and now we can bring back the mixed-income, mixed-use housing that New Orleans deserves.”
The need for affordable housing is acute. Rents continue to rise. The number of homeless people in the city of New Orleans has doubled to 12,000 in the two-and-a-half years since Katrina. A number of housing developments are going up in the city, and construction doesn’t seem to be moving swiftly enough to stem the tide. Part of the problem was the serious need for housing before the storm. Perry said about 7,000 people were on the waiting list for Sec. 8 vouchers, and at least 6,000 people were on the waiting list to get into public housing. The waiting list was closed by HANO in 2001. “That means that the waiting list could be much, much larger,” said Perry.
Approximately one-third of the 15,000 public housing units in the city were occupied before Katrina. Reports indicate that the empty units were not occupied because they had fallen into disrepair.
A number of affordable apartments are under construction in New Orleans, said Bailey: Walnut Square, Opportunity Homes, Woodland Glen, and Falstaff Apartments. Enterprise Community Partners and nonprofit Providence Community Housing have promised to rebuild all of the 865 units of public housing at the Lafitte housing project in its mixed-income redevelopment that includes homeownership opportunities. The Providence/Enterprise plan recently received praise from a New York Times column. At press time, it was not official what the plans are at the other three properties. HUD has stated that HANO is committed to building 3,343 public housing units and 1,765 units for low-income families and Sec. 8 voucher recipients by 2010.
Legislation that could help
Housing advocates want to make sure affordable housing is available to those displaced by the demolition. The passage of the bill the Senate is now considering, the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act of 2007 (S. 1668), would ensure that each unit of public or assisted housing in the Gulf Coast, including the four public housing sites in New Orleans, be replaced with a housing unit that is affordable to a household of similar economic status to the one who lived there before. The replacement units can be anywhere in the local area in developments that are economically integrated. The bill would also guarantee the right to return for all residents who were in good standing at the time of the evacuation.