Vanishing City: Post-Katrina Redevelopment Excludes “poor and working-class”

by Michelle Chen
- USA -

Feb. 5th - Today marks Fat Tuesday in New Orleans and the most celebrated day of Mardi Gras festivities. As thousands of visitors flock to the city to celebrate, thousands more have yet to return home. - Ed.

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.”

Do Not Demolish. Photograph by Flickr user Paul Schultz and used under a Creative Commons license. St. Bernard Parish. New Orleans.

Do Not Demolish. St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Photograph by Flickr user Paul Schultz and used under a Creative Commons license.

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.”

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 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.”
For more information on the public housing crisis of New Orleans, click on any of the links below - Ed.
Video on the St. Bernard takeover
The Battle Over New Orleans Public Housing: documentary on homelessness and housing crisis
Advancement Project's documentary series on public housing
When the Saints Go Marching In documentary on public housing the recovery effort

About the Author
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.

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6 comments on “Vanishing City: Post-Katrina Redevelopment Excludes “poor and working-class”
  1. Excellent article, Michelle. This is sadly all too reminiscent of Mugabe’s Operation Murambatsvina in Zimbabwe, with HUD taking the place of despotic leadership:
    I am absolutely sickened by the continued disregard for the black community of New Orleans. Gentrification, wherever it happens, always marginalizes communities who have no voice, no resources and thus no way to fight for the only homes that many of them have known. When I lived in downtown San Diego, the city approved widespread gentrification that included the demolition of numerous residential hotels and low income housing – the only options that many of the poor, elderly, recently paroled and struggling single mothers had. It’s true that these areas were higher in crime than other parts of downtown, but anyone who takes the time to dig a little deeper to find the root causes of these problems will find that it’s the cold, hard dollar (or lack thereof) driving the economy of the poor.
    As my neighborhood became known as “The East Village,” I watched as the homeless and low income families were gradually pushed east, forced out of their homes and with little resources to secure housing within the vicinity of the social services agencies that they depended on to get back on their feet.
    But so long as the contractors were kept happy and the entrepreneurs who eyed the new store fronts hungrily, all was quiet in downtown San Diego. Nary a protest to be found. Even those who challenged the city council and berated them for a lack of vision and heart were treated like nothing more than street scum, though some of them were taking time off of work to come down and support those who had no voice. The council members rolled their eyes, doodled on their legal pads and passed notes. It was embarrassing and disgraceful. While the city pointed to their mixed income developments south of Market Street as proof that they were doing something, the real truth is that the actual number of low income units decreased mightily so that only a handful of families and the elderly had to fight over the few that were left.
    This is what we do to those who cannot stand up for themselves. I wonder how we would feel to trade places for just one day?
    I’m proud that The WIP published this story and I hope that as other concerned citizens learn of this situation, in New Orleans and other places throughout the country, that we will start standing up to both the racist and economic power structure to demand what should be rightfully ours – a place to call home, a place to thrive.
    This country is only as strong as its weakest link.

  2. Nancy Van Ness says:

    This gives a powerful picture, Michelle. Thank you. I especially appreciate the links to agencies involved in helping people and to sources of more information. I will be sure to signal this article to people looking for ways to help.

  3. karlos says:

    Demolish the corruption that leaves people with the unjust choice between poor housing conditions or no housing at all!

  4. Great article Michelle!
    Unfortunately, those who want to return to New Orleans are not the only ones who have been left in the cold. There are many who cannot or do not wish to return. They have been left spread far and wide, ignored by both the federal and local governments.
    We were fortunate to meet a gentleman from New Orleans at a shelter, and through our continued association we have learned so much from him. The combination of age, fixed income, disability, and his wife abandoning 4 young kids with him, has left him incapeable of making his own way, after loosing his home and very comfortable life. HUD has not continued his housing allowance as they have done for others for some unexplained reason. He fought for every penny that he was promised by the government, while some who lost nothing collected the maximum.
    There is a big story that no one ever reports on. It seems to me, as you pointed out, that New Orleans does not want these people back, not even the hard working middle class, such as our new friend. But they are largely ignored in their new communities. Even though we have become good friends, it is hard to comprehend how this man feels. In addition we see the impact of post traumatic stress, and that does not go away (contrary to popular belief) it only gets worse with time.
    Keep up the good work!
    Stephanie Ehmen
    author of
    “Angels and Quilt Pieces…Our Journey with a Katrina Family”

  5. Joe Orleans says:

    I’ve got to wonder if Ms. Chen has every actually visited New Orleans, let alone lived here. While this article is full of do-gooderism, it has about as much authenticity as Mr. Bush’s flyover.

  6. Greetings Michelle:
    This is perhaps one of the saddest episodes in recent US history – and believe me, there is no shortage of sad situations from which to make such a selection.
    From any vantage point that one wishes to examine this circumstance, this is basically an organized crime land grab, disguised in the wrapper of government sanctioned “redevelopment” on a massive scale. I have been to New Orleans a number of times over the years, and it’s no secret to anyone that the plans for expelling the mostly black population from the low income housing sections, such as the 9th ward, have long been laying in wait.
    Rest assured, what is intended to replace these sections of low income housing is going to be a conglomerate of commercial real estate projects, including casinos, hotels, shopping malls and the like, and a mix of midlevel to high end condos and apartments.
    To say that this is a form of domestic “ethnic cleansing” might seem to be a strong term to use, but I know of no better or more accurate description, because in essence, that is what this is.
    Now, I’m not suggesting that this situation was without its problems prior to the Katrina disaster – crime and corruption was rampant, and life in these parts was anything but peaceful or pleasant for many in this troubled region.
    Having said that, this was such an obvious, blatant example of booting out the local poor / black population here, complete with Haliburton being the prime recipient for the no-bid so-called redevelopment contracts that were immediately granted with no contest, debate, or oversight; if this was written up as fiction in a novel, no one would believe such an outrageous scheme could have ever taken place.
    But then again, considering the bizarre nature of governance as it has occurred here in the USA for the past 8 years, well, anything is possible.
    Reality is, tragically in many cases, far stranger than fiction.
    The “disappearing city of New Orleans” is only one such example, among many in recent times, that merits this observation.
    best regards,
    Berkeley, CA

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