First Came Katrina, Then Came HUD

Activists battle to save New Orleans public housing

Lewis Wallace

More than 4,500 public housing units in New Orleans are scheduled for demolition.

The tem­per­a­ture in New Orleans was unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly cold in mid-Decem­ber, dip­ping into the 30s. As thou­sands of home­less peo­ple liv­ing in encamp­ments hud­dled in blan­kets, hous­ing activists from around the coun­try con­verged on the city to protest the demo­li­tion of more than 4,500 units of pub­lic hous­ing, once at the epi­cen­ter of New Orleans’ low-income African-Amer­i­can community. 

In late Novem­ber, the Hous­ing Author­i­ty of New Orleans (HANO) had approved $30 mil­lion in con­tracts to demol­ish the B.W. Coop­er, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard projects. Pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dents, lawyers, reli­gious lead­ers and activists who attempt­ed to stop the demo­li­tions met police head on. But their efforts suc­ceed­ed in delay­ing some demo­li­tion and gain­ing sig­nif­i­cant nation­al support. 

On Dec. 20, how­ev­er, police fought activists from the Coali­tion to Pro­tect Pub­lic Hous­ing with pep­per spray and Tasers on the steps of New Orleans City Hall.

The Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment (HUD) plans to demol­ish the major­i­ty of New Orleans’ his­toric pub­lic hous­ing and replace it with so-called mixed-income neigh­bor­hoods. The post-Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na envi­ron­ment of gov­ern­ment inat­ten­tion and slash­ing of pub­lic ser­vices cre­at­ed an open­ing for HUD (which has con­trolled HANO since 2002) to exe­cute a plan it claims was in the works pri­or to the storm. 

Since Kat­ri­na, the home­less pop­u­la­tion of New Orleans has dou­bled to more than 12,000 peo­ple. Despite what the New York Times on Dec. 2 called an acute rental short­age,” HUD plans to spend $762 mil­lion to demol­ish pub­lic hous­ing and replace it with only 744 new units of afford­able hous­ing. HUD will spend an aver­age of $400,000 for each new mixed-income unit, while state­ments by HANO’S own insur­ance com­pa­ny have shown that many of the mul­ti­ple-unit build­ings to be demol­ished could be repaired for less than $10,000 per building. 

A human need

Get these peo­ple off the street. It’s cold out­side!” said Sharon Jaspers, 58, a hous­ing activist and for­mer life­long res­i­dent of the St. Bernard Projects in the 7th Ward. Jaspers, who spoke on the steps of City Hall on Dec. 18, was refer­ring to the dozens of home­less activists and mem­bers of Home­less Pride camped out across the street in Dun­can Plaza since July 4, 2007 to protest the lack of afford­able hous­ing. By mid-Decem­ber, local char­i­ties were help­ing the hun­dreds of home­less secure hous­ing after the city announced its inten­tion to fence off the square and kick out residents. 

Jaspers her­self was among the tens of thou­sands dis­placed from St. Bernard in Sep­tem­ber 2005. She now rents an apart­ment on Dumaine Street near down­town. Like many oth­er New Orlea­ni­ans, Jaspers says she is over­whelmed by high util­i­ty bills and ter­ri­ble build­ing maintenance. 

In Octo­ber 2006 a (New Orleans) Times-Picayune sur­vey con­clud­ed that rents in Orleans Parish had gone up an aver­age of 70 per­cent since the storm, and in some neigh­bor­hoods rents con­tin­ue to rise. 

Our peo­ple work and they pay tax­es,” says Jaspers. Hous­ing is a human need and it’s a human right. We have a right to be a part of this process.” Jaspers says HUD wants to rid the city of poor peo­ple rather than involve them in the rebuild­ing process. They want­ed to make this a city for the rich,” she says. They’re not think­ing about poor, work­ing-class peo­ple. All they had to do is revi­tal­ize some units, let the dis­placed fam­i­lies come home, and then start talk­ing about redevelopment.” 

The St. Bernard hous­ing projects have stood emp­ty since the forced evac­u­a­tion dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na in 2005. Although the stur­dy brick apart­ments suf­fered only minor water dam­age and could have been reha­bil­i­tat­ed, HUD and the city of New Orleans fenced off the row hous­es and kicked out for­mer res­i­dents who attempt­ed to squat in their own homes. Res­i­dents began imme­di­ate­ly protest­ing their displacement. 

On June 14, 2006, HUD and HANO announced demo­li­tion plans. And on June 26, a group of African-Amer­i­can pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dents filed a class-action law­suit, cit­ing the agen­cies’ oblig­a­tion to pro­vide nondis­crim­i­na­to­ry access to safe, afford­able hous­ing” and to keep con­trac­tu­al com­mit­ments to res­i­dents with leases. 

The res­i­dents point­ed to HUD Sec­re­tary Alphon­so Jackson’s state­ment in Sep­tem­ber 2005 that New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.” In April 2006, Jack­son pub­licly stat­ed that “[o]nly the best [pub­lic hous­ing] res­i­dents should return. Those who paid rent on time, those who held a job and those who worked.” (The FBI is now inves­ti­gat­ing Jack­son for alleged inside deal­ings with HUD con­tracts in New Orleans.) 

The right of return

Pub­lic hous­ing in New Orleans was near­ly 100 per­cent black at the time of the storm in 2005.

They want to rid this city of black folks,” said Mal­colm Suber, a long-time local activist and one of the founders of the People’s Hur­ri­cane Relief Fund. We have liv­able spaces across the street from here and peo­ple can’t live in them.” 

Suber spoke at a Dec. 15 demon­stra­tion out­side St. Bernard, where about 100 peo­ple cel­e­brat­ed with food, music, danc­ing and speech­es fol­low­ing a Dec. 14 state court order that forced City Coun­cil to take an active stance on the demo­li­tions before HUD could pro­ceed with its plans. 

Kali Akuno, 35, the nation­al orga­niz­er for the Mal­colm X Grass­roots Move­ment and one of the coor­di­na­tors of the Coali­tion to Stop the Demo­li­tions, said he believes the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the city is a result of nation­al right-wing efforts to pri­va­tize social services. 

HUD is destroy­ing the mate­r­i­al basis for the right of return,” says Akuno, who sees St. Bernard as the epi­cen­ter of New Orleans’ hous­ing struggle. 

Akuno says St. Bernard could house some of the tens of thou­sands of peo­ple receiv­ing evic­tion notices from FEMA trail­ers, or used as tran­si­tion­al hous­ing for the grow­ing home­less population.

Short­ly after Akuno and oth­ers spoke at the Dec. 15 demon­stra­tion, police had a skir­mish with pro­test­ers, arrest­ing activist Cheri Honkala for alleged­ly imper­son­at­ing an offi­cer.” Honkala says she stepped out into the street to try to pre­vent a pass­ing car from strik­ing pro­test­ers. When Chica­go-based activist Willie J.R. Flem­ing chal­lenged Honkala’s arrest, he says police cuffed him and threw him against a car. One cam­era­man, Richard Row­ley of New York-based Big Noise Films, filmed Fleming’s arrest. 

Flem­ing, who is a direc­tor at the Chica­go Coali­tion to Pro­tect Pub­lic Hous­ing, trav­eled with eight res­i­dent orga­niz­ers from Cabri­ni Green hous­ing projects in Chica­go, where res­i­dents have been fight­ing demo­li­tions since the late 90s.

Locked out

On Dec. 10, the Hous­ing Con­ser­va­tion Dis­trict Review Com­mit­tee in New Orleans denied a per­mit to demol­ish Lafitte, an old­er devel­op­ment known for its stur­dy town­house-style con­struc­tion. HUD imme­di­ate­ly threat­ened to cut off fund­ing and hous­ing vouch­ers for for­mer Lafitte res­i­dents if Lafitte is not demolished. 

As protests con­tin­ued on the ground, Sens. Barack Oba­ma (D‑Ill.) and Har­ry Reid (D‑Nev.), as well as House Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi (D‑Calif.), pub­licly request­ed a mora­to­ri­um on the demo­li­tions until more research is done into one-for-one replace­ment and the imme­di­ate needs of dis­placed res­i­dents. The Gulf Coast Recov­ery Act of 2007 would require a plan for replace­ment before demo­li­tions begin. But as of Decem­ber, the bill was held up in com­mit­tee and lacked the key sup­port of Louisiana’s Repub­li­can Sen. David Vitter. 

Despite the oppo­si­tion, on Dec. 20, New Orleans’ City Coun­cil vot­ed unan­i­mous­ly to approve the demo­li­tions with­out for­mal­ly meet­ing with res­i­dents. Before the vote, city offi­cials locked out near­ly 100 peo­ple who showed up to give input, claim­ing the coun­cil cham­bers were full. 

When peo­ple inside demand­ed that more folks be let in, police report­ed­ly tasered at least five lead­ers and dragged them out. Pro­test­ers who approached the gates after wit­ness­ing this were also report­ed­ly tasered and pep­per-sprayed. Fif­teen peo­ple were arrest­ed and one woman was rushed to the hos­pi­tal when she began hav­ing seizures due to tasers. 

That morn­ing, New Orleans May­or Ray Nagin sent a let­ter to City Coun­cil say­ing he had reached ver­bal agree­ments with HUD Sec­re­tary Jack­son over reha­bil­i­tat­ing a min­i­mum num­ber of units at Lafitte and St. Bernard, assur­ing that rede­vel­op­ment begins direct­ly after the demo­li­tions, and expand­ing HANO’s one-per­son board of direc­tors to three peo­ple, includ­ing the may­or and a pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dent, as a means for local input and oversight.” 

If Nagin’s words have weight, they could at least lead to a pause in the action while HUD, HANO and the City Coun­cil try to wait out the nation­al attention.

This image is not what they want to por­tray,” says Akuno, refer­ring to the protests and the home­less encamp­ments. It’s not good for business.” 

Jaspers spoke with In These Times on the phone the day after Christ­mas as she wait­ed for her daugh­ter to fly in from Hous­ton. Her four chil­dren, all from New Orleans, are now scat­tered around the coun­try. She says Christ­mas has changed for her and her fam­i­ly since the storm. 

Despite the phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al and spir­i­tu­al trau­ma, Jaspers says she will return to New Orleans along with many oth­er long­time res­i­dents and their allies.

It can make you bit­ter,” says Jaspers, and I’m tired of watch­ing my peo­ple suf­fer. But I refuse to lay down.”

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