People in New Orleans Are Being Pushed Out of Their Homes--And Now, They're Pushing Back
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In a city with a total population hovering around 300,000, at least 12,000 people are homeless. That’s double the number before Katrina and Rita, according to the homelessness agency Unity of Greater New Orleans. The group estimates that at least another 5,000 people are living in abandoned properties, of which there are about 65,000—a third of all buildings in the city.
The city’s housing crisis also reflects the disastrous impact of public housing demolitions and redevelopment policies. In New Orleans, many former public housing residents say that on top of losing their homes, they were shut out of participating in the redevelopment process. For many, it was clear that there was just too much money at stake to let the residents get in the way. In the wake of Katrina, Louisiana became a bonanza of federal subsidies for firms ready to take advantage of the opportunity to rebuild. The developers, as a former staffer for one private company put it, stood to “make money hand over fist” through a number of unusually generous bond deals.
That all the homes in the Big Four are gone is a stark reality in New Orleans. So now, after decades of government policies that put housing needs into the hands of private developers, local activists are looking beyond simply fighting for better and more affordable housing. They are joining with housing advocates throughout the nation to emerge from the national crisis with nothing less than the assertion of housing as a human right.
Reasons to Raze
The most common reason given by redevelopment proponents for demolishing public housing is a compelling one: No one should have to live like this, they say. If you drive through parts of the Iberville, the last remaining large-scale public housing complex in New Orleans, you’ll get a sense of what home was like for thousands of people: shattered streetlights, boarded-up windows; there were even reports of raw sewage seeping out of broken pipes.
The state of public housing has become like the proverbial chicken and egg. If housing authorities, from local officials all the way up to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), had not for decades mismanaged and neglected these complexes, the country’s public housing would not have fallen into such disrepair. If public housing were not in such terrible shape, the housing authorities would not have as good a case for getting rid of it.
Public housing is so stigmatized that many Big Four residents take pains to defend their former way of life, which generally consisted of the day-to-day tribulations of working poverty but also the normal joys and traditions of family and community. The Bricks were home to many of New Orleans’ street musicians and Mardi Gras Indians, ironworkers and shipyard workers, cooks, maids and waiters. Public housing was also what passed for a safety net for the elderly, disabled, unemployed and underemployed. For many people, it was the “housing of last resort”—a stable and still-affordable place to call home.
Residents and their allies have fought long and hard, not solely to save their old homes. “It’s not that we don’t want new housing,” says local public interest lawyer Tracie Washington. “We want one-for-one replacement and guarantees that the housing actually gets built.”
But the plans to demolish the Big Four’s 4,500 public housing units never included new-housing assurances for all the inhabitants. The mandate of developers in New Orleans and elsewhere is to “deconcentrate poverty” by building housing to accommodate a new mix of residents: poor, low-wage and middle-class. Thus, in each of the smaller mixed-income developments replacing the Big Four, only 150 or so units are reserved for the original residents.