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People in New Orleans Are Being Pushed Out of Their Homes--And Now, They're Pushing Back

Public housing demolitions and disastrous redevelopment policies have turned New Orleans' housing crisis into a human rights emergency.

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“We’re trying to reach a middle ground,” says Shawn Escoffery, director of housing at the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, part of the team rebuilding the C.J. Peete.

Escoffery, who says he chose a career in housing to address systemic poverty and inequality, speaks passionately about stabilizing the Central City neighborhood surrounding the old C.J. Peete “block by block—to create a domino effect of improvement, fighting gentrification, getting it so that the people who live in the neighborhood can own in the neighborhood and stay.”  

For some advocates like Escoffery, mixed-income housing is a strategy to combat the poverty, isolation and crime of the old project neighborhoods. But getting rid of the Big Four has not significantly improved local crime statistics. Despite a slight drop in violent crime, New Orleans had the nation’s highest per capita murder rate in 2008, according to an FBI report issued in June 2009, the most recent available.

“Building new buildings does not solve issues caused by the fact that the educational system is troubled or that people can’t make a living here,” says Audrey Stewart, who organized with public housing residents while at the Law Clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans. “We’ve lost a lot of affordable housing, and the issue of crime and violence did not go away.”

Losing the Battle

At one time, HUD’s own internal study found that fixing the Big Four would be cheaper than leveling them.

In fact, housing authorities originally promised to repair and reopen several thousand units in the buildings by August 2006. The date got moved back again and again, until finally, that June, HUD declared its intention to demolish all four public housing complexes, citing poor maintenance and damage and touting its plans to “redevelop and expand housing” for New Orleanians.

By then, some residents and their supporters had set up a “survivors’ village” in front of the St. Bernard to publicize their plight. The tents, across from the fenced-off buildings and along the median of St. Bernard Avenue, were one of the first public actions by residents to reclaim their homes. As the summer wore on, Tracie Washington and another public interest lawyer, Bill Quigley, working with a national civil rights organization called the Advancement Project, sued to stop the demolition.

All the activity made national news. In early 2007, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-California, introduced legislation to reopen the housing developments and replace the units one for one, and that November, the New Orleans city council passed a resolution in support of the bill. But the November 17 elections brought in a new city council—and for the first time in more than two decades, whites were in the majority, holding four of the council’s seven seats.

The city’s electorate had been reduced by half, from the 112,000 votes cast in 2006 to 52,614 votes in 2007. The racial power shift in a majority-black city reflected the fact that more than 200,000 residents did not or could not return or participate in elections.

“I think it’s going to be one for the history books,” says James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Action Center and a candidate in the mayoral election this year. “People who have not voted in two years have been purged from the voter rolls. The majority of people who are in the Diaspora are low-income citizens. The effect is that there will be fewer lower-income people and people of color voting in future elections.”