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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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Government agencies have apparently given the developers carte blanche in devising criteria and rules, leaving public housing units built with public money in the hands of the private sector. Though some of the developers may be violating fair housing laws in their readmission policies, local activists are not yet able to take on this issue while the rebuilding remains unfinished.

A Human Right to Housing

Late in the summer of 2009, tent cities once again cropped up in the national media. After attracting attention earlier in the year in cities like Sacramento and Seattle, tent cities were now scattered across the country, the Wall Street Journal reported: Nashville, Tennessee; Ontario, California; Ventura, California; East Harlem, New York; Champaign, Illinois. The new face of homelessness, declared the Washington Post, was no longer single men with substance abuse and mental illnesses but rather families with children. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, close to a million people are homeless, with that number expected to double without major intervention to make more housing available and affordable.


“This really is a national crisis,” says Tiffany Gardner, director of housing rights for the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. “Many people are paying more than half their income for housing. We’re talking about the need for affordability for all Americans, not just poor people.”

Even as millions more families are in need of affordable housing, the supply is dwindling. Public housing buildings are increasingly being replaced by mixed-income developments. The HOPE VI program, one of the major federal vehicles for redeveloping public housing, does not require one-for-one replacement. Studies suggest that HOPE VI redevelopments have managed to bring back fewer than 12 percent of the original residents. Meanwhile, with struggling banks unable to buy tax credits, there’s not much affordable multifamily housing going up.

“There’s been an extreme focus on the private sector in our nation’s approach to housing,” says Gardner. “I’ve worked in Africa and Southeast Asia, and I’ve never seen so much emphasis on this privatized model.”

In the summer of 2009, the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina brought renewed attention to New Orleans’ housing struggles. In late July, a United Nations advisory group made a fact-finding mission to the city. Then, on August 21, Rep. Maxine Waters held a congressional field hearing in New Orleans, spotlighting the status of the city’s public housing redevelopment. International attention culminated in late October with the first official visit to the United States from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik.

“As it is now, we can’t get anyone in the [U.S.] government to pay attention to what happened here,” Sam Jackson told Justice Roars, the blog of the Louisiana Justice Institute. “So we bring in the U.N. representatives and let them know what's happening. And then people start to ask, ‘Why do we have to get folks from outside the country to come visit us? Why couldn't we get folks from our own government to visit?’”

In her preliminary report, Rolnik stated: “An approach to housing redevelopment has overly emphasized housing as real estate rather than as a basic social need. This approach has led to displacement of public housing residents, disruption of families and the social fabric of neighborhoods.” These days, of course, far more people than the residents of the Big Four have suffered displacement as a result of housing-as-real-estate policies.

The fight for housing for those who once lived in the Big Four is an exceptionally difficult one, but former residents and their advocates are still at it. As of January 2010, volunteers were setting up a new survivors’ village—a rehabbed building now called the Fight Back Center—on the site of a former community center near the St. Bernard to use as a base for community organizing and to help more public housing residents to return. And the battle in New Orleans has prompted larger groups and struggles. One is the Campaign to Restore National Housing Rights, a national coalition of housing rights organizations and community groups—Sam Jackson’s May Day New Orleans among them—working to spread the message of the U.N. visit and to hold congressional hearings on the housing crisis in some of the hardest-hit cities. Other grassroots organizing efforts, such as Miami’s Take Back the Land, are helping families to resist foreclosure evictions or to move into bank-owned, abandoned properties.