Stephen Bradberry is the Head Organizer of ACORN New Orleans and recipient of the 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Jeffrey Buchanan is the Information Officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.
The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, should be a day to remember our commitments to our fellow Americans and mourn our collective losses. It should be an opportunity to reflect on what we as American citizens expect from our government in our most dire hour of need. It should be a time to honor the courage of the hundreds of thousands of still-displaced Katrina survivors as they struggle to return home one year after the storm broke land.
But instead, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the city council have callously chosen the anniversary to begin a policy that will demolish what little hope displaced families have of returning to their city.
In May, the city council unanimously passed City Ordinance 26031, which sets a deadline for homeowners to gut their homes or potentially lose them. By August 29, homeowners who have not been able to make the necessary repairs to their battered homes risk having their property seized and bulldozed by the city. The council’s decision will further “cleanse” New Orleans of its poor, continuing the exclusion and discrimination that have become hallmarks of the reconstruction.
But the survivors of Katrina are not alone. Although the government is not fulfilling its obligations, many nongovernmental organizations are trying to help survivors. Groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now are working around the clock to save homes from demolition and enforce a principle of fairness and inclusion in the disaster recovery process.
Many working-class families cannot return to New Orleans to prevent their homes from being seized. Most are still waiting to receive payment from insurance claims and are unable to pay the roughly $10,000 charged by contractors to gut their homes. Nor can they afford to take time off to gut their homes themselves. Low-income families have also yet to receive a dime from the federal government’s $7.5 billion in community block grants to Louisiana’s “Road Home” home repair grant program for homeowners. Those vitally needed funds, despite being given to the state of Louisiana months ago, remain tied up in red tape by bumbling state bureaucrats.
Compounding the injury, the city appears oblivious to the crippling lack of information in this crisis. Many of the affected homeowners are unaware of the home demolition policy. Getting information is very difficult for the more than 200,000 former residents of New Orleans, mostly working class African-American families, who are still spread across 44 different states. Most have no way of knowing the current state of their homes and neighborhoods—basic issues like whether the water and electricity are running, or whether their local schools are open. The overwhelming majority of relevant government decisions, including this ordinance, do not make it into the national news reports or local broadcasts in their new communities.
The city believes it does not need to directly contact homeowners in accordance with due process required by the U.S. Constitution, before it can begin seizing property. After being sued for attempting to bulldoze homes in the Lower Ninth Ward last December, the city of New Orleans settled with local groups by pledging to post seizure information on the city website and in New Orleans’ daily newspaper, The Times Picayune , to fulfill due process requirements. Never mind that most affected displaced people live outside of the Times Picayune’s distribution area and may not have an Internet connection. Displaced families, without actually being notified, will remain completely in the dark as they lose their homes.
ACORN is currently fighting to win protection for families whose properties are listed on gutting lists, as well as fighting for real legal notification for displaced homeowners and a more realistic timeline to clean out homes.
ACORN has been able to win relief for some of the working-class families who could lose their homes. It convinced the city council to amend the ordinance to make the Lower Ninth Ward a hardship case, protecting those who were hardest hit by the failing levees from the seizure ordinance.
Since December, ACORN has helped survivors by gutting more than 1,500 homes. ACORN is offering families—at no cost—the service of gutting and preserving their home. ACORN is also arranging for homes to be “adopted” by donors, thus covering gutting costs for low-income families. ACORN has also been recruiting volunteers and organizations to New Orleans this summer to help save the homes.
If a foreign government began seizing the homes of vulnerable disaster victims—especially without notification—in an area where the U.S. was providing disaster relief, the U.S. government would not just stand on the sidelines. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have significant programs supporting the protection of the rights of “internally displaced people” —the term for those displaced from their homes to a different part of their country by a disaster—in areas like post-tsunami Sri Lanka. American diplomats lobby other nations to uphold internationally accepted principles for internally displaced people that assure the property and possessions they left behind “should be protected against destruction and arbitrary and illegal appropriation, occupation or use.” USAID also runs programs to ensure that displaced people have the right to information about what is going on in their former communities. By some twisted logic, the U.S. government—and the New Orleans mayor and city council—think it’s acceptable that Americans be excluded from such rights.
Despite these flaws with the policy, New Orleans will begin seizing not just houses from devastated communities—but also the hopes of thousands residents of returning home—on the anniversary of our nation’s greatest tragedy. City Ordinance 26031 is proof that the interests and human rights of the now-disenfranchised displaced victims of the storm are no longer respected in their former communities or by the federal government.
Although the human rights situation in New Orleans remains woeful, there is still a chance to salvage the hopes of these struggling families and to save their homes. Contacting all homeowners affected by this policy who are dispersed across the country remains difficult. Information is the most powerful weapon in this battle for working-class neighborhoods.
You can help honor the upcoming one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina even if the New Orleans City Council and the federal government refuse to.
If you are displaced from New Orleans or know someone who needs assistance with their home in New Orleans, call 1-800-239-7379, ext. 187. Click here for more information on ACORN activities in New Orleans, including volunteer and donation opportunities.