Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt, now out with Riverhead Books. More of her work can be found at AnyaKamenetz.com.
"A storm can't just make you change where you want to live." On a withering August day, Reginald Dupart, 32, is standing outside his former apartment in the Lafitte public housing development in New Orleans, where he lived for 11 years with his wife and four children.
He has a clean shirt slung over his shoulder and a bottle of red Gatorade in his hand. "Of course you had the drugs and guns and killing, but what the media don't let anybody know is that we were close-knit, like a family sticking together," he remembers. "You could go to sleep with your door open, and everyone looked out for everyone else's kids."
A year after Katrina, tens of thousands of New Orleans residents have bittersweet memories like these of vanished neighborhoods. But there's nothing physically wrong with Lafitte. These historic brick, two-story buildings just east of the French Quarter took on less than three feet of water and need only minor cleanup and repairs.
What's keeping Dupart's family in a trailer in Baton Rouge? The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which in June announced its intention to demolish 5,000 of the city's 7,100 public housing units—some damaged and some nearly unscathed—without any clear plan for the displaced residents. Now, a coalition of local and national civil rights groups has filed a class action suit to stop the demolitions and bring over 4,000 residents home. What's on trial is not just the fate of several thousand citizens of one storm-ravaged city, but 65 years of embattled public housing policy in America.
Even before the hurricane, HANO, the Housing Authority of New Orleans, was allowing its public housing stock to lapse through attrition. Only 5,100 units were occupied, overwhelmingly by women, children, the disabled and the elderly, while 2,000 units were boarded up, and slated for demolition. Since the storm, a total of 880 families have been invited to come back, without any known criteria. Dupart says he's heard from nearly two-thirds of his former neighbors, many of whom gather at John and Gussie's grocery across the street, near the famous Dooky Chase restaurant, to pass around the latest news. "That's the topic of conversation by that store all day long—Why are they tearing this project down?"
Good question. So far, the only money committed to rebuilding New Orleans is the Road Home program. This is $4.6 billion in block grants administered by HUD to homeowners only, through the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
Neighborhood infrastructure plans covering schools, clinics, parks and rental and affordable housing are just being completed for flooded neighborhoods, and a second round of neighborhood-level planning is just getting underway. But talking to government officials and planners about public housing, you hear a lot of words like "revitalization," "remodeling," and "mixed-income."
These words signal HUD's Hope VI grant program, which was established a decade ago to replace "distressed" federally funded housing with mixed-income developments and housing vouchers. Hope VI has a mixed record nationally, improving many blighted districts but leaving families in other places with inadequate assistance or support to relocate. In New Orleans in particular, vouchers are of limited use with an acute housing shortage and rents 30 percent higher than before the storm.
Paul Lambert, a Miami consultant hired by the city council to come up with plans for the city's 49 flooded neighborhoods, sounds positive on the future of public housing.
There's many people that would like to see [the projects] entirely redeveloped but there's also a strong element in some neighborhoods that's saying no, you need to revitalize the properties. In some ways the most interesting piece of what we're doing is how does public housing fit into this? These are large tracts of land, owned by a public entity. In many respects they could become the centerpiece for redevelopment.
"I'll tell you one thing, Lambert don't mean the same thing I mean," by revitalization, says Endesha Juakali. A charismatic figure at the center of the public housing debate, Juakali spent his childhood in public housing, his career as a public housing advocate, and also served as chairman of the city's housing authority in the early '90s.
Now he is leading the fight to reoccupy St. Bernard, the city's largest development.
Mixed income is a pie in the sky illusion...What you're going to do is mix poor people and middle income people right on out of there.
The current class action suit alleges racial discrimination and violation of the 1937 Housing Act, which requires public hearings before demolition of any public housing. HANO has used everything from steel shutters to barbed wire fences and armed guards to keep residents from reoccupying their former units. Resistance has taken many different forms. Since June, for example, the St. Bernard development has had a "Survivor's Village," a tent city of 20 or so residents on the neutral ground outside. Juakali says he modeled the Village on the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, which built a tent city on the Washington Mall.
Elsewhere, people are simply moving back in. "This is my apartment," says Linda DeGruy. "I had a legal lease before I left and my lease is still legal. My plan is to stay here and I'm not leaving." Ms. DeGruy, a wan woman in a headkerchief, lives with her three grandchildren in the same unit of the Iberville development that she occupied for several years before the storm. She returned in early June and scrubbed her solid concrete walls clean with bleach, Brillo pads and baking soda. But Ms. DeGruy is here without official permission. She says she is one of a group of 29, out of approximately 200 residents back at Iberville, who are here without invitation and are withholding rent. She is suing HANO independently.
I can't get a copy of my lease to get food stamps for my grandchildren or to put them in school. I went off the deep end with this and got me a bunch of lawyers. HANO needs to be beat into the ground.
Iberville is a complex of two-story buildings with balconies and courtyards, situated even closer to the French Quarter than Lafitte, and like Lafitte it had limited storm damage. Public housing activists and residents like DeGruy believe without exception that the demolition orders and the talk of "mixed-income" are a lightly veiled gift to developers like Michael Valentino, who owns several French Quarter hotels and has expressed interest in the Iberville site, and Joseph Canizaro, who sits on several city planning commissions and is a Pioneer-level Bush supporter.
"HUD has decided to use these public housing residents as lab rats for a social experiment on mixed income communities," says Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization that is bringing the class action suit.
Everyone points to the city's experience in 2002, when the St. Thomas housing project in the Irish Channel was demolished and replaced with River Garden. The new townhouse development, built using HOPE VI, is just 25 percent affordable units versus 75 percent market-rate, and the deal included the first Wal-Mart in Orleans Parish, over fierce neighborhood objection.
Out of 800 families who previously lived in St. Thomas, only about 70 were able to return. "The only person who made money off of that one was [local developer] Pres Kabacoff," Juakali says.
But here's the hard truth: Revitalization is more than a code word here, it is a pressing need. While most New Orleanians would be sad to see the city full of more River Gardens, very few want to see New Orleans public housing return to its exact previous form. While the out-of-state graduate students squatting in abandoned buildings and working as fulltime housing activists might be defiant about the right of poor people to live in poverty, natives would heartily like to see an end to the "drugs and guns and killing."
Linda DeGruy complains about the drug market up and running in front of Iberville's grocery store. When a reporter walks by the store, one man hanging out on the corner says he has just been released from prison.
Another points out a spot on the ground that he says is blood from a shooting the night before, as children play on Big Wheels nearby.
Nor has the dispersion of "pockets of poverty"—another HUD buzzword—worked out very well, at least as implemented by the storm. The New York Times reported last month that the New Orleans drug trade is bigger than ever, amped up by new connections forged with Houston and Atlanta gangs.
Anecdotally, drug dealing and sometimes violence are encroaching into formerly nicer neighborhoods, as underpatrolled streets of blighted houses form safe havens for all types of characters.
Juakali is confident that the lawsuit, along with good old bureaucratic inertia, will eventually get people back home without any large-scale changes to the public housing landscape. But he would like to see a revitalization—a social one.
What we've got to get rid of is not poor people, but poverty. We need a living wage, where when people work eight hours a day they can make a living, child care, and good schools.
When it comes to the developments themselves, he says, let people back in, but on conditions:
They have to want to participate in the revitalization and rebuilding of their neighborhoods. You're welcome back but here are the rules: you're gonna do x, y, z, be accountable for yourself, your neighborhood, your doors, your hallways, your children. It's not the bricks that create the problem, it's the individuals.