December 14, 2007
In New Orleans, Plan to Raze Low-Income Housing Draws Protest
By LESLIE EATON
NEW ORLEANS — At a moment when the shortage of low-income housing in the city is causing significant hardship, the federal government is beginning this week to tear down thousands of apartments in the city’s four biggest public housing projects.
The plan is producing sharp opposition, which has escalated to include raucous demonstrations and, perhaps, threats of arson and other violence.
On Thursday, outside City Hall and opposite a park where homeless people are living in dozens of small tents, about 100 demonstrators chanted “Stop the demolitions now!” A few were displaced public-housing residents; most were activists and public housing advocates from here and cities from New York to California.
Though local and federal housing officials say the storm-damaged projects were inhuman places to live and should not be rebuilt, some protesters accused the government of a darker motive behind the demolition plan. They contended that the government’s real aim was to keep the poor, mostly female, almost entirely black residents of public housing from returning to their city, to their homes.
“They don’t want this city to be for the poor, working-class people,” said Sharon Sears Jasper, a former public housing resident who says she is now living in a “slum house.” Government policies favor the wealthy and tourists, she continued after the demonstration. “Everyone else, kick them to the curb.”
Meanwhile, James Bernazzani, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation office here, confirmed that its domestic terrorism unit was investigating the source of small posters reading “For Every Public Housing Unit Destroyed a Condo Unit Will Be Destroyed.”
Lawyers for former residents continued to ask the courts to stop the plan, by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to demolish buildings containing 4,500 units, about 3,000 of which were occupied before Hurricane Katrina.
The government said private developers would replace them with about 3,300 subsidized housing units in developments that will also include homes for people with higher incomes, but others said there would not be that many low-cost units.
The debate over the plan has become a political issue. On Wednesday, John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, urged the government to build replacement housing before bulldozing the projects.
Demolition began on Wednesday night at one housing project that had been scheduled to be destroyed before the storm and will begin on two other projects this weekend.
Federal officials say the barracks-style complexes were substandard before Hurricane Katrina and were badly damaged by the storm. New subsidized housing, and vouchers for existing and new apartments, will ensure that no one who lived in the demolished projects will be left homeless, they said.
“The goal was to rebuild it, build it better, and move people into new homes,” said Jereon M. Brown, a spokesman for the housing department.
Mr. Brown said of the protesters: “Ask how many of them have lived in public housing, have been to public housing other than to protest.”
But the protesters, including some former residents of the projects, say the sturdy apartment buildings could be rehabilitated, especially at a time when little low-cost housing is available in New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 50,000 rental units here, and damaged thousands more apartments, affecting two-thirds of the city’s rental stock. Rents have soared for the apartments that remain habitable.
Adding to the pressure on the rental market, almost 3,000 families living in government trailer parks in Louisiana must find a new place to live in the next few months, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency closes the sites it manages. By the end of the year, it will stop paying for 3,700 trailers in private trailer camps.
Some residents of the complexes and many who lived nearby said that they were delighted the projects were going to disappear and that they believed they would be replaced with something better.
Stacy S. Head, a City Council member whose district includes two of the complexes, said she had heard from many who welcomed the new plan.
“The vast majority do not want to go back to the way it was,” Ms. Head said, adding that the old projects were run-down and dangerous, and that the new buildings would help the working poor.
As for the protesters, she said, “I wish that all these people, particularly from out of town, would just leave us alone and let us improve our city.”
Some advocates for the residents said they did not oppose changes or improvements but wanted a guarantee that there would be a place for former residents in the new developments, a promise that they said had not always been kept in previous redevelopments of public housing here.
“Many residents are not against redevelopment but want an interim housing plan that gets them home,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, a director of the Advancement Project in Washington, a civil rights group that is involved in the legal fight against the demolition plan.
At the project where demolition has begun, the B. W. Cooper Apartments, not far from the Superdome, residents were almost unanimous in wanting the government to finish tearing down some of the four-story blond-brick buildings that had been erected in the 1950s and closed before the storm.
“I know people need places to stay, but these places aren’t for living,” Trina Davis said, as a group of women sitting on a nearby porch talked of their hopes of moving into the new buildings that are to replace the old ones across Erato Street.
But Gertrude Luster, who was moving in nearby, said that public housing was needed for people of her age living on fixed incomes. She is 79 and receives $643 a month.
“I don’t think they should tear none of it down,” Ms. Luster said. “People need a place to come back to.”