DC Demolition Of New Orleans' Public Housing
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Sept. 12, 2006
Washington Determined to Demolish New Orleans' Public Housing
Interview with Elizabeth Cook, housing activist, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
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One year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, fewer than half the city's former residents have returned. Among its former public housing tenants, a much smaller percentage have come back. All the housing projects in the city, whether or not they were flooded, were closed for most of the past year, and many of the residents are still scattered in cities around Louisiana and throughout the South. HUD, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, has announced it would demolish most of the units.
But the Housing Authority of New Orleans, or HANO, has now reopened a few of the projects, and more residents are returning, despite great obstacles.
Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Elizabeth Cook, a New Orleanian who works with a group called the United Front for Affordable Housing, comprised of public housing residents and community activists. She describes some of the hardships low-income tenants in New Orleans have faced, and what they're doing about it.
ELIZABETH COOK: We’ve got somewhere between 600 and 800 people back in public housing, but prior to Katrina, of course, we had 5,000 families in public housing, about 20,000 people, so this is a drop in the bucket of what the population in public housing was before the storm.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Isn’t it true that Alphonso Jackson, the Secretary of HUD, the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, announced that HUD’s going to demolish many of the housing developments in New Orleans?
ELIZABETH COOK: Alphonso Jackson stated way back in October after Katrina that there would be fewer black people in New Orleans. He said it bluntly in New Orleans. Since then he’s made every effort to make sure his policies bring that about. He stated that the LaFitte Housing Development, which had between 800 and 900 families, St. Bernard Housing Development, which had about 1,300 families, and part of B.W. Cooper which was about, I’d say 900 families, would be demolished. And some of these developments were not that badly damaged by the storm, so it’s not a question of, Can they be repaired? It’s a question of the federal government lacks the will to repair them. And we believe it’s a conscious effort to keep certain people from returning – namely, public housing, working-class people.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, there is a philosophy that says it doesn’t make sense to warehouse poor people all together in densely populated projects, and that it’s better urban policy and better for the tenants themselves if they can have more options for where to live.
ELIZABETH COOK: Well, I guess it depends on your point of view, because if you’re a working class, low-income, working poor person, you know, a warehouse is better than no house, and that’s what a lot of people are facing in New Orleans. It’s interesting to me that the argument is always put forth that we should not have concentrations of poverty in public housing high rises or public housing developments, yet, there are concentrations of wealth in wealthy neighborhoods and apparently that’s okay. And we have corporate crime that’s certainly running rampant in this country – people profiteering off war and Katrina misery, but it’s okay for them to live in gated communities, but when it comes to the working poor that need affordable housing, we have to disperse them in order to help them, and that makes no sense to me, because dispersing poverty doesn’t solve it.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Elizabeth Cook, what is the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ plan for housing these folks when they do return?
ELIZABETH COOK: HUD has announced that Section 8 vouchers will be a one-to-one replacement of public housing, and everyone knows that this is a fallacy. Section 8 is not an adequate replacement for public housing because, number one, residents have to find landlords willing to take the voucher. Because you’re handed a voucher is no guarantee that you’re going to find housing. And number two, you know, there’s a lot of costs involved with Section 8. You’ve got to come up with deposits for, oftentimes, first/last month’s rent; deposits for utilities – it’s a much, much greater expense for the working poor, and many of them are struggling. We’ve heard many stories of utilities getting shut off in Houston. Some people are moving back here – they’d rather be homeless here than homeless in Houston, and that’s what people are facing right now. And we think the problem is going to get worse as FEMA rental subsidies are being cut off.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you know what the deadline is for when the FEMA payments run out?
ELIZABETH COOK: We know one woman, for example, whose hotel subsidy will end at the end of August, and she’s decided she’s not going to wait; she has reoccupied her public housing unit at the C.J. Peete Housing Development. So she’s back cleaning up her unit, along with several of her neighbors, and they’re not waiting for HANO to reopen C.J. Peete – they’re going to reopen it themselves, and they’re very courageous and determined, but they also feel desperate, because their housing is running out.
BETWEEN THE LINES: I assume there are no utilities in those units, the ones that aren’t officially reopened?
ELIZABETH COOK: That’s right. They’re going to tough it out, bringing their own water. I think they have some relatives in the city that they can spend some of the time with. But they’re determined to get their units ready for reoccupation. People have come back to their units, cleaned them up themselves, moved back in, but HANO tells them they’re in their units illegally, even though they had legal leases to their units prior to Katrina. Contact United Front for Affordable Housing in New Orleans at (504) 520-9521 or visit the group's website at www.survivorsvillage.com
Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Sept. 1, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.