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Is There a House in New Orleans?

Is There a House in New Orleans?
By Kevin Berends and Tyler Westbrook, WHYnotNews

New Orleans, LA December 16, 2007— A week after arriving in New Orleans to cover the events William Quigley described in his call to action that laid out the details of the severe housing crisis still affecting New Orleans 2-1/2 years after the city was struck by Hurricane Katrina, many irregularities remain surrounding Mayor Ray Nagin's policies on the homeless, the displaced and the disenfranchised. Having stayed in a number of places that would probably scare most white people (we can say this because it scared us a little, being a couple middle class white boys) there is the sense of unfamiliarity and uneasiness at being out of one's element, but it is larger and much more foreboding than that. We were struck by the eerie and palpably obscene juxtaposition of people in expensive suits coming and going to City Hall in downtown New Orleans, while literally across the street was a scene directly out of the Grapes of Wrath with people living in tents, under blankets, cardboard and in some cases, even less than that.

We ourselves stayed with the homeless overnight, sleeping on cardboard, in the rain, in Duncan Square Plaza. It's a little park directly across the street from the mayor's office in city hall. What we saw and smelled and heard would disgust most people, especially those who live there. Almost unbelievably, many of these people hold full time jobs, have always held jobs and have never asked for a handout but, because of the severe housing shortage and skyrocketing rent, can no longer afford housing. We watched them returning from work in clean white shirts and neat pants and clean shoes only to hole up inside their tent after dark.

We also stayed with a man who would frighten some people because, a) he is a black man, b) he lives in a small, landlord neglected first floor apartment in the hood and c) he is HIV positive. He isn't just any black man, having run for mayor in 2006. He served as a corrections officer, he's a veteran and he is an activist. But these are not what make him exceptional. It isn't even that he was locked inside a cell in downtown New Orleans during Katrina. There were thousands of other inmates, many who were being held on trivial offenses and, while they were never charged, they were nevertheless left there to drown in the foul, poisonous, sewage and chemically contaminated waters of Katrina by prison guards who left them locked inside flooding cells without so much as a parting insult before the guards headed for home and safety. Most of the inmates here are African Americans. So it is not his ethnicity that makes him stand out. What makes him exceptional is that he had absolutely no business being arrested in the first place.

In instance after instance we have encountered local people who tell us that police violence, discrimination and brutality are rampant here. We have heard allegations of corruption at every level of governance. We have heard that there is cronyism at its ugliest in the administering of no bid contracts to developers who have much to gain in acquiring the property that Mayor Nagin proposes to demolish. So after a week of after sitting with Katrina survivors and listening to their stories about what happened during the storm and the man-made battering they have endured for over 2 years since, we are organizing a roundtable discussion to be held in New Orleans on Tuesday night in an effort to present an open airing of the many interests who are working toward a just disposition of the dispossessed here. First and foremost, of course, is a question that, even if rhetorical, is critical to understanding the Housing Crisis in New Orleans—Who owned the property before Katrina and who will own it after the proposed demolition of 83% of the available low income housing in New Orleans? Beyond this, we have compiled a list of questions we have yet to find satisfying answers to:

Is this ethnic cleansing in the Homeland?

What about the right of return for internally displaced persons? How has this displacement affected the political landscape and how are the two connected?

Why is perfectly good, beautifully designed and structurally sound housing that was unscathed by Katrina being demolished when there are tens of thousands of New Orleanians who would love to come home?

Why have residents been barred from returning by physical obstructions placed at great expense by the city over windows that were unbroken by the storm? Why were barb wire fences installed and doors barred?

Why are there 240 homeless people living in tents across the street from Mayor Nagin's office in City Hall? Where are these same people, who are being fenced out of the park, supposed to go after the Mayor has them removed?

Why aren't all the homeless from the park considered homeless?

Why is prime real estate only blocks from the French Quarter being transferred into private hands with 99 year tax incentives?

If the low housing units in B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete are demolished, what does the mayor or any of the others who are advocating the demolition have planned for the over 200,000 residents who are still displaced? How will demolishing 83% of available housing and replacing it with only 10% of that capacity help the displaced return?

Are the allegations of cronyism and conflict of interest for HUD Secretary, Alphonzo Jackson justified? Were his warnings of the potential loss of Federal revenues just scare tactics to dampen support for human rights and the coalition?

Were authorizations and procedures for the demolitions properly followed and adhered to? If not, why not?

It is precisely because there are so many more questions than there are answers, and that the answers will have tremendous influence on thousands of people's lives and the future quality of life for all of New Orleans that we are organizing a roundtable discussion on the housing crisis in New Orleans. We hope to help provide a forum that will allow for transparency in addressing the questions and disseminating the conversation widely.

The roundtable is tentatively scheduled for 7:00 PM, Tuesday, December 18th, at a venue in New Orleans to be determined no later than Monday afternoon.


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