HUD demolitions draw noose tighter around New Orleans
Odessa Lewis is 62 years old. When I saw her two weeks ago, she was crying because she is being evicted. Since Katrina, the longtime Lafitte public housing resident has been locked out of her apartment and forced to live in a 240-square foot FEMA trailer. Ms. Lewis has asked repeatedly to be allowed to return to her apartment to clean and fix it up so she can move back in. She even offered to do all the work herself and with friends at no cost. The government continually refused to allow her to return. Now she is being evicted from her trailer and fears she will join the ever-growing ranks of the city's homeless population because there is no place for working people, especially African-American working and poor people, to live in New Orleans. Although Ms. Lewis is a strong woman who has worked her entire life, the stress of being locked out of her apartment, living in a FEMA trailer and the possibility of being homeless moved her to tears. Thousands of other mothers and grandmothers in New Orleans find themselves in the same predicament.
Renting is so hard in part because there is a noose closing around the housing opportunities of New Orleans' African-American renters displaced by Katrina. They have been openly and directly targeted by public and private actions designed to keep them away. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just added its weight to the attack by approving the demolition of 2,966 apartments in New Orleans.
Despite telling a federal judge for the past 18 months that approvals of public housing demolition applications take about 100 working days to evaluate, HUD approved the plan to demolish nearly 3,000 apartments just one day after the complete application was filed. HUD says the 3,000 apartments are scheduled to be replaced in a few years with up to 744 public housing-eligible apartments and several hundred subsidized apartments.
Unfortunately, HUD's actions are consistent with other governmental attacks on African-American renters.
After Katrina, St. Bernard Parish, a 93%-white adjoining suburb, enacted a law prohibiting homeowners from renting their property to anyone who is not a blood relative. Jefferson Parish, another majority-white adjoining suburb, unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting the construction of any subsidized housing. The sponsoring legislator condemned poor people as "lazy," "ignorant" and "leeches on society" specifically hoping to guard against former residents of New Orleans public housing migrating to Jefferson Parish.
Across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, the chief law enforcement officer of St. Tammany Parish, Sheriff Jack Strain, complained openly about the post-Katrina presence of "thugs and trash from New Orleans" and announced that people with dreadlocks or "chee-wee hairstyles" could "expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff's deputy."
HUD's actions are also bolstered by pervasive racial discrimination in the private market as well. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center has documented widespread racial discrimination in the metro New Orleans rental market and in the states along the Gulf Coast.
While HUD told a federal judge recently [U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle] that "the average time [for the process of reviewing applications for demolition] is 100 days," the department also suggested that the process could be expedited in the case of New Orleans. Unfortunately for former public housing residents, it was. Instead of reviewing the details of demolishing 3,000 apartments and considering the law and facts and the administrative record for 100 days, HUD expedited the process to one day.
HUD and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), which HUD had been running for years, argued passionately that residents displaced from public housing (referred to once in their argument as "refugees") are financially "better off" than they were before Hurricane Katrina.
This echoes the infamous Barbara Bush comment of September 5, 2005 when, after viewing the overwhelmingly African-American crowd of thousands of people living on cots in the Houston Astrodome, she said: "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this (she chuckles slightly) this is working very well for them."
HUD recently announced approval of demolition of 2,966 units of public housing in New Orleans: 896 apartments at Lafitte, 521 at C.J. Peete, 1,158 at B.W. Cooper, and 1,391 at St. Bernard. A few buildings on each site will be retained for historical preservation purposes.
New Orleans had a severe affordable-housing crisis before Katrina when HANO housed over 5,000 families. There was a waiting list of 8,000 families trying to get in. HUD and HANO together did such a dismal job of administering the agency that there were about 2,000 more empty apartments that had been scheduled for major repairs for years.
The continuing deceptions by HUD and HANO have been shameless. Since Katrina, HUD has continued to act out both sides of a charade that the local housing authority is making decisions and HUD is waiting on local actions. Yet, the decision to demolish was announced by the Secretary of HUD in DC over a year ago. In the year since then, HUD has continued to tell a federal judge that any legal challenge to demolitions was premature because HANO had not even submitted an application to HUD for their careful 100-day evaluation. Meanwhile, a HUD employee continues to run the agency, commuting back and forth to DC each week. HANO even announced it would have 2,000 apartments available for people in August of 2006 a deadline not met even in September 2007. HANO later announced to the public that they had a list of 250 apartments ready for people to return, only to admit in writing weeks later that no such list existed. Nor were the phantom apartments ready.
The list of untruths goes on.
HUD would not agree to delay the demolition of the 3,000 apartments until Congress finished reviewing legislation that would give residents the right to return and participate in the process of determining what kind of affordable housing should be in place in New Orleans.
By refusing to delay the demolition, HUD's actions and decisions have further restricted the opportunities for African-American renters in New Orleans. Adjoining white suburbs have made it clear that they do not want African-American renters back. HUD does not want them back. The local federal judge has refused to stop the demolitions.
Nevertheless, the mothers and grandmothers and their families and friends are still determined to return and resist demolition. One sign at a recent public housing rally summed it up: "We will not allow the community we built to be rebuilt without us." Despite her tears and frustration, Odessa Lewis says she is not giving up. "We did not come this far to be turned back now. We will do whatever is necessary to protect our homes," she said last week, echoing the sentiments of many displaced public housing residents. Thousands of African-American mothers and grandmothers are the ones directly targeted by HUD's actions.
Forty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., said "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society.
The fight of Ms. Lewis and others on the Gulf Coast shows how much a radical revolution of values is needed.
Copyright 2007, Louisiana Weekly Publishing Company
From: The Louisiana Weekly, October 1, 2007, http://www.louisianaweekly.com/weekly/news/articlegate.pl?20071001n, accessed 10/01/07. Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and is lead attorney of a federal