Washington OKs demolishing 4,500 units of New Orleans public housing. Residents are organizing.

Bush administration OKs demolition of New Orleans public housing complexes

Facing South, Sept 25, 2007

Despite the severe shortage of housing affordable to low-income residents of the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday approved a plan by the Housing Authority of New Orleans to raze four public housing complexes with a total of 4,500 units and redevelop them as mixed-income housing, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.

The developments targeted for tear-downs are C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte. The demolition work is expected to begin in the next two or three months, according to the paper.

Among those raising concerns about the plan are U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), the sponsors of the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act (S. 1668), which guarantees that any demolished public housing in the hurricane-affected region is replaced. That bill is under consideration in the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which Dodd chairs. Reports the Times-Picayune:

“HUD is moving forward with the demolition of its public housing without adequate plans to ensure that replacement housing is developed in its place,” Landrieu wrote in a letter dated Friday to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson. “To do so in the midst of an affordable housing crisis in the area is shortsighted and undermines comprehensive congressional efforts to solve this issue.”

Landrieu is among those scheduled to testify tomorrow before that committee in a hearing titled “Two Years After the Storm: Housing Needs in the Gulf Coast.” Also scheduled to testify are Orlando Cabrera, HUD’s assistant secretary for public and Indian housing; James Perry of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center; and Emelda Paul, president of the Lafitte Resident Council.

The tear-down plans resulted in a federal class-action lawsuit against HANO and HUD that accused the agencies of violating tenants’ rights by refusing to restore the complexes to their pre-Katrina state. But in February, U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled that HANO could move ahead with the demolition. And last week, Lemelle limited the case to those public-housing tenants who’ve been forced to pay utility bills since being displaced from their homes after Katrina, because public housing residents pay only rent. The plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Bill Quigley of Loyola Law School, said appeals from both sides are likely, which will probably push a trial originally scheduled for November into next year, the Times-Picayune reports. (See the Times-Picayune story below.) Meanwhile:

Public Housing Residents Shut Down HUD Office
(photos and story from New Orleans Indy Media.)

On August 31, 2007 two dozen activists, a majority from across the nation but many New Orleans public housing residents present, entered the Housting Authority of New Orleans and the Federal Housing and Urban Development offices on Touro Street in Gentilly. They conducted a stand-in, shutting down the main offices and outpost offices across the city, claiming they may enter any office at any time.

HANO police, New Orleans police and the National Guard surrounded the protest in the partially returned and still struggling neighborhood adjacent to Dillard University.

The activists presence inside the offices forced HANO and HUD officials to send home their employees early. After several hours, when some public housing residents had other commitments to attend to in rebuilding their lives, the rest of the out-of-town activists agreed to leave in solidarity.

Read more coverage of the occupation from folks who were present.
Read Times-Picayune story of the occupation.

The Times-Picayune story:

HANO gets OK to raze 4,500 units
Those with vouchers will keep benefits
Saturday, September 22, 2007
By Gwen Filosa
Staff writer

Two years after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation threw its plans for renewal into a whirlwind of political debate and legal woes, the Housing Authority of New Orleans on Friday announced it had won approval from the federal government to demolish the city’s four largest public housing complexes in preparation for a sweeping redevelopment.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees HANO, announced that it had approved the application for demolition of 4,500 units of the aging brick buildings that have housed the city’s poor for more than a half century.

Within two to three months, wrecking crews will descend upon the so-called “Big Four” developments: C.J. Peete in Central City, St. Bernard in the 7th Ward, B.W. Cooper off Earhart Boulevard, and Lafitte, which borders Treme.

The demolition will not disturb HANO’s promise to reopen a total of 3,000 apartments within its traditional public housing stock, said the agency’s board chairman, Donald Babers. Tenants will simply live on-site at Cooper and Lafitte while demolition takes place in phases, he said. C.J. Peete and St. Bernard remain empty.

“They will not be imploded,” Babers said. “This will be done the slow, hard way. This is not happening next week, but in the 60- to 90-day range. This can take place in phases.”

Construction of “mixed-income” housing will likely begin in the spring, said Babers, who is headed to Houston on Monday to meet with tenants stuck there since the storm and later in the week to Atlanta, where tenants have also congregated since Katrina.

Vouchers protected

By approving HANO’s application for the widespread demolition, HUD has legally protected housing vouchers for the thousands of families who had lived at the city’s largest developments, as well as the $34 million in tax credits for post-storm construction it received to use toward revamping its housing stock.

The government’s post-Katrina disaster housing voucher program is ending soon, but because HUD has paved the way for demolition, HANO tenants will not lose any benefits. Now, families will be eligible for the tenant protection voucher program, which covers some 4,000 families and is worth $7 million in rents this year and $30 million for 2008.

“These tenant protection vouchers are good until new housing is built,” HUD spokeswoman Donna White said Friday, adding that HANO will spend some $8 million on support services for its families while they await a return to public housing in New Orleans.

The vouchers are good for rental housing anywhere in the country and can move from rental to rental along with the tenant if necessary.

Concern in Congress

Reaction from Capitol Hill to the demolition plans included a blistering dissent from U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who warned that HUD is pulling the trigger on public housing far too quickly.

“HUD is moving forward with the demolition of its public housing without adequate plans to ensure that replacement housing is developed in its place,” Landrieu wrote in a letter dated Friday to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson. “To do so in the midst of an affordable housing crisis in the area is shortsighted and undermines comprehensive congressional efforts to solve this issue.”

Landrieu, who co-wrote the “Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act,” which aims to guarantee that public housing is replaced and not merely destroyed, is set to testify at a housing committee hearing Tuesday in Washington.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who crafted the housing bill with Landrieu, said HUD hasn’t put any safety nets in place to make certain that public housing families won’t be left out of the city’s recovery.

“I have grave concerns about HUD moving forward with the demolition of public housing units without adequate plans to ensure that replacement housing is developed for low-income families.”

HUD announced in June that it would do away with the so-called “Big Four.”

The demolition announcement marks a dramatic turn for a post-Katrina New Orleans, where the city’s stock of public housing has largely sat vacant as HANO has fended off a lawsuit seeking to preserve the four complexes.

Political pressure spurred by national leaders such as U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has prompted HANO to make good on its promise to continue returning its families to New Orleans.

This week, HANO made plans to repair and reopen about 100 apartments at Lafitte, and an additional 100 apartments at Cooper, where families began moving back in late last year. Since Katrina, HANO has returned 1,600 of its 5,100 families to the various complexes. At the same time, the agency has faced difficulty luring former residents back and said it currently has more units ready for occupancy than it has residents to live in them.

White noted that the upcoming demolition of public housing had been in the works long before Katrina struck and doesn’t reflect a change in course. Guste in Central City and Fischer in Algiers have already been transformed into modern-day housing, she said.

“Katrina just sped things up,” White said.

When all is finished, HANO says it will have created 7,000 units of housing, including 3,300 apartments for public housing residents and 1,800 for families who receive federal housing vouchers.

The rest of the 7,000 units will be market-rate rentals and homes for sale.

A halting recovery

For nearly a year after Katrina, HANO struggled to regain its footing. The agency lost critical employees as it tried to gather its tenants who had been scattered across the country after being forced from their homes.

Then, political pressure began to overshadow HANO’s long-standing plans to transform its properties from islands of poverty into modern-day neighborhoods to include people from various economic tiers. Next came a federal lawsuit accusing HANO and HUD of violating public housing tenants’ rights by doing away with the brick building clusters instead of restoring them to their pre-Katrina state.

But U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled in February that HANO could continue with its demolition plans, although holding it accountable for displacing residents.

On Monday, Lemelle further narrowed the plaintiffs’ case, ruling that they could proceed as a class action, but limiting their claims to those who have been forced to pay utility bills since being forced from their homes due to Katrina. Public housing residents pay only rent.

The plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Bill Quigley of Loyola Law School, said appeals from both sides are likely, postponing a trial originally scheduled for November and pushing the matter into next year.

Gwen Filosa can be reached at gfilosa@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3304.

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