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In New Orleans, Reinventing the Idea of Public Housing

April 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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As New Orleans recovers from Hurricane Katrina, public housing units set for demolition will be replaced by "neighborhood-style" communities that will be available to residents with a mix of income levels -- a plan that has raised some debate in the storm-ravaged area.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, the third story in our series on the housing crisis in post-Katrina New Orleans. NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser looks at public housing.

HOUSING DEVELOPER: This reflects your desire to live in houses that look like houses.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour correspondent: A group of developers and their architects recently introduced a new way of living to public housing residents in New Orleans. Steven Albert showed pictures of what the neighborhood will look like when the old project is torn down.

HOUSING DEVELOPER: They won’t look like warehouses. They will look like homes, so you’ll be able to feel as if you’re in a neighborhood — well, you are in a neighborhood.

NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: That’s right. That’s right.

NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: I’m loving it. I’m loving it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For Edwina Ducksworth, who’s lived in this public housing project all of her life, the prospect of a new townhome was exciting.

EDWINA DUCKSWORTH, public housing resident: I’m ready for a change. I’m ready to be safe, to be happy, to be comfortable. We don’t have to worry about the shootings. We don’t have to be ducking bullets.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ducksworth’s community is one of four of New Orleans’ worst public housing projects falling to the wrecking ball. In all, 4,500 units will be demolished; that means 60 percent of the city’s current public housing is coming down.

Some of the projects were earmarked for demolition before Katrina, but after units sat underwater for days, the federal government and the local housing authority became more determined to proceed.

The new communities will look like these: low-rise, low-density townhomes, apartments, and single-family houses on tree-lined streets with manicured lawns.

But they have stirred controversy because the new communities will not just be for poor people; they will be for families with a mix of incomes.

Improving quality of life

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Housing Authority's Karen Cato-Turner says the concept should improve the lives of poor people.

KAREN CATO-TURNER, Housing Authority of New Orleans: With mixed-income communities, what you have is a range of incomes, people from different backgrounds who work together in a neighborhood setting, and as a result of them working together, and playing together, and improving the quality of life for lower-income residents.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Over the past 12 years, 75 of these communities have been built around the country by the federal government and local housing authorities. They were developed on the theory that mixing families of different incomes would break up the cycle of poverty and crime that have plagued public housing for decades.

Susan Popkin is a public housing expert for the Urban Institute.

SUSAN POPKIN, The Urban Institute: Public housing in the United States, by the end of the 1980s, had become sort of the symbol of failed social welfare policy.

You think of the high-rises in Chicago. Everybody had seen pictures of Cabrini Green. And it was a real problem. They were terrible, terrible places. They were the poorest neighborhoods in the country. And I think people were looking for an answer to that problem.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A potential answer to the problem came to New Orleans in 2000 when one of the old projects was torn down and replaced with River Garden, a community the Housing Authority of New Orleans says is a model for the future.

KAREN CATO-TURNER: The unit that you're going to be shown today is a unit that's available for our public housing residents.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Cato-Turner took us through a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment at River Garden, with hardwood floors, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a modern kitchen.

KAREN CATO-TURNER: I think it's very important to point out that these are energy-efficient amenities as it relates to the appliances. And, of course, we have the energy-efficient refrigerator, self-defrosting.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And this is for a really poor person?

KAREN CATO-TURNER: Yes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most of the mixed-income communities around the country have less crime than the old projects. Property values have generally improved. And in New Orleans, former residents of the old projects, like Alfreda Carter, love their modern homes.

ALFREDA CARTER, public housing resident: If you're in a better community, your self-esteem builds up. That makes you want more, do more. It makes you feel that you're somebody.

If you're in any place of living that you see that people do well, that makes you personally want to do well. Like with me, I'm 55, and I'm getting ready to go to college.

Displacing low-income residents

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Carter is one of the lucky ones. Studies show only a small percentage of public housing residents nationally ever return to the mixed-income communities. And in New Orleans, that's become a bone of contention because Katrina wiped out more than half of the city's affordable housing stock.

Housing advocates say River Garden illustrates the problem: 1,500 public-housing units were torn down, and only 122 have been rebuilt. The rest of the units have been sold at market value or rented to people with higher incomes.

Rebecca Glover, who's lived in public housing most of her life, is very skeptical she will ever be able to live in one of the new mixed-income communities.

REBECCA GLOVER, public housing resident: I think they're not telling the people the real deal on this and letting them know that, oh, you're not going to be able to come back. I think 10 percent of us might be lucky enough to get back.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Housing advocate Lucia Blacksher says the new units that will be built by the Housing Authority, known locally as HANO, will accommodate less than half of those who originally lived there.

LUCIA BLACKSHER, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center: A very low number of those units will actually be replaced. There is nothing right now that is making HUD or HANO actually rebuild the number of units that are going to be lost. And this is a huge problem.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Outgoing Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson agrees it's a problem.

ALPHONSO JACKSON, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: They have not brought as many low-income people back to the developments as I would have hoped they would when we first talked about creating housing opportunities for people everywhere.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: HUD officials point to a new survey it commissioned that show most former residents do not want to return to their old projects.

CROWD: Stop the demolition! Stop the demolition!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That has not silenced protesters, who want some units repaired so that more poor people can return to New Orleans now. In December, they marched on city hall, trying to stop the demolitions, but, in the end, they lost. The city council voted 7-0 to allow the projects to proceed.

DAVID ABBENANTE, River Garden Management: This is the 296 units.

Privatization of public housing

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another big change that has stirred controversy is that contracts to build new mixed-income housing are going to private developers. And with another break from the past, it will be the developers, not the local housing authority, who make most of the rules.

David Abbenante works for the developer at River Garden.

DAVID ABBENANTE: We have a must-work requirement. We have a stringent background check.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does that screen out people...

DAVID ABBENANTE: Yes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: ... poor people?

DAVID ABBENANTE: It does screen out individuals that do not meet our qualifications. And, in addition, I believe some individuals choose not to live here because they may not want to deal with the rules that we have in this community.

We have a great community here. And we want people that are coming in to live around other good residents. And we equally enforce the screening that goes on.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Advocates for the poor, like attorney Tracie Washington, say the federal government is trying to privatize public housing.

TRACIE WASHINGTON, attorney for public housing residents: The federal government doesn't now have to manage this population and manage public housing residents. It's like cleaning your house versus paying somebody to clean your house, really. Now they get to write a check to folks to manage public housing for them through all kinds of tax breaks and incentives.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does this represent the privatization of public housing?

DAVID ABBENANTE: Yes, it does. This is a model that's being used across the country. It's the first one utilized here in New Orleans. And it is the model for what's going to work throughout the rest of the city of New Orleans as they tear down the other, older, public housing developments.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Outgoing HUD Secretary Jackson bristles at that notion.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: I don't think it's privatization. I think that's really not the word we should use. I think we're integrating these public housing developments both socially and economically.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For public housing residents, the more immediate concern is, where are they going to live? Those being displaced by the demolition will get vouchers and will have to fend for themselves in the already-overcrowded private rental market.

Meanwhile, the first new mixed-income community won't be ready until 2010.