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Housing Woes in New Orleans Continue Nearly a Year After Katrina

July 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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RALLY LEADER: What do we want?

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: Affordable housing!

RALLY LEADER: What do we want?

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: Affordable housing!

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: For weeks now, public housing supporters have been marching through the streets of New Orleans demanding that poor people be allowed to go home…

RALLY LEADER: HUD says cut back!

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: We say fight back!

RALLY LEADER: HUD says cut back!

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: We say fight back!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: …back to public housing projects that before Hurricane Katrina were some of the most dilapidated in the country. And according their landlord, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, most of those units are even worse now after sitting in flood water for weeks.

But New Orleans housing advocates James Perry and Lucia Blacksher say, for the people who lived there, it was home.

JAMES PERRY, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center: Public housing residents in New Orleans oftentimes have lived in public housing for years and years and years, and sometimes even for generations. And so, while outsiders may look at it and say, “Oh, this is horrible and miserable,” it’s what they call home. And ultimately, when a person talks poorly about these properties and these locations, you’re talking poorly about a person’s home.

JERRY BROWN, Department of Housing and Urban Development: You can see the water mark on the wall, where you’re talking about eight-and-a-half feet of water actually coming and sitting in here. And this is what what’s left, and this is what we’d have to clean up.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: HUD official Jerry Brown says many of the apartments are so contaminated a respirator must be worn to go inside.

JERRY BROWN: You’ve got severe mold. You’ve had water, sitting water in these complexes for weeks. You know, you’re not going to be able to just fix it with one bottle of Clorox.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Before the storm, about 13,000 people, most of them African-American, lived in the city’s 5,000 public housing apartments. Today, several thousand are back in 1,000 rehabbed units; another 1,000 will reopen next month.

But HUD says this is only a temporary solution. The agency plans to tear down 75 percent of the city’s public housing because it’s unfit for human habitation. That would make way for new neighborhoods like this to be built over the next 12 to 18 months, neighborhoods HUD says are the future of public housing.

Even before Katrina, HUD started the transformation in three old project areas of the city, putting up town homes on tree-lined streets with manicured yards, inside, wall-to-wall carpeting, central air conditioning, new kitchens, new baths. And the new neighborhoods are not just for poor people; they’re to be offered to a mix of incomes.

JERRY BROWN: We want them to return to something like this. That public housing, we would have to invest over $200 million to put it back to where it was. And what we’re saying is where it was, was deplorable. And we want the next generation to be able to live in homes like this, not like the pockets of poverty where you’ve got people warehoused over there.

Re-building housing projects

New Orleans residents

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Before the storm, Mingo lived in the city's largest public housing complex, St. Bernard. She says, with some minor repairs, she could go home to her old apartment tomorrow.

STEPHANIE MINGO: We have mildew. We have mold, but we have been living with that for my whole, entire life. I've been here 44 years. And why I want to stay here is because this is my neighborhood, and this is where I'm comfortable at. You want to tear this down because you want to get the poor, black people out. I mean, that's how I feel.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson says it makes no sense to send people like Mingo back to the old projects.

ALPHONSO JACKSON, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Why would we want people to go back into unlivable situations? To me, that is clearly paternalistic and patronizing, saying that many of those residents in public housing are black, saying they should be acceptable to the conditions that they left. That's not acceptable to me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Secretary Jackson says the new mixed-income neighborhoods have the potential to break the cycle of poverty, drugs and violence that has plagued public housing for generations.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: They're human beings with the same sense of worth that we are. I think they deserve to live in decent, safe and sanitary housing. And by demolishing those buildings, and rebuilding them, and integrating them both socially and economically, we're giving them a better start.

 

Discontentment

Alphonso Jackson
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development
My position is, is when people begin to tell low-income people, specifically black Americans, that this administration or the government is trying to push them out, that's very much an attack on me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But some displaced residents, like Stephanie Mingo, don't like the plan. She and a handful of others have set up a tent city to protest losing their old apartments.

STEPHANIE MINGO, Displaced Resident: My apartment is not damaged. But if they let everybody go in there and move their personal belongings, everything, and put a big dumpster right there, they will see how much damage. They don't have them. The walls is concrete.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But opponents say, by the time the new neighborhoods are built, thousands of poor, black people will be permanently displaced. Before the storm, African-Americans made up 67 percent of the city's population.

JUDITH BROWNE-DIANIS, Lawyer for Public Housing Residents: In the context of Hurricane Katrina, the only way to get government to respond has been to go to the courthouse.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Judith Browne-Dianis is lead attorney for 18 former residents suing HUD and the New Orleans Housing Authority for the right to return to their old apartments now.

JUDITH BROWNE-DIANIS: And part of what HUD did was, through inaction, they allowed many of these units to deteriorate beyond control. Instead of doing the minor work of doing the mold remediation and the repairs, they put up boards, they spent the money to put fences around these neighborhoods, and to make sure that people were not going to be able to return.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Secretary Jackson takes that kind of criticism personally.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: My position is, is when people begin to tell low-income people, specifically black Americans, that this administration or the government is trying to push them out, that's very much an attack on me. I'm a black American, and clearly I'm not going to do one thing to hurt black America.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Until new public housing is built, displaced residents can get vouchers to rent apartments in the private sector. HUD says it has increased the amount of money since the storm to make up for the dramatic increase in rents and tight housing market.

How much people get depends on the number of dependents in the family, but housing advocate Perry says people can't live indefinitely on vouchers.

JAMES PERRY: Residents who were displaced after Hurricane Katrina, they want to come home now. They don't want to come home in two, or three, or five years when public housing is ready. They want to come home today. And so this process of saying, "Well, we're going to let you sit while we build something new and glorious," doesn't work.

Unaffordable housing

Bobbie Jennings
Displaced Resident
My rent jumped from $167 a month to $430 a month. I can't afford to live here; I don't have enough to pay nothing but my rent.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Indeed, some former residents are finding it tough to survive in the private sector. Sixty-year-old twin sisters Gloria Williams and Bobbie Jennings lived most of their lives at the C.J. Peete housing project which is on the demolition list.

Now, they and 10 relatives are living in the only apartment they said they could find at any price. And even with a $600 HUD voucher, the sisters say they can't make it on the only other source of income: two federal government disability checks.

BOBBIE JENNINGS, Displaced Resident: My rent jumped from $167 a month to $430 a month. I can't afford to live here; I don't have enough to pay nothing but my rent.

GLORIA WILLIAMS, Displaced Resident: They really want to get rid of us. They're trying to get rid of us. It's nothing wrong with C.J. Peete. It's nothing with it.

BOBBIE JENNINGS: Let me live, as they say, in the bricks. Give me the bricks. I'll take the bricks any day.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: HUD says it will continue its plans to demolish four of the city's largest public housing projects. Meanwhile, housing advocates say they will continue their protests.

RALLY LEADER: What do we want?

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: Housing!

RALLY LEADER: What do we want?

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: Housing!

RALLY LEADER: What do we want?

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: Housing!

RALLY LEADER: When?

GROUP OF PROTESTORS: Now!