A Tale of Two Sisters
Gloria Williams and her twin sister Bobbie Jennings are 60 years old.They are two of the over 4000 families who lived in public housing in New Orleans before Katrina struck who are still locked out of their apartments since Katrina. Their apartments are two of 4534 apartments that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has announced plans to demolish. Demolition is planned even though it will cost more to demolish and rebuild many fewer units than it does to fix them up and open them.Ms. Williams and Ms. Jennings, and thousands of families like them, are fighting HUD, they want to return.
Gloria and Bobbie started working early. As children they picked cotton, strawberries, snap beans and pecans before and after grade school every day in rural Louisiana. "We were raised up to work," they said.
They moved to New Orleans after their father drowned. Their home was marked by regular domestic violence. A few years later, their mother was murdered by a boyfriend.
As teens they moved in with an abusive relative.They ran away, came back, and stayed with other relatives. They can even remember nights when they slept under their aunt’s bed in a hospital while waiting for her to recuperate.
As young women they continued working. They worked in restaurants before starting careers as Certified Nursing Assistants. Then they worked for years in nursing homes and in private homes caring for the elderly and disabled. They fed people, cleaned people, bathed people, cared for people. Each married and raised children and grandchildren. Like 25% of the households in New Orleans, neither owned a car.
Both sisters are now 60. In the past few years, their years of physical work took its toil and they could not longer work. Ms. Jennings had back surgery and suffers with high blood pressure. Ms. Williams has heart and lung problems, high blood pressure, and clots in her legs that prevent her from standing or walking for long periods. Each lives solely on about $600 a month from disability. No pensions.
When Katrina hit, they had been living in the C.J. Peete apartments for years. Ms. Bobbie Jennings had been there for 34 years. Her twin sister, Ms. Gloria Williams lived there for over 18 years.
Their combined families, 18 in all, evacuated to Baton Rouge to ride out the storm. When it was clear they would not be going home any time soon, their host family told them it was time to move on. In September 2005, the family of 18 moved into one daughter’s damaged home in Slidell, about 30 miles away from New Orleans all sleeping on the first floor because the roof was still damaged.
One of their sisters, Annie, was in the hospital with cancer when Katrina hit. It took the family weeks before the finally found her in a hospital in Macon, Georgia.
When the city opened, they got rides into town and checked on their apartments. No water had entered their apartments at all. But their doors had been kicked down and all their furnishings were gone. The housing authority told them they could not move back in for a couple more months while their apartments were secured and fixed up. The housing authority started fixing up and painting apartments in her complex, but abruptly stopped after a few weeks.
Slidell was getting tight, so they accepted an offer to relocate to California. After a month, they returned. Being 3000 miles apart from family was too heartbreaking. A four day bus ride brought them back to Slidell in January 2006. After hitching rides into New Orleans, Ms. Williams found a subsidized apartment. The only way the landlord would accept her, though, was if she paid him an extra $400 under the table. Otherwise, he would rent it to someone else who would.
So Ms. Williams paid the extra money and moved in with her grandchildren while she waited for her old apartment to reopen. She used FEMA money to buy new furniture.
In late February 2005, Ms. Williams was hospitalized for three weeks for surgeries on her legs.
In June 2005, HUD announced they were not going to let any residents back in her apartment complex and three others (Lafitte, St. Bernard and BW Cooper) because they were going to be demolished. Over one hundred maintenance and security workers for the housing authority were let go. HUD took over the local housing authority years ago and all these decisions are being made in Washington DC.
The demolished buildings would make way for much newer and many fewer apartments which would be built by private developers. The demolition and private development would be financed by federal funds and federal tax breaks designed to help Katrina victims!
Nearly $100 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds were designated for the private developers. Another $34 million in Katrina Go-Zone tax credits were also donated to the developers.
In July 2005, Ms. Williams apartment caught fire and again she lost everything. Her landlord did not want to let her out of her lease. He told her that she and her grandson could still live there, all they had to do was clean the soot off the walls and ceilings.
At this, Ms. Williams broke down and went back into the hospital.
Ms. Jennings got an apartment and allowed her daughter and her grandchildren to live there because they have no place to stay. She also took her in her little sister, Annie, who was dying of cancer. Annie died on August 17, 2005.
Both sisters have severe problems every month making ends meet. Utility bills eat up most of their monthly checks. With no car and their apartments across the river from New Orleans, they cannot get to the doctor.
Christmas was very tough. Ms. Williams said "We didn’t have a Christmas. We didn’t have food to put on the table." Her grandson went to her sister’s house to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Ms. Jennings cried as she said "Behind Katrina and my little sister dying, my life just stopped. This is the second year we didn’t have a Christmas. It is so hard to try to start over. I let my daughter and her two grandchildren sleep on the bed. I sleep on a pallet on the floor. Before Katrina I was on blood pressure medicine once a day. Now I take 4 blood pressure pills three times a day. I also take pills for depression, nerves and stress."
"We just want to go home," Ms. Williams said. "People knew us in our neighborhood. They never messed with us. I could leave my back door open when I went to the grocery. People don’t understand that was our home. We want to go home."
Why would people want to go back into public housing? Aren’t the developments dangerous and crime-ridden? Isn’t this an opportunity to start over and make something better?
Public housing residents know full well the problems of public housing, but still they want to return.
Why? Start with the fact that New Orleans is in the worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War. Tens of thousands of houses still remain in ruins after Katrina. Rents for the rest have gone up 70-80 percent since Katrina. Even before Katrina, there was a waiting list of 18,000 families seeking to get into public housing now it is much, much worse.
HUD’s demolition plans target 4,534 apartments of public housing in the community. They plan to demolish 1546 apartments in BW Cooper, 723 in C.J. Peete, 1400 in St. Bernard, and 865 in Lafitte.
These are not the dense high-rise towers. Public housing in New Orleans is made up of development clusters of mostly two and three story buildings with six to eight apartments in each.
New York Times Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, criticized plans to demolish these apartments, saying on November 19, 2006: "Modestly scaled, they include some of the best public housing built in the United States.Solidly built, the buildings’ detailed brickwork, tile roofs and wrought-iron balustrades represent a level of craft more likely found on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public housing complex."
Most of the public housing apartments rented for very modest rents tied to the resident’s incomes. Most did not pay separate utility charges. Leases were essentially for life, unless someone in the family was caught breaking the law.
HUD initially said they had to demolish because the buildings were so damaged they were dangerous to the residents.
That was not true.
John Fernandez, an Associate Professor of Architecture at MIT, inspected 140 of these apartments and concluded in papers filed in court that "no structural or nonstructural damage was found that could reasonably warrant any cost-effective building demolitionTherefore, the general conclusions are: demolition of any of the buildings of these four projects is not supported by the evidence of the survey, replacement of these buildings with contemporary construction would yield buildings of lower quality and shorter lifetime duration; the original construction methods and materials of these projects are far superior in their resistance to hurricane conditions than typical new construction and with renovation and regular maintenance, the lifetimes of the buildings in all four projects promise decades of continued service that may be extended indefinitely."
Residents promise to fix up their apartments themselves if given the chance. "I clean for a living," said one young woman resident at a recent public hearing where 100% of the residents opposed demolition. "I clean for a living and I am proud of it. I clean every body else’s houses, I will sure clean up my own house just let me back in to do it!"
After it the public understood that the buildings were not actually in such bad shape, the authorities then said it would cost much more to repair the buildings than to demolish and start over.
That too was not true.
The housing authority’s own documents show that Lafitte could be repaired for $20 million, even completely overhauled for $85 million while the estimate for demolition and rebuilding many fewer units will cost over $100 million. St. Bernard could be repaired for $41 million, substantially modernized for $130 million while demolition and rebuilding less units will cost $197 million. BW Cooper could be substantially renovated for $135 million compared to $221 million to demolish and rebuild less units. Their own insurance company reported that it would take less than $5000 each to repair each of the CJ Peete apartments.
HUD suggests that less-dense "mixed income" communities are the way to go.
But residents and the community knows that if HUD has its way, only about 20% of the families who lived in these developments will be allowed to return.
New Orleans has suffered through the experience of HUD’s "mixed income" policies before. The St. Thomas housing development, once home to 1510 families, was demolished with promises that people would be returning to a beautiful redeveloped community. Instead, there is now a Wal-Mart on the site and hundreds of cute gingerbread pastel houses. How many of the 1510 families who used to live in St. Thomas have been allowed to move back in? About a hundred. A few of these families have had to force their way in with litigation by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. The demolition of St. Thomas is hailed as a mostly-good outcome by nearby developers and some of the young professionals who moved into the surrounding neighborhood knowing what was coming. What do the 1400+ families who were moved out and not allowed to return think? Don’t ask no one else is.
HUD has the same plans for the neighborhoods where they are trying to demolish housing. According to documents filed with the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency:
St. Bernard will go from 1400 apartments to 595 apartments, only 160 of which will be for low-income public housing residents. There will be 160 tax credit mixed income and 145 market rate units;
CJ Peete will go from 723 units to 410, 154 will be public housing eligible, 133 mixed income and 123 market rate;
BW Cooper will go from 1546 to 410, 154 public housing eligible, 133 tax-credit mixed income, and 123 market;
And Lafitte will be downsized in the same way.
As a result HUD plans to spend tens of millions of Katrina assistance funds to end up with far fewer affordable apartments.
The new Congress is looking into this. Representatives Barney Frank and Maxine Waters chair the committee and subcommittee with oversight of HUD. There is also a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Advancement Project, Jenner & Block, and local attorneys.
Residents of the St. Bernard housing development and their allies plan are not waiting any more. On Martin Luther King day, January 15, 2007, they are going in with or without permission."What better way to celebrate Martin Luther King day than to risk going to jail for justice?" says Endesha Jukali, a neighbor who lived and worked in St. Bernard for years.
But the clock is still ticking. HUD, who has not "officially approved" its own announcement, says the demolition needs to get started to take advantage of the Katrina tax credits. Neither the Congress nor the federal courts have yet stepped in to stop the demolitions.
What do the sisters think about this? Ms. Jennings says: "I lived there for 34 years. That is my home. I just cannot afford to live outside the development. I don’t know how else to explain it. I have the tears, but I do not have the words." Her twin sister, Ms. Williams cries and says: "That was my home for over 18 years. I never gave them no trouble. My home never flooded. I will clean it myself, just please let me back in. I wish I could make people understand. I just want to go home."
For more information about this matter see www.justiceforneworleans.org or contact the Advancement Project at (202) 728-9557.
BILL QUIGLEY is a human rights lawyer and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. You can reach Bill at Quigley@loyno.edu