HUD to New Orleans’ Poor: "Go F(ind) Yourself (Housing)!"

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has announced they plan to demolish over five thousand public housing apartments in New Orleans. In August 2005, HUD reported they had 7,381 public apartments in New Orleans.

Now HUD says they now have 1000 apartments open and promise to repair and open another 1000 in a couple of months. After months of rumors, HUD confirmed their intention to demolish all the remaining apartments.

HUD’s demolition plans leave thousands of families with no hope of returning to New Orleans where rental housing is scarce and costly. In New Orleans, public housing was occupied by women, mostly working, their children as well as the elderly and disabled.

To these mothers and children, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said: “Any New Orleans voucher recipient or public housing resident will be welcomed home.”

Exactly how people will be welcomed home, HUD did not say.
How can thousands of low-income working families come home if HUD has fenced off their apartments, put metal shutters over their windows and doors and are now plans to demolish their homes?

Jackson, who is likely sleeping in his own bed, urged patience for the thousands who have been displaced since August of 2005: “Rebuilding and revitalizing public housing isn’t something that will be done overnight.”

Patience is in short supply in New Orleans as over 200,000 people remain displaced. “I just need somewhere to stay,” Patricia Thomas told the Times-Picayune. Ms. Thomas has lived in public housing for years. “We’re losing our older people. They’re dropping like flies when they hear they can’t come home.”

Demolition of public housing in New Orleans is not a new idea.

When Katrina displaced New Orleans public housing residents, the Wall Street Journal reported U.S. Congressman Richard Baker, a 10 term Republican from Baton Rouge, telling lobbyists: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

This demolition plan continues HUD’s efforts to get out of the housing business. In 1996, New Orleans had 13,694 units of conventional public housing. Before Katrina, New Orleans was down to half that, 7,379 units of conventional public housing. If they are allowed to accelerate the demolition, public housing in New Orleans will have been reduced by 85% in the past decade.

The federal demolition of housing in New Orleans continues a nation-wide trend that has led some critics to suggest changing HUD’s official name to the Department of Demolition of Public Housing.

Much of the public housing demolition nationally comes through of a federal program titled “Hope VI” – a cruelly misnamed program that destroys low income housing in the name of creating “mixed income housing.”

Who can be against tearing down old public housing and replacing it with mixed income housing? Sounds like everyone should benefit doesn’t it? Unfortunately that is not the case at all. Almost all the poor people involved are not in the mix.

New Orleans has already experienced the tragic effects of HOPE VI.

The St. Thomas Housing Development in the Irish Channel area of New Orleans was home to 1600 apartments of public housing. After St. Thomas was demolished under Hope VI, the area was called River Gardens. River Gardens is a mixed income community – home now to 60 low income families, some middle income apartments, a planned high income tower, and a tax-subsidized Wal-Mart! Our tax dollars at work – destroying not only low-income housing but neighborhood small businesses as well.

Worse yet, after Katrina, the 60 low-income families in River Gardens were not even allowed back into their apartments. They were told their apartments were needed for employees of the housing authority. It took the filing of a federal complaint by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center to get the families back into their apartments.

As James Perry, Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center says about the planned demolition of public housing, “If the model is River Gardens, it has failed miserably.” Despite HUD’s promise to demolish homes, the right of people to return to New Orleans is slowly being recognized as a human rights issue.

According to international law, the victims of Katrina are “internally displaced persons” because they were displaced within their own country as a result of natural disaster. Principle 28 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement requires that the U.S. government recognize the human right of displaced people to return home. The US must

“allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence …

Such authorities shall facilitate the reintegration of returned or resettled internally displaced persons. Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration.”

The US Human Rights Network and other human rights advocates are educating people of the Gulf Coast and the nation about how to advocate for human rights. HUD has effectively told the people of New Orleans to go find housing for themselves. New Orleans already has many, many people, including families, living in abandoned houses – houses without electricity or running water. New Orleans has recently been plagued with an increase in the number of fires. HUD’s actions will put more families into these abandoned houses. Families in houses with no electricity or water should be a national disgrace in the richest nation in the history of the world. But for HUD and others with political and economic power this is apparently not the case.

As in the face of any injustice, there is resistance.

NAACP civil rights attorney Tracie Washington promised a legal challenge and told HUD, “You cannot go forward and we will not allow you to go forward.”

Most importantly, displaced residents of public housing and their allies have set up a tent city survivors village outside the fenced off 1300 empty apartments on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans.

If the authorities do not open up the apartments by July 4, they pledge to go through the fences and liberate their homes directly. The group, the United Front for Affordable Housing, is committed to resisting HUD’s efforts to bulldoze their apartments “by any means necessary.”

If the government told you that they were going to bulldoze where you live, and deny you the right to return to your home, would you join them?

BILL QUIGLEY is a human rights lawyer and professor at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. You can reach him at Quigley@loyno.edu

For more information about the July 4 protest by the United Front for Affordable Housing, call Endesha Juakali at 504.239.2907, Elizabeth Cook 504.319.3564, or Ishmael Muhammad at 504.872.9521. If you know someone who is a displaced New Orleans public housing resident and they want to join in a challenge to HUD’s actions, they can get more information at www.justiceforneworleans.org.

For more information on the human rights campaigns for Katrina victims, see the US Human Rights Network at www.ushrnetwork.org or the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, www.nesri.org.]






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Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com.

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