New Orleans, Public Housing and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

“So goes New Orleans, so goes the country” was the message this writer and other public housing activists delivered at the recent United States Social Forum held in Atlanta. New Orleans’ grass roots activists argued, at this gathering of leftists and liberals from across the U.S. and Americas, the U.S. ruling class is using the ‘opportunity’ of Hurricane Katrina to eliminate New Orleans over 7,000 public housing apartments, or what they call ‘concentrated poverty’. This ‘success story’ will then be used to justify public housing’s elimination across the country.

Furthermore, we held, the demolition of New Orleans’ public housing is part of a broader ruling class initiative to privatize public services from health care to education in order to create a model, racially and class cleansed, ‘neoliberal city’. Again, as with public housing, elite-defined success in our devastated city will be used to extend capitalist gains across the country.

While we delivered our radical critique, we did not have the time to develop another part of New Orleans’ public housing story, and a central theme at the U.S. Social Forum: the role non-profits, foundations and universities are playing promoting the neoliberal agenda in post-Katrina New Orleans, and, more generally, the insidious role they play in undermining social justice struggles. Below I elaborate on the role of these actors–what a collection of writers in a recent work call the ‘non-profit industrial complex’–by examining an ivy league university’s initiative to create a cadre of ‘experts’ to implement and legitimate the neoliberal ‘reinvention’–privatization–of New Orleans’ public housing. I conclude the analysis by highlighting the obstacle non-profits pose for social justice struggles, and how grass roots social movement organizations–qualitatively different from non-profits–have made great strides in defending New Orleans’ public housing. I argue the social movements, not non-profits, opens the possibility of a massive public works program, the only real way to obtain a just reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.


Penn and Privatization

‘This project is a great example of how Penn engages with communities across the globe to drive progress and improve lives.’ Penn President Amy Gutmann

The University of Pennsylvania’s so-called ‘Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence’ [hereafter the ‘Center’], through a $2.2 million grant from the Rockefeller foundation, is providing a series of fellowships to ‘recruit talented and energetic staff for organizations directly supporting large-scale redevelopment in neighborhoods affected by Hurricane Katrina and Rita.’ The fellowships will be awarded to ‘early or mid-career professionals’ who will work with, primarily, non-profits involved in ‘public-private redevelopment projects’. In addition the Center, in collaboration with the University of New Orleans’ Department of Planning and Urban Studies, will oversee an extensive training program for fellows. The curriculum includes cutting edge topics, such as the ‘Entrepreneurship in Urban Redevelopment’ course, focused on ‘privatizing public functions’, or, in neoliberal-speak, ‘innovations in government’.

Schooled in privatization and co-optation, the ‘Rockefeller Foundation Redevelopment’ fellows will be able to quickly put their skills to use. The fifteen agencies–including some for-profits and government agencies–currently designated to have fellows work with them are almost all involved in privatizing and downsizing public housing, mostly targeting New Orleans (for the full list of collaborators go to: Further underscoring the program’s privatization agenda, many of the Center’s board members have played major roles in the 1990s and early 2000s frenzy to eliminate ‘distressed’ public housing developments that occupied valuable real estate parcels in cities from Washington to Chicago to San Francisco. Furthermore, a few of the Center’s board members, and their organizations, have even received contracts to eliminate New Orleans public housing–or what they and their future ‘fellows’ call ‘reinventing’ public housing, ‘de-concentrating poverty’, and ‘building strong, healthy communities.’


UPenn’s Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence:
A Rogues Gallery of Public Housing Demolishers

Among the Center’s 22-member advisory board is one Bruce Katz, who now heads up the Brookings Institution’s ‘Metropolitan Policy Program’ (for the full list go to: Katz is well prepared for that neoliberal think-tank post: in the 1990s he worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Secretary Henry Cisneros implementing the HOPE VI program. HOPE VI, what a public housing resident at the Social Forum critiqued as having no hope, only despair, was the key Clinton era neoliberal legislation used to eliminate over 100,000 units of what had been a stock 1.4 million public housing units in the United States. This program helped radically downsize public housing, such as New Orleans’ pre-Katrina St. Thomas public housing development. St. Thomas, located along the city’s highly valued riverfront, was ‘redeveloped’ under HOPE VI, shrinking from 1,510 public housing units to under 200–part of slashing the total city public housing stock from approximately 14,000 to 7,000. Katz vigorously defend his pre-katrina efforts in New Orleans, telling a researcher in 2002 at the London School of Economics, following a query about St. Thomas, that

Cities have to gentrify, especially bottom of the barrel cities like New Orleans. If they don’t gentrify, they’re going to die. Because nobody is going to bail them out this time. The federal government is not going to bail them out this time.

Other leading lights of public housing privatization that sit on the Center’s board include Richard Baron–who is also a member the Brookings Institutions Metropolitan Policy Board directed by Bruce Katz–and Tony Salazar of the McCormack, Baron and Salazar firm. Salazar, who heads the outfit’s “west coast operations’, touts that he oversees ‘five HOPE VI sites’. McCormack, Baron and Salazar also have under their belt the destruction of Techwood homes in Atlanta, the first public housing development built by the Public Works Administration, completed in 1936. This ‘success story’ helped spur on gentrification in Atlanta, further reducing the civil rights capital’s African American working class population. Of course the role that Richard Baron played in racial and class cleansing did have its benefits, making him a deserving recipient of the Urban Land Institute’s–the premier, ‘non-profit’ real estate industry think tank–$100,000 “J.C. Nichols Visionaries in Urban Development’ prize. The award is named after the Kansas City developer that played the key role, beginning in the early 20th century, institutionalizing the real estate industry’s use of racially restrictive covenants in new housing developments.

All of the remaining 22 member advisory board have, at one level or another, supported and legitimated public housing privatization and gentrification. Some of these leading lights include Sandra Moore, who heads the non-profit ‘Urban Strategies’. This outfit specializes in collaborating with McCormack, Baron and Salazar in what they call the ‘self-sufficiency, self-improvement’ component of HOPE VI privation schemes. Urban Strategies expertise also includes ‘community engagement processes’, that is co-optive efforts to ensnare public housing residents in negotiations, helping grease the skids for expelling communities, thus handling a messy problem for developers. James Corcoran, a developer and Center board member, also has public housing demolition–Boston and Lynn Massachusetts–on his resume. Another interesting figure is real estate consultant Paul Brohpy, who epitomizes the Center’s ‘public-private’ collaboration, having held posts in government, for-profits, non-profits, and academia legitimating gentrification.
Non-Profits in the Service of Public Housing Privatization

Many of the non-profits scheduled to receive Rockefeller funded, and Center for Urban Redevelopment trained, ‘fellows’ are directly or indirectly involved in privatizing four major public housing developments–C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, Lafitte, and B.W. Cooper. These four-closed [a few apartments are open at Cooper] New Orleans public housing developments comprise some 5,000 badly needed, rent controlled, apartments. In addition, two non-profits scheduled to receive fellows have direct business relationships with certain Center ‘advisory’ Board members. For example, the so-called ‘New Orleans Neighborhood Collaborative’, led by New Orleans school board member Una Anderson, is ‘partnering’ with McCormack, Baron and Salazar in a HUD awarded contract to privatize the 1,400 units of the C.J. Peete development. Only 141 public units are planned for the redevelopment, according to the Center website! If the past is any indication, Center board member Sandra Moore’s ‘non-profit’ Urban Strategies–whose agency is scheduled to be awarded a fellow as well–will also receive a cut of the C.J. Peete deal.

[The role of Anderson, who through her school board position has led the busting of the New Orleans teachers union and school privatization, underscores the close linkage of public housing privatization, charter schools, and gentrification.]

Another ‘non-profit’ involved in privatization and scheduled to receive a ‘fellow’ is Providence Community Housing–an arm of the archdiocese of New Orleans. Providence is working with Enterprise Community partners–two of whose arms are also receiving fellowships–to demolish the almost 1,000 units at the Lafitte public housing development. Lafitte, one of the best-built public housing developments in the country, constructed by Creole artisans from the city’s Treme neighborhood, and modeled after the Cabildo apartments in the famed French Quarter, received little or no flooding. Indeed, MIT professor John Fernandez testified that with minimal repairs–basically sanitary swipes of the solid plaster walls–displaced residents would be able to safely move back into their apartments. Nonetheless, Providence and Enterprise claim–arguments soon to be buttressed by their gentrification-trained Rockefeller hacks–that the development is not habitable and plan to demolish all the solid, historic, brick three and two story walk-up apartment buildings.

Another appalling aspect of the Providence-Enterprise collaboration is that the “CEO” of the non-profit, ‘National Low Income Housing Coalition’–Sheila Crowley–sits on the board of trustees of Enterprise [along with Center board member Paul Brophy, and former Defense secretary Robert McNamara, involved in destroying several million low-income housing units in southeast Asia a few decades back]. New Orleans public housing activists from C3/Hands Off Iberville have repeatedly called on CEO Crowley to step down from Enterprise and denounce the outfit’s privatization scheme. Crowley, a typical, arrogant, nonprofit ‘CEO’, accountable only to her foundation paymasters, continues on the Enterprise board. She refuses to deign herself by responding to the grass roots rabble in New Orleans carrying out the day to day struggles on the front lines to defend public housing.
AFL-CIO and Privatization

Like Crowley’s outfit, another putatively ‘progressive, working class’ organization–the AFL-CIO trade union federation–is also involved in privatizing New Orleans’ public housing. The AFL’s ‘Housing Investment Trust’ (HIT) and ‘Investment Trust Corporation’ (ITC), scheduled to receive a Rockefeller fellow, originally had its eyes set on the Lafitte public housing development. Yet, when their erstwhile Providence and Enterprise partners refused to use union labor, the AFL bankers backed out of the deal–it’s OK to demolish poor peoples housing, as long as union labor is involved! Who says our union leaders have no principles! HIT and ITC are now concentrating their efforts on winning the contract to privatize the St Bernard public housing development. Nonetheless, the AFL efforts to act as ‘socially responsible investors’ are now stymied since the Columbia Residential Corporation, another Rockefeller fellow designee, was previously awarded the St. Bernard contract by HUD.

Of course, the AFL’s pro-privatization policies in New Orleans should not come as a surprise. An organization that funds coup plotters in Venezuela to overthrow a president carrying out the re-nationalization of industries and expanding social services, should not be expected to oppose neoliberal ‘reforms’ at home. Indeed, as the AFL-CIO oversees the continued savaging of working class living standards, we can expect that increasingly their top honchos’ main area of concerns will be protecting and ‘growing’ their considerable capitalist investments.
The Struggle from Below and the Public Works Alternative to Privatization

The non-profits, and the foundations, the latter of which political scientist Joan Roelofs calls the “planning and coordinating arm” of the non-profit ‘third sector’, are part of the problem in New Orleans, not the solution. The non-profits–which have proliferated in post-Katrina New Orleans–play key roles, as we have seen with the University of Pennsylvania-Rockefeller foundation program, helping legitimate neoliberal reforms. The non-profits help, at the grass roots level, to disseminate the ruling class’ ‘common sense’ ideology that we have to be ‘realistic’ and adapt to neoliberalism. The non-profits’ message is to be reasonable, to work out a compromise within the interstices of neoliberalism. That is, as Roelofs argues, the non-profits act as “a protective layer of capitalismThey provide jobs and benefits for radicals willing to become pragmatic” (Roelofs 2003, p. 22). They take grass roots activists away from mass struggle, and into the insider negotiations that sap and undermine working class strength.

Thus, the solution is not, as a number of New Orleans activists implored, in their “Letter from the People of New Orleans to Our Friends and Allies”, to get the ‘progressive’ foundations and non-profits to open their coffers to fund local organizations involved in advocating a racially and economically equitable reconstruction. [] Winning fellowships from the Rockefeller foundation is the not the solution. Nor are fellowships from the largess of a late 20th century robber baron–George Soros’ Open Society Institute. In fact, a New Orleans based criminal justice reform non-profit, ‘Fighting Chance’–a proud recipient of the ‘Social Capitalist award’ from–has one of their ‘senior investigators’ on Soros’ payroll.

In contrast to those focused on creating non-profits to pressure the foundations for cash, New Orleans needs grass roots, politically independent of the Democrats, social movement organizations to pressure and confront the capitalist state. This has been the agenda and purpose of the public housing group C3/Hands Off Iberville, which has led and organized scores of direct action mobilizations to confront the capitalist state and their public housing privatization agenda. Instead of being ‘reasonable’, accepting privatization, and being sucked into negotiations–a key role of the non-profits–C3/Hands off Iberville and others involved in the public housing movement have maintained pressure on local and national state officials through marches, denunciations, protests, disruptions. This line of march has bone fruit.

Struggle from below in New Orleans produced movement from above in Congress. Congresswoman Maxine Waters sponsored, and helped lead the successful passage of, bill HR 1227 this spring that provides for the reopening of New Orleans public housing, and one-for one replacement of public housing units under any ‘redevelopment’. The bill stalled in the Senate until C3/Hands Off Iberville and others began a pressure campaign on Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, including marching to her brother’s home-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. She finally budged, and endorsed and sponsored the bill, S 1668, The Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act of 2007.

The struggle is not over. The Senate has not passed the bill, and no funding has been appropriated. There are some weaknesses and loopholes, ones that can only be plugged through more struggle–something the non-profits are not interested in. Furthermore, the movement faces the continued efforts of developers, and their intellectual backers at the University of Pennsylvania to ‘reinvent’, that is destroy public housing. Nonetheless, the experience of C3/Hands Off Iberville shows that building a grass roots movement, politically independent of the Democrats–rather than a professional, non-profit reliant on foundations–can produce important gains even at ground zero of the U.S.’s domestic neoliberal capitalist offensive–New Orleans, Louisiana. Within New Orleans public housing movement lies the seed for a necessary and broader one, the only one capable of guaranteeing a racially and economically just reconstruction: a movement for a massive public works program, democratically and government run [no private contractors!], and at union wages, to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (for historic precedence, and how to achieve it, see Jeannette Gabriel’s article in Monthly Review).

JAY ARENA is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Tulane University and a long time community and labor activist in New Orleans. He can be reached at:


Roelefs, Joan. 2003. Foundations and Public Policy: the Mask of Pluralism.. Albany: State University of New York Press.