“Every American deserves an opportunity to achieve the American dream; New Orleans public housing residents deserve no less.”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonso Jackson made this statement almost one year ago, during an online forum called “Ask the White House.”
Secretary Jackson is right, but his actions do not support his words.
When Hurricane Katrina struck, over 5,100 families lived in public housing in New Orleans. The storm and its aftermath caused little structural damage to the developments. With moderate repair and cleanup, the residents could have returned to their homes. But Jackson and HUD had a different agenda.
In June 2006, HUD announced its plan to demolish more than 5,000 units in four of New Orleans’ public housing developments. Two weeks later, public housing residents filed a lawsuit against Jackson, HUD, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), and HANO officials to protect their right to return home. While the case moved slowly through federal court, the government rushed to raze the buildings. On September 20, 2007, HANO submitted to HUD the final pieces of its demolition application, which presented a net loss of 3,204 public housing apartments, eliminating 81% of the units in the four developments. HUD approved the plan one day later. The bulldozers were ready to roll when the residents went to state court on December 13, 2007, pointing out that the law requires the City Council to first approve demolition permits before razing can commence. One week later the Council voted to approve the demolition of all four sites. Finally, on March 24, 2008, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin signed the final demolition permit.
HUD now has begun what is the largest demolition of public housing in the history of New Orleans. At the same time, however, the city is facing an affordable housing crisis of historic proportions. Of the city’s 142,000 units that were damaged or lost in New Orleans due to Katrina, 112,00-79%-were low-income housing. According to PolicyLink, Louisiana’s plan for repairing rental homes damaged or destroyed will replace only one-fifth of this housing. There is nowhere for the working poor to live, which is why New Orleans’ homeless population has doubled to approximately 12,000 people since Katrina. The City’s response to this crisis is to propose a resolution that would make homelessness illegal.
In this desperate context, bearing witness to the demolition of habitable public housing is tantamount to visiting a crime scene. Heaping piles of bricks, pipes, and debris litter sites where communities once stood. Amongst the rubble are photographs of children and grandchildren, toys and textbooks, kitchenware and family heirlooms. When the families of these demolished homes evacuated in the wake of the worst disaster in U.S. history, they took only what they could carry-and expected to return with other New Orleanians when the mandatory evacuation order was lifted six weeks later. But public housing residents found themselves permanently shut out of their homes, and now their life possessions have been rendered trash.
It is not just the bricks that are coming down; it is not only people’s property that is being destroyed. What is palpable at the demolition sites is that the hopes and dreams of close-knit communities are being shattered. The silence was eerie on the gray, chilly day we visited St. Bernard, one of the housing developments HUD currently is demolishing. There was the din of machines working through the debris, but the sound was strangely hollow, as if it was being transmitted into a vacuum. There were no sounds of birds, cars, or children. But there were a thousand stories speaking through the rubble.
If Secretary Jackson had the guts to walk through the destruction, he would have seen the quintessential symbol of the American dream of which he spoke-a college loan application. Perhaps the application was filled out by a young man graduating high school, or maybe by a single mother trying to secure a better future for herself and her family. But the application was amongst the rubble, stained but otherwise intact-but never sent. Jackson has no more right to talk about the dreams of New Orleans public housing residents than Barbara Bush had to say that the thousands of Katrina evacuees temporarily housed in the Houston Astrodome were better off.
The people who are better off after Katrina are those profiting from an unjust reconstruction of New Orleans. Amongst these profiteers, it seems, is Jackson and his friends. As Ed Pound has reported in the National Journal, the Secretary is under federal investigation to determine whether he improperly helped friend William Hairston win a no-bid contract to work at HANO. Hairston, a stucco contractor, was paid more than $485,000 for working at HANO for 18 months. In contrast to Jackson’s sworn testimony, Harrison says that the Secretary helped him get the job. The investigation is also examining Jackson’s financial ties to Columbia Residential, part of a development team that won a $127 million contract to redevelop St. Bernard. Incidentally, Columbia Residential owes Jackson between $250,000 and $500,000 for his work as a “partner/consultant.”
Two and a half years after the storm, the tragedy in New Orleans continues. As the City’s low-income residents are starved of resources, the pockets of Jackson and his friends fatten. As the bricks are crumbling, so are the dreams and community networks of the public housing residents who remain displaced. But the fight is far from over. The residents of public housing and their allies will continue the struggle for a just reconstruction of New Orleans. With each obstacle residents have faced, the movement for justice grows stronger and more determined. And so, although we saw dreams amidst the rubble in New Orleans, we know that these dreams will rise again. As Frederick Douglas said: “Be not discouraged. There is a future for you. . . . The resistance encountered now predicates hope. . . . Only as we rise . . . do we encounter opposition.”
Anita Sinha and Jill Tauber are attorneys with Advancement Project, a communications and legal action organization committed to racial justice, and counsel to New Orleans public housing residents in their lawsuit against HUD and HANO. Anita can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jill can be reached at email@example.com.