Only 'best residents' to be allowed back in St. Thomas
By Bill Walsh Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — U.S. Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson shed little light Monday on the future of public housing in hurricane-battered New Orleans, but said that “only the best residents” of the former St. Thomas housing complex should be allowed into the new mixed-income development that replaced it.
In a wide-ranging interview with reporters, Jackson was asked about the relatively small number of apartments in the 60-acre River Gardens development in Uptown that have been set aside for former residents of St. Thomas. Jackson estimated it was 18 to 20 percent, although housing advocates said it is less.
“Some of the people shouldn’t return,” Jackson said. “The (public housing) developments were gang-ridden by some of the most notorious gangs in this country. People hid and took care of those persons because they took care of them. Only the best residents should return. Those who paid rent on time, those who held a job and those who worked.”
The blunt-spoken Jackson, who is black, acknowledged his comments might be seen as racially offensive because virtually all of the former St. Thomas residents were African-American. He told a white reporter, “If you said this, they would say you were racist.” He went on to say, “I don’t care what color they are, if they are devastating a community, they shouldn’t be allowed to return.”
His comments drew a sharp response from housing advocates in New Orleans who have accused Jackson’s agency, the U.S. Department of Urban Development, of giving public housing residents short shrift as it replaces traditional public developments such as St. Thomas with planned, mixed-income communities.
“I find that very disappointing,” Lucia Blacksher, general counsel for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center, said. “When people say things like we only want the best people who don’t do drugs or commit crimes, there is an implication that many of people in public housing are in fact criminals who don’t work. That simply is not true. It is an unnecessary stereotype and an alarming stereotype to be voiced by secretary of HUD.”
Jackson also had some tough words for black leaders he said are stoking racial fires in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m a little disturbed that even today they want to bring a racial component into the hurricane. This isn’t about racism, this is about people suffering,” said Jackson, pointing to the large number of Vietnamese fishers along the Gulf Coast whose livelihoods were ruined by the storm. “It’s important (to remember) that everybody suffered in this disaster, not just black people. It bothers me tremendously when I see the so-called leadership in the black community, the liberal community zeroing in (on) how much more difficult it was for African-Americans than it was for white Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans.”
Jackson’s comments may presage a renewed, get-tough policy when it comes to public housing in post-hurricane New Orleans.
Jackson recently oversaw a shakeup of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is in receivership and controlled by his agency. He replaced the receiver and the board chairman with two officials from agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.
HANO spokesman Adonis Expose also confirmed Monday that the agency is considering a long-rumored policy change that would require all public housing residents in New Orleans to have a job or be in a job-training program.
Eight months after Hurricane Katrina, the future of the 10 public housing complexes in New Orleans remains an open question. Times have never been tougher for low-income people as a shortage of rental housing after Hurricane Katrina has seen rents to historic levels.
While HUD has re-opened some complexes, such as Iberville, most of the others remain closed and surrounded by protective fencing. Eager to return, former residents have marched in protest to force the government to open more, but HUD has so far refused.
Asked about it Monday, Jackson said that complexes that suffered severe damage will likely be torn down and redeveloped. Although, he said it will be up to the mayor, whoever it is after the May 20 runoff, to make the key decisions on rebuilding.
“We will rebuild, if that’s what the mayor wants,” Jackson said. “Do we rebuild the same way? Probably not.”
Echoing Bush administration statements in recent months, Jackson said that despite the need for affordable housing, New Orleans’ infrastructure remains too fragile to re-open the public housing complexes.
“Most of public housing developments are in areas where electricity has not been turned on, schools are not open, there are no grocery stores and we have a serious mold and lead problem in some of those buildings,” Jackson said. “If tomorrow, all those factors came together, we would open them up. We’re willing to do that ... (But the former residents) already lived in pretty much sub-standard conditions, I’m not going to condone further sub-standard conditions. I think that is inhumane and wrong.”
Housing advocates say that HUD could help drive the repopulation of New Orleans by opening apartments, some of which received only minor damage in the hurricane. If complexes were open, the subsequent boost in population, they say, would prompt businesses and schools to reopen as well.
But those critics say that HUD has no interest in reopening the complexes, only redeveloping much as was done with St. Thomas. Their fear, they say, is that redevelopment of public housing does not always work to the benefit of public housing residents who can end up getting squeezed out by higher rents of the new housing that is built.
“I think they are getting ready to demolish public housing,” said Laura Tuggle, an attorney with New Orleans Legal Assistance. “One of the hardest parts of redevelopment is having to relocate residents of public housing. That job was done for them.”
Before Katrina, many former St. Thomas residents were on the waiting list for low-rent apartments at River Gardens. They had been screened to make sure they had jobs and didn’t have criminal records.
After the storm, HANO installed its own employees in some of the vacant apartments. Expose, the HANO spokesman, said it was so they would have some place to stay while they worked to make other public housing available around the city.
Fair housing groups have filed administrative complaints to force HANO to open more spaces in River Gardens to former St. Thomas residents or other low-income public housing residents. They took issue with Jackson’s estimate that a fifth of River Garden’s apartments have gone to those people and estimated that it could be as low as 10 percent.
They say that they have grave concerns if the development ends up being the face of public housing in New Orleans.
“If the model is River Gardens, it has failed miserably,” said James Perry, executive director of the New Orleans Fair Housing Council.
(Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7817.)