HUD officials try to stave off complex takeover
By Gwen Filosa Staff writer
The nation’s top housing official Thursday pleaded with public housing residents in New Orleans not to enter the shuttered complexes this weekend, and promised that help is coming for those forced from their homes by the Aug. 29 hurricane.
“I would encourage residents really not to break the law,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, in an telephone interview. “I do not want to see anyone hurt. Many of those units are not safe. I don’t want something to happen where people are exposed to heavy lead or mold.”
Thousands of New Orleans families who lived in the 5,100 occupied units of public housing before Katrina remain shut out of the city nine months after the deadly flooding.
Residents who attended a City Council housing committee meeting Wednesday have planned a weekend protest at the St. Bernard public housing complex in the 7th Ward, vowing to take back their apartments after forcing their way through the razor-topped chain-link fence that the Housing Authority of New Orleans installed around the site after the storm.. What residents call a planned land grab, HUD calls the harsh reality of the storm. From Slidell to Lake Charles, homeowners and renters are facing the same thing, Jackson said.
“Everybody did suffer, clearly, in my mind,” Jackson said on Thursday. “In the long haul, it will be 12 to 18 months to get the major residences done. Where we could do it quickly, we will. HUD is responsible. We are committed to the well being of residents.”
Kim Paul, president of the Iberville complex’s resident council, said Jackson’s plea won’t stop the weekend’s protest.
“I’m still going out there,” said Paul, who moved back into her apartment just before Christmas. “They have car pools of people coming from Texas and all over. We’re going in and cleaning up.” Schools are out and federal temporary housing aid is running out, Paul said.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is federally run, has yet to offer a specific rebuilding plan, leaving many families in the lurch as they search for affordable housing in a post-Katrina world where rentals are rare and priced as such.
In response to HANO’s silence on rebuilding, dozens of frustrated public housing tenants said Wednesday that they will re-enter their homes Saturday morning, namely at the St. Bernard complex in the 7th Ward, one of the largest traditional complexes in Orleans Parish that has sat vacant since flooded out residents evacuated last fall.
HUD, taking their protest as a plan to cross the barrier onto government owned property, said Thursday that such a plan is not an answer to frustration that homeowners across southern Louisiana share.
“It’s the wrong thing to do,” Jackson said. “I’m in their corner. We’re going to do everything to return residents back to their homes.”
Jackson said that the Iberville complex, which hedges the French Quarter and re-opened to some residents months ago, will have additional units ready for occupancy within the next 30 to 90 days.
Other sites will open in New Orleans sooner, he said. As for the city’s housing crisis, where a dearth of rentals has spiked monthly rents to an all-time high, Jackson also promised to send a HUD official to New Orleans to meet with private market landlords.
Some 9,000 families lived in privately owned apartments pre-Katrina, using federal subsidies known as “Section 8” vouchers to pay the rent. Those units were widely washed away by the levee failures of Aug. 29.
HANO’s housing stock was largely ruined by the floodwaters, which devoured the Desire and Florida complexes in the Ninth Ward, and poured through the sprawling St. Bernard, the B.W. Cooper and the C.J. Peete.
Residents from most of these complexes say that they could return. All it takes is some scrubbing and no-nonsense manual labor, which they have volunteered to do.
But HUD and HANO says the damage is too great. In addition to the flood and wind damage, the St. Bernard is in a neighborhood that lacks basic services and health care centers. There are also environmental studies, required by federal law, that must be finished before any rebuilding can even start.
HANO has issued more than 5,000 Section 8 vouchers to Orleans families, but only 1,000 have turned into leases due to either a shortage of available units or the fact that the vouchers aren’t enough to cover post-Katrina inflated rents.
“I’m going to send my deputy chief of staff to get landlords talking to us,” Jackson said. “We’re going to try to reason with them.”
Residents and their activist supporters hijacked HANO’s last board meeting, in May, shouting down the newly installed HUD official, Donald Babers, who is a one-person board of commissioners.
Babers politely changed the agenda in light of the protests and let the “public comment” portion of the meeting start first. But even after 1 ½ hours of a town meeting-style complaint session, a dozen or so people at the meeting continued shouting, so that no one could clearly hear the HANO staff conduct the business part of the meeting.
A couple of self-appointed high profile activists, who do not live in public housing but have adopted the issue as their cause, claimed victory that day, yet no concrete rebuilding plans came.
But public housing residents have received no answers in nine months and said this week that they cannot wait any longer while their families are scattered about the South. They vowed to follow in the footsteps of nonprofit groups such as Common Ground, who gave up waiting for government’s help and have since gutted hundreds of homes in the worst-hit neighborhoods, along with churches and, in the Lower 9th Ward, the entire building of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School.
The public housing complexes, however, aren’t open to volunteers, HUD said Thursday. “I’m tired, and I know they’re tired, too,” Jackson said. “It’s a very difficult situation.”
(Gwen Filosa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 826-3304.)