HUD demolition plan protested
Residents say they're being shut out of city
Friday, June 16, 2006
By Gwen Filosa Staff writer
Dozens of public housing residents Thursday protested the federal government's plan to demolish four complexes in New Orleans, saying they are left without homes in a city where rentals are nearly impossible to find. Advertisement
One day after U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced that New Orleans would lose housing complexes but gain a "renaissance" of better low-income housing, some of the families who called St. Bernard, Lafitte, C.J. Peete and B.W. Cooper home cried foul at a City Council hearing.
"By tearing down developments you're not giving me the choice to come back home to New Orleans, where I was forced to leave," said Cherlynn Gaynor, 42, who grew up in the Lafitte complex and was raising her 11 year-old daughter there before the levee failures during Katrina drowned the city. "I pay taxes and I work. Why would you shut us out from where our culture is?"
Gaynor was joined by about two dozen residents who said they are hurt and frustrated by the plan to tear down complexes with the promise to redevelop them in three years.
"I just need somewhere to stay," said Patricia Thomas, who lost her apartment at Lafitte to the flooding but has lived at Iberville, C.J. Peete and B.W. Cooper over the years. "We're losing our older people. They're dropping like flies . . . when they hear they can't come home."
HUD, which essentially runs the Housing Authority of New Orleans since it fell into dire mismanagement by 2002, said it will reopen 1,000 more units of public housing by August, bringing the number of units to more than 2,000: almost half the public housing stock that existed before Hurricane Katrina.
HUD also has raised its Section 8 and disaster housing vouchers by 35 percent to keep up with post-Katrina rent increases across the city.
HUD defends plan
"It's important to see everyone be able to come back," said Scott Keller, deputy chief of staff for HUD, who spoke in place of Jackson, who had to return to Washington, D.C., for a meeting. "We don't want gangs. We don't want unsafe conditions. We want single moms to be safe, and their children."
Keller said the plan will improve public housing and raise the standard of living for its residents. When one critic challenged the agency's intentions, Keller responded in kind.
"Are you defending the warehousing of folks so we can supply labor for this city?" Keller said. "The secretary finds that abhorrent."
The critic was attorney Tracie Washington of New Orleans, who said she was stunned by HUD officials and other outsiders who ask why residents would want to return to housing complexes such as St. Bernard.
Because it's home, Washington told the council.
"The fact that you have to ask that question after you've formed a proposal shows me that you don't know about us," Washington said. "You cannot go forward and we will not allow you to go forward."
Before Katrina, New Orleans had 7,300 units of traditional pubic housing, but only about 5,100 units were occupied. HUD's announcement this week that HANO will demolish four complexes, including the sprawling and flooded-out St. Bernard near Gentilly, sounded like nothing more than a door slammed shut to the working poor and their supporters.
Federal housing vouchers, which HUD has raised from about $670 to up to $1,100, won't work in a city suffering from a dearth of available rentals, housing advocates said.
"We already had a massive loss of units long before the hurricane," said attorney Laura Tuggle of the New Orleans Legal Action Center. "To think vouchers are going to solve our problem is disingenuous. Giving a person a voucher is not going to solve the problem."
Council President Oliver Thomas, who hastily called the meeting after HUD's announcement Wednesday, said redevelopment plans will not occur overnight.
"This is just the first phase," Thomas said. "We will have a hearing on the entire plan within two weeks."
Ex-HANO chief ejected
Residents weren't the only people speaking out against HUD's plan.
Bob Tannen, an urban planner with 40 years of experience, said the Vieux Carre was once considered a slum until preserved with its historical value kept intact. The public housing neighborhoods on HUD's chopping block also are historically significant, he said.
Several speakers who consider themselves activists for the working poor don't live in public housing but have wound up being just about the only advocates for residents.
They include Mike Howells, a tarot card reader who attends every HANO meeting and repeatedly accuses its officials of "ethnic cleansing."
They also include Endesha Juakali, who was briefly a HANO chairman under Mayor Sidney Barthelemy until forced off the board. Juakali says he runs a youth center next to the St. Bernard.
On Thursday, Juakali disrupted the council hearing, trying to shout down Keller. When Juakali used an obscenity, Thomas had him thrown out by deputies. Howells and fellow activist Elizabeth Cook raced after him, appearing distressed.
Within moments Thomas reminded the audience that Juakali had tried to run public housing when HANO was known for mismanagement and plenty of failures.
"It's OK to throw a rock, but don't hide your hand," Thomas said, drawing a few cheers from residents. "What about when people were marching on him over the conditions he allowed? If he needs attention, I could give it to him one-on-one."
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Gwen Filosa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3304.