Brick housing biting the dust
New homes planned for poor, HUD says
Thursday, November 03, 2005
By Gwen FilosaStaff writer
Public housing as New Orleans knew it before Hurricane Katrina is over, the nation's top federal housing official said Wednesday, promising that rebuilt developments will not isolate the poor in the tall, brick complexes that were home to thousands of families forced to evacuate as floodwater rose.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development will spend more than $1.8 billion on public housing along the Gulf Coast, particularly in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, starting with the demolition of a long-troubled Central City complex, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said.
But what is rebuilt in its place will be different, he said.
"We're not going to build traditional public housing anymore," Jackson said at a news conference held on the construction site in Algiers where the 13-story Fischer development towered for 30 years until it was demolished in January 2004.
Jackson was flanked by four City Council members, all promising a bright future for the city's poorest residents, including new modern homes meant to entice them back to New Orleans.
The C.J. Peete housing development, at LaSalle Street and Washington Avenue, will be transformed into a handsome neighborhood much like the flagship River Garden -- formerly the St. Thomas development -- and the poor will no longer be isolated into concentrated areas, Jackson said.
No details, dates or timelines were given. But Jackson and the brass from the Housing Authority of New Orleans said C.J. Peete marks a watershed in New Orleans public housing, as the old-time brick buildings designated for poor families will become a relic not to be repeated.
"Not only will St. Thomas be the model," Jackson said. "It will be Fischer. It will be Desire. It will be St. Bernard. We will begin with the redevelopment of C.J. Peete, a property long-standing and in great need of rehabilitation. We're taking the first step to rebuild public housing in this city."
25,000 people displaced
As Jackson discussed plans, at least seven men in hard hats worked on new housing at Fischer, which HANO officials said will be ready for families to move into by June.
HANO has formally tagged only Fischer and C.J. Peete for gutting and rebuilding, but Jackson indicated St. Bernard and Abundance Square, more commonly called the "new" Desire, also were on the short list for new construction.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the city's public housing community, wrecking the St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper, Desire and Florida neighborhoods and forcing about 25,000 residents to evacuate the city. HANO, which had 7,500 units, has said it found housing for its tenants outside of New Orleans, including in Texas cities such as Houston and Dallas in the wake of Katrina.
Two months after the storm made landfall, utilities have been restored to only three of HANO's major properties: Guste in Central City, Fischer in Algiers and River Garden, a Lower Garden District neighborhood which is mostly private market rental units.
Thousands of public housing residents remain displaced, yet Jackson said HUD will work with HANO to bring back families wanting to return.
"We will be involved," Jackson said. "If they want to go back home, we will do everything in our power to make sure they are comfortable. New Orleanians were traumatized. We don't need to traumatize them anymore."
But, Jackson added, evacuees who have been displaced for six months or more may never return.
C.J. Peete, formerly called the Magnolia development, was built in 1941 and 1955 and at its largest capacity accommodated 1,403 homes. In 1998, after years of neglect, HANO began demolishing some buildings with the promise of revitalization.
On Wednesday afternoon, C.J. Peete was a vacant, disheveled place without a soul walking about the dirty courtyards. Debris and broken-down cars littered the streets, where the apartments sat darkened and empty. Remnants of the messy evacuation were plentiful.
"Send chopper with basket," read a black spray-painted plywood board that lay discarded on the porch of a Freret Street apartment at Peete, whose namesake was a Xavier University graduate who managed the Magnolia development from 1952 to 1978.
Four councilwomen met with Jackson in a closed-door meeting at the Fischer Community Center in Algiers Wednesday morning and emerged pledging to create a new realm of public housing.
"We will be designing a new New Orleans for our citizens to come back home to," said Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt, joined by colleagues Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, Cynthia Willard-Lewis and Cynthia Hedge Morrell.
"We don't want them to come back to brick walls," Pratt said. "We want them to come back to the best."
'We don't want to isolate'
Jackson pointed at the old Fischer apartments, where families still live. "See over there? We will eradicate that kind of development in the city. We don't want to isolate or separate people because of their income. They are human beings with the same sense of work we have, and we should not treat them differently."
Lori Moon, a deputy receiver for the federally entrusted HANO, said: "We're talking about mixed-income communities. It's a mixture of market rate and affordable," along with home ownership programs and Section 8 subsidized rentals.
Jackson later toured the storm-battered 9th Ward, including one of HANO's most prized developments, the former Desire that was rebuilt with brightly colored townhouses and renamed Abundance Square. It flooded and now stands as a muck-laden ruin.
In the past several years, HUD has spent more than $133 million on such public housing construction.
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Gwen Filosa can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3304.