New Orleans to Raze Public Housing


Richard Moore

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New Orleans to Raze Public Housing
Many Units Closed Since Katrina to Be Demolished, Despite Protests
By Julia Cass and Peter Whoriskey
Special to The Washington Post and Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006; A03

NEW ORLEANS, Dec. 7 -- Public housing officials decided Thursday to proceed with
the demolition of more than 4,500 government apartments here, brushing aside an 
outcry from residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina who said the move was 
intended to reduce the ability of poor black people to repopulate the city.

Residents and their advocates made emotional, legal and what they called 
common-sense arguments against demolition at the housing authority meeting. "The
day you decide to destroy our homes, you will break a lot of hearts," said 
Sharon Pierce Jackson, who lived in one of the now-closed projects slated to be 
razed. "We are people. We are not animals."

She and others questioned why the Department of Housing and Urban Development 
would destroy affordable housing in New Orleans, saying it is essential to the 
city's recovery.

C. Donald Babers, the federally appointed administrator running the Housing 
Authority of New Orleans, did not respond to that question in tersely approving 
the demolitions.

Previously, HUD officials have said the old projects should be cleared out to 
make way for less dense, modern housing. But those new developments, to be 
constructed in partnership with private investors, would probably include far 
fewer apartments for low-income residents and would take years to complete. An 
unresolved lawsuit on behalf of residents charges that the demolition plan is 
racially discriminatory.

"This is a government-sanctioned diaspora of New Orleans's poorest African 
American citizens," said Bill Quigley of Loyola University's law school, who is 
representing the displaced. "They are destroying perfectly habitable apartments 
when they are more rare than any time since the Civil War."

The divide over public housing may be the most prominent skirmish in the larger 
battle over the post-Katrina balance of whites and blacks in New Orleans and how
decisions on rebuilding shape the city's demographic future.

Before Katrina, the Census Bureau pegged the city's racial breakdown at about 67
percent black and 28 percent white. A more recent study conducted for the 
Louisiana Recovery Authority estimates that the city, still well under half its 
pre-storm population, is 47 percent black and 43 percent white.

When Katrina struck, more than 5,000 families, nearly all of them black, were 
living in New Orleans public housing, and a couple of thousand more units were 
vacant or uninhabitable. The waiting list for housing had 8,250 names.

Since the storm, most of the complexes have been closed, some surrounded by 
fences and razor wire. About 1,100 units were occupied as of July, according to 
HUD figures.

To repair the hurricane damage at the four largest complexes in question would 
cost $130 million, according to HUD figures. Residents and their attorneys say 
that those cost estimates are bloated and that many units now unavailable could 
be reoccupied with a little cleaning or minor renovation.

At Thursday's meeting, attended by about 40 public housing representatives and 
advocates, Stephanie Mingo, who had been a 43-year resident of the now-closed 
St. Bernard project, blinked back angry tears as she spoke during her allotted 
three minutes. "You are hurting people. You are killing people," she said. "I 
don't know how y'all can sleep at night."

The meeting, the last of a series of required "consultation meetings" with 
residents, appeared to be a formality. Babers thanked each person for his or her
comments but made none himself. Nor did he answer any of the questions put to 
him. Residents called the process a sham.

HUD spokeswoman Donna White said public comments from the meetings will be 
reviewed by HUD in Washington, which can accept, reject or change the demolition

The plans for redeveloping public housing in New Orleans resemble efforts in 
recent years in cities across the country. In response to critics who have said 
some of the old complexes deteriorated because they concentrated and isolated 
the poor, the replacement developments are typically less dense and only partly 
devoted to subsidized housing.

But in post-Katrina New Orleans, the idea of demolishing units that might be 
rehabilitated, and replacing them with fewer units, infuriates advocates of the 

They point to the former St. Thomas project in the city, which was originally 
designed to house approximately 1,500 families. Its demolition, in 2002, has 
been followed by the construction of 296 apartments, 122 of them for low-income 
families. When the project is completed, it is supposed to have 1,100 new 
residential units, but critics say far too few of the poor displaced by the 
demolition will ever be able to live there.

State Rep. Cedric Richmond (D) scoffed at the underlying logic of the new 
developments, saying it is audacious to blame residents' misery on the 
concentration of poverty in New Orleans. At a similar meeting last month, he 
said: "It was always concentrated. Because you can't get people to make beds and
clean hotels if you educate them well and they expect a decent pay."

Whoriskey reported from Miami.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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