The Battle To Save New Orleans Public Housing
Z MAGAZINE ONLINE-ONLY ARTICLE
At a press conference last December 18 at New Orleans’ City Hall, Martin Suber of the Coalition To Stop Demolition explained the purpose of the fight to stop the razing of the city’s four largest public housing complexes (aka “The Big Four”): “They’re using New Orleans as an experiment, to privatize schools, cut back on bus service, and knock down housing projects. That’s what we’re fighting against and that’s why people have come from all over the country to support us.”
In less than two weeks the Coalition had:
- Shut down a City Council meeting after the council refused to take a stand on the demolitions, on December 6.
- Influenced a city housing committee to refuse to grant a demolition permit for one of the four public housing complexes, on December 10.
- Stopped demolition work at that same complex after it began illegally on December 11.
- Blocked demolition equipment from entering another housing complex after demolition had started there on December 12.
- Stormed the federal building at noon December 13 and shut it down for a half an hour, while carrying on a shoving match with federal guards.
- Drew fire from HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who threatened to cut off over $137 million in aid to the city’s public housing agency and deny housing vouchers to displaced tenants unless the demolitions went forward. Jackson is currently the subject of three federal investigations.
- Shut down the headquarters of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), which HUD took over in 2002. The protesters dressed in pajamas, sported red Santa’s helpers caps, were surrounded by colorful mock gifts and displayed a banner reading “Homes For the Holidays” as they sang carols modified with housing and human rights lyrics.
- Won a lawsuit in state court based on an unearthed city code mandating a New Orleans City Council vote on the demolition of public housing. HUD was planning to start demolition of Big Four on December 15.
- Garnered implicit support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as they fired off a letter to George W. Bush demanding a 60-day moratorium on the demolition of public housing in order to resolve the growing crisis.
The City Council announced that it would act on the demolition issue at its next scheduled meeting on December 20. So the Coalition To Stop Demolition held its press conference at City Hall on the 18th “to implore the City Council to take the right step and to be on the right side of history, so we can bring our people home.” But two days later the City Council locked hundreds people out of its chambers, let the city’s police force attack, arrest, and eject people who protested this injustice, stood by as cops unleashed pepper gas and tasers, and then voted unanimously to approve the demolition of the Big Four.
One Flood After Another
Before the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans on August 29, 2005, about 5,100 families lived in low income public housing in the city. Another 2,000 units were vacant, awaiting renovation. There were 9,000 families on the waiting list as well. Most of the public housing consisted of three story brick buildings built in the 1940s. Nicolai Ouroussof, the New York Times architecture writer, recently wrote of the Big Four, “Some rank among the best examples of pubic housing built in the United States, both in design and quality of construction.”
The original idea was to offer poor people a place to live in federally subsidized low income housing while they worked to achieve the dream of home ownership. But in New Orleans, as in many U.S. cities, the historical legacies of racism and poverty and the failure of society to redress these injustices largely limited advancement from “the Projects,” as they came to be known.
As inner cities decayed and cutbacks in federal support grew, public housing’s promise diminished. These factors, combined with corruption and neglect in public housing agencies at local and federal levels, led to deteriorating conditions. The Projects were stereotyped as centers of violence, drug dealing, and “babies having babies.” In reality, these problems were rooted in conservative policies that replaced the War on Poverty with the War on Drugs, affirmative action with police action, more and better schools with bigger and fuller prisons.
In 1989, during the first Bush regime, Congress established the National Committee on Severely Distressed Public Housing. The committee found that 86,000 of the nation’s 1.3 pubic housing units were “severely distressed.” HUD’s response to these findings, during the Clinton administration, was to introduce the HOPE VI program in 1992. HOPE VI’s goals basically were to encourage the privatization of public housing by demolishing as many public housing units as possible, then leasing the sites to developers to build “mixed income” housing. This resulted in drastic reductions in low income public housing units, thus leaving many former tenants largely out of the mix.
In New Orleans, for example, the St. Thomas pubic housing complex, west of downtown near the Mississippi River was almost totally demolished and 80 percent of its former residents were displaced, laying bare HANO/HUD promises that 80 percent would be able to return.
When Katrina struck, the floods forced many public housing tenants to flee. Many became internally displaced refugees, scattered to Houston, Atlanta, and beyond. According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, all displaced persons, including internal ones, have a right to return to their homes.
But in New Orleans HANO/HUD did not recognize that right. Instead the agencies declared that public housing, most notably the Big Four, was too badly damaged and instead of fixing it up and allowing residents to return, it locked them out. Steel plates were bolted over windows and doors in some of the complexes, while in others entrances were left open to the elements and thieves.
Those residents who did return were mostly barred from their homes. In some cases they were prevented from retrieving their possessions and in others they found that all their belongings had disappeared. Some of those who go into their apartments said all they needed was a good cleaning and a new paint job. But anyone found doing such work in their own home was put out by housing authority and/or city police. People who protested this treatment by occupying their apartments were arrested. Chain link fences topped with barbed wire were thrown up around public housing complexes to keep former residents out.
HANO did give out Section 8 housing vouchers to some former tenants who returned. But this necessitated dealing with private landlords over scarce housing, plunking down often large deposits, and paying much higher utility costs.
Midway through 2006, HUD announced its final solution to the public housing problem in New Orleans: total demolition of the Big Four, to be replaced with “mixed income” housing constructed and managed by private developers who would be granted 99 year leases. The Big Four consist of Lafitte (896 units), St. Bernard (1436 units), B.W. Cooper (1,550 units), and C.J. Peete (723 units). HUD plans to destroy all 4,605 low income units and replace them with a total of 1841, a 60 percent reduction. Of these remaining units, only 744 would be low income, resulting in an almost 84 percent loss of low income housing units.
HUD public records indicate, according to the coalition, that the total cost of this “redevelopment” would be $762 million. Thus the average cost of the 1,841 units would be $414,000. Demolition opponents also pointed out that, “The $762 million does not include current subsidies on displaced residents which is estimated at $1,000 per displaced family per month—approximately another $100 million so far. Nor do these estimates include the millions in no-bid contacts already let out by HUD and HANO since Katrina for consultants, lawyers, and contractors of all sorts.”
The public housing crisis in New Orleans is a crucial part of the city’s overall affordable housing crisis. Though homeowners finally received a good deal of financial relief in 2007, owners of rental property still have not. Pre-Katrina, over half of the city’s residents were renters. Rents have doubled and tripled in increasingly scarce habitable units and even more so in the 20 percent of the city that did not flood.
The city’s homeless population, believed to be about 6,000 before the storm, has increased to 12,000, according to various estimates. Homeless encampments have been growing, one in a park directly across the street from City Hall, another below an interstate overpass. Towards the end of 2007, FEMA declared that it would start closing down the trailer parks, which still housed 50,000 across the state, including those in New Orleans.
All these factors make the destruction of 4,605 low income public housing units in the Crescent City all the more critical—and some call it criminal.
Lockdown Of Democracy
The Coalition To Stop Demolition came together in the fall of 2007. It consists primarily of displaced public housing residents, New Orleans African American community organizations such as Peoples Hurricane, local housing groups such as C3/Hands Off Iberville, and human rights organizations.
The coalition’s basic demands are: (1) to fix up housing in the Big Four so that its former residents can return to their homes; or (2) if there is demolition, there must be an enforceable guarantee of one for one replacement of all the low income public housing units that would be torn down.
As of late November, prospects of success looked bleak. A federal judge had refused to support a lawsuit to stop the demolitions. HANO/HUD was soliciting bids for demolition work. The agencies had set December 15, less than three weeks away, as the date for the demolitions to begin. A U.S. Senate bill mandating one for one replacement of demolished New Orleans public housing units, had been blocked by Senator David Vitter (R-LA).
Confronted with looming catastrophe, the coalition put out a national call for support, asking people to come to New Orleans, or to organize solidarity actions in their home communities. In so doing, the coalition also asked supporters to agree to a Pledge of Resistance, which read, in part: “I believe in the fundamental right of housing, and I will not be a witness to the denial of this right to the peoples of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I pledge myself to resist the denial of this right by all civil and humanitarian means available, including civil disobedience.
The immediate positive response to this call bolstered the coalition’s ranks both in New Orleans and around the country and significantly contributed to successful actions in December. The power elite, both locally and in the nation’s capital, realized it was losing the initiative and responded with repression. It started at the top, with HUD Secretary Alphonso Jacksons’s December 13 threat to cut back funding and cut out housing vouchers, as previously reported. At the same time Jackson went on TV to berate demolition protesters as ignorant fools who were trying to deny poor black people affordable housing.
Mavis York, Common Ground volunteer, blocks a bulldozer at the B.W. Cooper public housing complex, December 2007—photo by Edwin Lopez, neworleans.indymedia.org
Then on December 15, originally HUD’s demolition day, New Orleans police, without provocation, charged into a celebratory street party adjacent to the St. Bernard public housing complex. The NOPD attacked and arrested videographer Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films while he was working at the scene, later charging him with crossing a police line. The cops also snatched Cheri Honkala, founder of Philadelphia’s Kensington Welfare Right’s Union and slapped her with a charge of impersonating a police officer, for directing traffic. The police also singled out for attack and arrest a young African American man they called “Big Mouth” because of his outspoken behavior at previous coalition actions.
Sunday, December 16, the Times-Picayune, the city’s only daily newspaper, joined the clamp down, representing the media component. Its lead story, “Far From Full,” challenged the credibility of demolition claims that there was a shortage of public housing in the city—and, by inference, the credibility of the coalition. A subhead, in red letters, blared, “There are hundreds of units available right now.” A few days later the paper ran a story defaming one of the most vocal of the coalition’s public housing residents. Meanwhile local talk shows featured callers who railed on about outside agitators, welfare queens, and crackhead killers rampaging though “the Projects.”
On Thursday, December 20, City Hall was a fortress. When the public came through the main entrance, they were asked if they were going to the City Council meeting. If the answer was yes, they were ordered to go back out and wait at the side of the building. In the hallway leading to the council chambers police officers waited to block citizens who dared venture beyond. Further down the hall there was a metal barrier and behind the barrier another line of cops stood guard. HUD, HANO, their developers and supporters were by and large not subjected to these measures, but instead escorted into the chambers through separate entrances.
Outside, demolition opponents waited to be let in, like prisoners in a fresh air holding tank, behind metal gates. On the other side of the gate, a heavy police presence made sure no one went any further.
Sometime before 10:00 AM, the scheduled time for the meeting to begin, police opened the gates and let some people shuffle in single file. By 10:30, over 100 people were still waiting outside, where it was starting to rain. The crowd began chanting. “Housing Is a Human Right,” along with “Stop the Demolitions Now.” As time dragged on and the rain got heavier, however, “Let Us In!” became the chant of choice.
Meanwhile, inside the chambers, demolition opponents realized many in their protest had been locked out even though there were more than a few empty seats. Angered by this obvious injustice, they began calling out for council members to allow more people in. Their protests were ignored or mocked. Anger grew, names were called, and a chant of “Let Them In!” went up.
The small army of police in the chambers ordered the protesters to shut up and sit down, Those who refused to obey were seized and thrown out. In some cases the police physically abused and tasered protesters, arresting 15.
Chants grew louder, a few rattled the gates, which the police had secured with a pair of handcuffs. More police arrived on the scene, including some on horseback. A SWAT team lurked nearby, and the Louisiana National Guard was on hand as well.
At little before 11:00 AM, a handful of lockouts began pulling the gates back and forth. They finally broke the handcuffs and the gates fell open. Everyone seemed surprised. No one rushed in at first, then only a few made tentative moves to enter. Suddenly officers behind the gate began spraying gas into the crowd on the other side. Then cops exploded into the crowd, using more pepper gas and tasers. Just as quickly the police attackers withdrew and secured the gates again, this time using a chain and padlock. Bodies lay sprawled on the ground. People carried the injured to a nearby lawn. Two women had taser wires coming out of them, one in her stomach, the other out of her back and had to be hospitalized, as did a number of others. People helped those who’d been gassed flush it away with water and milk.
After caring for the injured, the locked out regrouped and took up their chants once more, after someone cried out, “Let them know we’re still out here.” People who’d been pepper sprayed joined the chants and took up their cameras again. The rain turned torrential, then into a full blown thunderstorm. Protests continued for over an hour until the crowd dispersed peacefully.
Inside the chambers City Council members vacated their seats to chat with each other while demolition opponents spoke. Late that afternoon the Council played out this cruel farce and voted unanimously, before an almost empty house, to support HUD’s demolition plan.
The next day the coalition was back at City Hall. At a press conference it announced its refusal to honor the Council’s vote and vowed to continue resistance. As the first week of the New Year neared completion, HUD’s demolition of the Big Four had yet to begin, and the Coalition To Stop Demolition was still at large.
Michael Steinberg is a veteran activist and writer. He currently lives in New Orleans.