By Julia Cass and Peter Whoriskey
Special to The Washington Post and Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006
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 plan.
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 poor.
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.