Return to New Orleans

Monday, April 30, 2007

TWENTY MONTHS after Hurricane Katrina, public housing residents of New Orleans remain scattered across the country. Many want to go home. They should be able to. But returning to the same squalid and dangerous housing projects that were isolated cauldrons of dysfunction and pathology is neither just nor humane. Katrina changed everything in the Crescent City, and its public housing must change, too. That's what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is trying to make happen. But a lawsuit filed by the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights organization, against federal, state and city officials is holding things up.

New Orleans public housing before Hurricane Katrina was gripped by drug and gang activity, making the projects among the most dangerous areas in the city. Corruption and mismanagement led the federal government to take over the Housing Authority of New Orleans in 2002. HUD was in the process of redoing some of the public housing in the mode of HOPE VI developments that favor townhouse design and mixed-income residences over brick apartment buildings that warehouse the poor. Then Katrina hit.

The Advancement Project lawsuit claims "defendants' inaction and needless delay in repairing and reopening New Orleans' public housing development are based on racial animus and a clear intention to prohibit the return of many low-income African-American families." It demands a halt to HUD's planned demolition of troubled projects and a right of return for everyone to their old apartments in public housing. Unfortunately, comments by HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson (New Orleans "is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again"), Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.) ("We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did") and New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas ("We don't need soap-opera watchers all day") served to fuel the conspiracy theories underpinning the lawsuit. They also roiled long-troubled racial waters in New Orleans.

Judge Ivan Lemelle pushed aside the racial charges and denied an injunction against razing the housing projects. But a jury trial is set for Nov. 26, and Judge Lemelle has ordered the Advancement Project and HUD to try to settle before then. At stake is the transformation of four public housing projects built in the 1940s -- C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte -- from fortresses of concentrated poverty into mixed-income communities. The nonprofit developers of Lafitte, for instance, are doing just about everything the Advancement Project says it wants -- and what a House bill making its way to the Senate would mandate -- while at the same time following through on HUD's vision for renewed, reconnected and revitalized public housing that no longer isolates the poor.

Enterprise Community Partners has committed to a one-for-one replacement of public housing units at Lafitte and to a right of return for former Lafitte residents. The developer has traveled to Houston and Baton Rouge to get residents' input. By renovating some of the units at one end of the project while tearing down and building the New Orleans-style homes on the other end, Enterprise would make it possible for former Lafitte tenants to return to New Orleans now. But everything is on hold; no one can get started until the Advancement Project's trial concludes.

The problem is compounded by a July 1 deadline for developers to spend 10 percent of a project's total development cost using Gulf Opportunity Zone low-income tax credits or risk losing them. In that case, everyone loses. Considering that many of its objectives are being met, the Advancement Project should take yes for an answer and let demolition begin. The displaced people of New Orleans have waited long enough to go home. If they can go home to apartments better than the ones they fled, that should be applauded, not denounced in court.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company