A Better Life in New Orleans

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

THE NEW ORLEANS City Council has a very important decision to make today. It can vote to allow demolition of its blighted public housing or it can give in to activists -- and shortsighted politicians -- who would send residents back to the squalid conditions they fled on Aug. 29, 2005. To do the latter would be unconscionable and irresponsible.

Corruption and mismanagement led to a federal takeover of the city's housing authority in 2002. The Department of Housing and Urban Development moved quickly to break up these concentrations of poverty and dysfunction. Redevelopment of five of nine complexes into mixed-income communities is well underway. The remaining four complexes -- B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard, C.J. Peete and Lafitte -- hang in the balance. The City Council must vote for demolition.

Preservationists and advocates wax poetic about the historical and architectural significance of the barracks-style structures, which were built in the 1940s. Yet their romantic vision doesn't jibe with the gritty reality faced by the people who lived in them. These residents survived in cramped quarters in apartment buildings that were cut off from the flow of life in the city and were incubators of crime. They didn't have showers. They had to choose between running the water in the bathroom sink or the tub. They didn't have central heating in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. Returning residents deserve better.

The effort to modernize New Orleans public housing had been stymied by a lawsuit claiming that padlocking the complexes was part of an orchestrated attempt by the federal government to keep African Americans from coming back to the city. It didn't help that local, state and Bush administration officials made some boneheaded statements in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that fed the lawsuit's conspiracy theory. Suspicious that redeveloped properties would shut out public housing residents still scattered across the country, litigants demanded that HUD rehabilitate the apartments and allow people to return to their former homes. A federal judge sided with the agency.

According to HUD, only 2,897 of the 4,500 units at the four public housing projects slated for demolition were occupied when the storm struck. The plan is to build 5,108 affordable rental homes that would be open to public housing residents, holders of Section 8 vouchers and folks in the disaster assistance program. The agency says the cost of repairing damage caused by Katrina and addressing pre-Katrina problems would be $875 million, while the demolition and redevelopment effort would cost $597 million.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have called on President Bush to issue a 60-day moratorium on the demolition so an affordable housing plan could be devised. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) asked Mr. Bush to abandon all demolition plans "until there is a comprehensive plan to meet the region's extensive affordable-housing needs." And former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) said, "Decentralizing poverty by encouraging new mixed-income housing makes a lot of sense. But eliminating housing where people could live in a city where a desperate shortage of shelter exists makes no sense."

What makes no sense is perpetuating a housing policy that trapped people in poverty. As the saying goes, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Maintaining New Orleans's failed public housing would be a prime example of that.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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