#18 cities
Jordan Flaherty

Gift of God

Some saw Katrina as a gift of God: After the storm destroyed much of New Orleans’ public housing, investors and politicians moved in to demolish the rest.

When hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005, many people across the city could not easily afford to evacuate. More than 1,800 people died as a result of the storm, and about 80% of New Orleans' housing was damaged.

At this point, decision-makers could have pushed for a “bottom-up” recovery, prioritizing the needs of those who had the least, and rebuilding affordable, better and safer housing. Instead, the city did the exact opposite.

The foundation of the current crisis was laid well before hurricane Katrina. The tourism-based economy did not provide many good paying jobs, tenants had few rights, and state government was more interested in investing money in prisons than schools. The state has the highest incarceration of anywhere in the world, and among the lowest per-student funding for education of anywhere in the US.

In 2005, New Orleans had 7,700 public housing apartments. 5,146 units were occupied and the others were empty, supposedly waiting for repairs and refurbishing. In total, more than 14,000 families were receiving some form of housing assistance from the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO).

Rents in the city have gone up 44% in the past decade, while house prices have risen 51% on average, and even higher in the downtown urban core neighbourhoods. However, incomes have gone up only 2% during this same period.

Most of the five thousand still-occupied public housing apartments were in the so-called Big Four, the four largest developments remaining in the city: Lafitte, B. W. Cooper, St. Bernard, and C. J. Peete. These developments were different from the large anonymous towers found in the housing projects of Chicago or New York. New Orleans public housing had porches and balconies on two- and three-story houses, with pedestrian walkways, courtyards, and, in the case of Lafitte, large oak trees.

Designed and built by local artisans, these housing developments had originally been segregated, with “white only” and “black only” complexes. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced integration in schools and neighbourhoods, white families moved to the suburbs en masse. This was the beginning of a long process of eroding affordable housing in the city.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the federal government cut funding for maintenance of the public housing developments and evicted people for having incomes that were too high. By the time of hurricane Katrina, the federal government had been clearing out the development for nearly twenty years, mostly by leaving apartments empty when families moved out.

This high vacancy rate, of course, undermined a sense of community and created a vicious cycle of bad living conditions and lack of safety. Systemic attacks on housing made the neighbourhoods poorer and more dangerous, leading to further cuts and vacancies.

A judge later found the program to be racially discriminatory (...).

In the days and weeks after hurricane Katrina, politicians, developers, and planners announced plans to tear down all the remaining public housing in New Orleans. As Baton Rouge Congressman Richard Baker gloated shortly after the hurricane hit, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did.” Activists countered that the city should not have good, solid buildings that had survived the storm torn down as part of an ideological attack on the idea of affordable housing.

Soon after, the largest pot of rebuilding money – a state administered program called Louisiana Road Home – was allocated billions of federal dollars. Only homeowners were eligible to apply, cutting out the least prosperous residents from the very beginning. And even among homeowners, the program used a formula of payments based on property values, meaning that people living in wealthy neighbourhoods got more money than people in poor neighbourhoods. A judge later found the program to be racially discriminatory, noting that on average black families received about 40% less money through the program than white families, even when their rebuilding costs were the same.

From the very day they evacuated, public housing residents faced determined opposition to their return. Politicians, business leaders, and the daily paper were united in calling for an end to the big housing developments. Most white residents of New Orleans wanted to see public housing destroyed and a significant percentage of the black community did as well.

... homeless people from across the city launched a protest movement.

For advocates fighting for decent, affordable housing for all, it was a difficult position to be in. For decades, political attacks on public housing had succeeded in halting most repairs and upkeep, making the housing less and less desirable. So when the demolition orders came, activists were faced with the choice of either defending housing that was affordable but no longer decent, or accepting the housing's destruction. Led by public housing residents, activists protested, but resistance was fierce.

The lack of affordable housing was already leading to a rapid increase in homelessness. Less than a year after hurricane Katrina, advocates estimated that more than eleven thousand homeless individuals lived in the city – almost five percent of the city’s population at that time. In response to this crisis, homeless people from across the city launched a protest movement. They called themselves Homeless Pride and set up an encampment in the park across from city hall.

The camp should have served as a daily reminder to the city’s politicians of the results of their policies. However, no one from the mayor’s office or city council seemed to have a change of heart. Instead, they sent police to fence off the park. When Homeless Pride members set up a new encampment under a highway overpass a few blocks away, city officials worked with non-profits to quietly place the people from the encampment in temporary housing. Although this brought immediate improvement to the lives of many of the people living under the overpass, it also served to dampen the larger debate about the need for systemic solutions.

It appears this affordable housing crisis is not going away anytime soon – but it was both predictable and preventable.

As the call for systemic solutions became louder, the future of New Orleans public housing came down to a meeting at city hall a few days before Christmas of 2007. Activists were pessimistic about what would happen, but even with low expectations, the events of the day were traumatic. For the most part, supporters of public housing were denied a chance to speak. In fact, most were not even allowed into the building, despite the empty seats within. Defying vocal protests inside and outside the chambers, the city council voted unanimously to tear down the developments.

Public housing was replaced by Section 8 – a state subsidy to private landlords to rent to low income tenants. This massive privatisation move redirected hundreds of millions of dollars in government money to private landlords. The program is also ripe for abuse and discrimination. According to a study by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Centre, 82% of landlords in the city either refuse to accept Section 8 vouchers or add insurmountable requirements. The study found both discrimination on the part of landlords – 99% of Section 8 voucher holders in Orleans parish are black – and mismanagement on the part of the housing agency, which often left landlords and tenants with long delays in payment.

New Orleans today is smaller, wealthier, and whiter than it was before the storm. The city has gone from a pre-Katrina population of nearly 475,000, of which nearly 70% were African American, to around 375,000. Most of those who have not returned are African American, leaving the city about 60% Black today.

There are now 17,800 families receiving housing assistance in New Orleans through the Section 8 program. When the housing authority opened a brief window for new applications in 2009, nearly 30,000 people applied. Earlier this year, the authority began accepting applications for 51 units in a new smaller development, and more than 10,000 people applied. It appears this affordable housing crisis is not going away anytime soon – but it was both predictable and preventable.

Photo: “Q3133743-NOLA_Graffiti_web” by Aaron Ciuffo
2008 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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