Making the Poor Count

Is the title of my latest post on poverty and population shifts at TPM Cafe, and reflective of the Housing Authority of New Orleans’s (HANO) public meeting that I witnessed tonight. By now, all Redstar Perspective readers are familiar with the struggle over public housing in this city, and obvious champions of redevelopment alternatives to the outright, rapid demolition of 5,000+ proposed by HUD.  Former public housing residents and their advocates are with you.

Picture a mainly black crowd with a smattering of white faces, journalists crawling everywhere, and two police forces filling an old school high school auditorium.  A screen opened over the wooden stage to capture a power point presentation, with the heavy green drapes pushed to the sides and displaying “JMcD” in gold letters overhead (for John McDonogh High School).

Essentially, the meeting was a farce – for a public agency to proceed with such a demolition project requires public input, and HANO accordingly explained their presence there tonight as mandatory. (This process “requires residential consultation which is tonight’s meeting.” Please sum up your life’s experience with public housing, poverty, Katrina, displacement and economic and social insecurity in the three minute comment period provided to you, given you signed up to comment when you arrived.  No response will be provided tonight, but your comments will be “duly noted.”  Thank you, and God bless.)

While activists and residents crowded the central aisle of the high school auditorium where the meeting took place, relentlessly chanting and acting generally obstructionist, HANO employees pleaded with them to sit down so the meeting could begin. The young black woman beside me in a back row decided all the meeting handouts/redevelopment propaganda she was leafing through were lies, and she got up and slid past me to “go with the people.”  (By now marching around the auditorium to accompany the chanting – “No Demolition!” and “Bring People Home!” / “Now!”  This last one had a cool call and response rhythm.)

HANO Public Meeting, 11.29.06

HANO eventually gave up and started the meeting anyway, about 15 minutes late, and one small woman gave a rather meek and quick powerpoint presentation of converting 5,000+ units into ~1,600 while the noise and civil disobedience continued.  Another employee spoke after her, again barely audible over the din, and these two portions of the meeting were concluded in about 20 minutes.  At 6:35pm, the agenda turned to the resident comment period.  The second to last and most important agenda item, with still 2 hours and 25 minutes to go.

There’s a reason I was overwhelmed with despair when I touched down on Monday afternoon.  Tonight was a free for all of desolation, confusion, outrage, righteous indignation, and role play.   An entourage of black women, young and old, one after another – the mostly single mothers who have raised their families in these developments over generations – came up to the microphone to comment on HUD’s plans.   The occasional male resident, politician and activist joined them.   Here’s a highlight of the comments through 7:30, by which point the lack of constructive action and general helplessness of both residents and HANO – despite the former’s energy and passion – became too much for me.

“Where [are] people going to stay if you [are] tearing down everything?”

“The development I lived in is better than the house I rent.”  (HANO has increased the value of their vouchers 120% due to the increased rents for housing in the city.)

“Why can’t you do [development] in phases…to get the people home?”

“….all the units of Lafitte are livable…why can’t y’all open Lafitte and let those people come home?”  (Parts of Lafitte flooded but the water did not reach the first floor units.)

“…the housing developments are the strongest ones in the city…you in power are not being told [what’s really going on]….you are being used…who’s getting the money for the iron and steel coming out of those buildings…”

“why would [you] take those projects and not allow [residents] to come back?  They did not leave of their own volition…they have a right to return…”

From a contractor raised in public housing who was offered a piece of the pie: “why should I tear down what raised me?”

From a housing activist and former resident (I believe): “HUD is in violation of resident participation…[we are] not opposed to redevelopment, we are opposed to this process…we have a right to be involved…our residents are being abused in Dallas, TX, in Houston, TX…crime is a social issue in this city, it is not about those buildings…women live in the buildings…men are on the streets killing each other…”

It was brutal, and completely juxtaposed by the 2 year old toddling around beside me in the aisle, trying to take my notebook and occasionally suggestively laying her hand on my arm while she smiled up at me.  Even though some activists spoke about residents rising up and taking back the housing (leading residents in “I Shall Not be Moved” or telling them not to “wait for permission to return…” I.e., the lone Iberville project is open because residents “didn’t allow their G-d-given right of having a home be taken away from them.”), generally the sentiment in the room was one of disbelief, bewilderment, and total victimization.  How can HUD/HANO/the government/politicians/people in power do this to us?   How can we not be allowed to come home?  How can they take my home?  We deserve to come home.   Bring us home!  The buildings HUD plans to tear down are merely symbolic of a struggle much much deeper than the publicized rhetoric of de-concentrating poverty.

The comments indicate residents are not opposed to redevelopment, if it is in phases, reflects their and their families’ needs, and thus offers an affordable place to live in the city now and in the future.   From 5,200 to 1,600 with zero guarantee of one-to-one replacement, there’s nothing in this plan that promises residents any reasonable public assistance in the future.  Using Katrina as the opportunity to terminate without warning the public benefit of affordable housing that over 5,000 households relied on and need particularly during a post-hurricane period of hardship is a fundamental crime here.  (Qualifying for and covering fair market rents with post-Katrina Section 8 vouchers has been notoriously difficult.)  Approximately 5% of the units under question were marked for demolition and renovation before the storm; HUD has used Katrina to take another 4,500 to the chopping block.  In FY2006 alone, HUD will eliminate 50% of the public housing in New Orleans.

Debating the merits of public housing is not the core issue in this fight.  It is about an assault on the poor, what one researcher calls our country’s “politics of disposability.”  It is about who has a reasonable expectation of and right to basic economic security and freedom in this country, including an expectation of government assistance to facilitate economic mobility (such as for the middle class in the tax breaks for homeownership we receive).  It is about who deserves this assistance and opportunity, and who does not.  None of us are immune to casting judgment in this sense, and looking to our own accumulated assets as demonstrative of our success and self-worth.  We are not a country of zen Buddhists by any means.

Nonetheless, this calculated move by HUD to topple the housing-of-last-resort in one of our country’s poorest cities, one now with a demonstrative housing crisis (universally felt by all New Orleanians, as the city and reconstruction industry are both abysmally short on workers), is not only mean-spirited but a complete abdication of government responsibility.  I challenge even those who believe in smaller government and self-reliance to sanction this as a sensible response to the storm.   The city needs temporary housing, host communities don’t want to permanently inherit another’s urban poor, people want to be reunited with their homes and neighbors, and the FEMA trailer solution is costing us $70k – $140k a pop (with 99,000 families currently calling these places home).  Surely this is not the leaner, meaner government we’re looking for?

We don’t have poor people’s movements in this country anymore, and nothing short of such an occurrence is going to reclaim these housing units.  Such energy is found in immigrants’ rights and labor movements these days, and as I’ve written elsewhere, there is a sharp disconnect between the predominantly Latin@ make-up of this activism and the disenfranchisement of New Orleans and the rest of America’s black, urban poor.

I know that most of my readers are not leaping from their chairs inspired by these posts to run out and unite with the workers of the world.   But if notions of equity and government responsibility run through your head just often enough for you to wonder for one moment longer about the lives of your grocery deliverymen or hotel cleaning women, and connect those fleeting thoughts to the policies and politicians you support, then I’ve done my job here tonight.

“They call me bad.  They call you bad.  We’re not.  Keep [your] values…and the love…and spread it…”
– public housing resident, New Orleans, November 29, 2006


2 Responses to “Making the Poor Count”

  1. November 30, 2006 at 9:35 am

    It’s an absolute embarrassment what has gone on in New Orleans since Katrina, and it’s a disgrace that this recovery process hasn’t come farther along. Excellent post, Leigh. Be safe and good luck down in there!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: