22
Jan
07

It’s My Turn…

Seems I’m not the only one witnessing a slow, but serious shift in our political arena.  Get ready for a new range of righteous claims to our political throne (don’t think I’m not taking copious notes!).  We have the likes of Obama saying it’s his/our/no longer “their” turn (sure, he’s referencing a broader theme, but coming from him, it doesn’t sound like much beyond an expected pitch of why he’s the best man for the job), and the progressive blogosphere heralding the movement underpinning their political action (there’s more to it than being wired, though that’s the highlighted characteristic here). 

Wesley has some crisp analysis on Hillary’s announcement, and some helpful links to further coverage.  The comments posted beneath the TPM Cafe links are most telling.  Hillary’s gender has not been directly referenced, but rather is pegged as an essential cause (consider it an interaction effect with her desire to also distinguish herself from the records of her past, i.e., her husband’s divisive presidency) behind her need to be “hawkish” on Iraq – the position that appears to be the deal-killer for most Dems that might otherwise consider her a serious candidate. 

Meanwhile, I’m watching Katrina pop up more frequently in these early days of the presidential race, much more so than in the midterms.  The popular reference appears to be the “destruction” of an “American city” on Bush’s watch.   Just as I cringe everytime Bush invokes 9/11 in attempts to plug the holes in his rapidly sinking presidency, I can feel myself tensing up as Democratic hopefuls regularly check Katrina off on the GOP’s list of horrendous failures over the last 6 years (I don’t disagree with them, but where was the outcry 18 months ago?  And where are the plans to redress what’s certainly irrevokably lost at this point?).  I am spending this week trying to flush out a dissertation question so I can eventually graduate from this seemingly-endless journey through the hallowed halls of academia, and for the last couple days I’ve been reading coverage of rebuilding post 9/11 and post-Katrina, from the anniversaries of the 2 disasters until today. 

The Times published a thought-provoking article yesterday about a sustainable post-Katrina New Orleans, and it speaks to the larger truth that disasters typically set in motion trends already in effect, trends that ultimately shape the new communities that grow up around survivors.  Reading 18 months of coverage on the political wrangling over rebuilding affordable housing in New Orleans, and 5 years of efforts to shift Lower Manhattan from a predominantly commercial district to a more mixed, residential-commercial community, reveals how changes in residential composition of the two cities were well underway before they were accelerated by the terrorist attacks and hurricane. In Lower Manhattan, conversions of office to residential properties was in effect prior to September 11 as a means to fill a growing gap in commercial tenants, and this transformation proved to be the necessary salve to restore vibrancy and life to Lower Manhattan long before commercial tenants were priced out of Midtown and forced to reconsider Lower Manhattan once again as a place to do business.  Despite this conversion having pre-9/11 roots, real estate execs, downtown officials, and even local residents often describe the new downtown of luxury apartments, schools, parks and boutiques as “unforeseen.” 

Similarly, in New Orleans, HUD was in the process of dismantling public housing long before Katrina presented them with the enormous opportunity to finish the job; indeed, this effort is part of the national trend of the last decade to replace public housing (at an overall lost of units) with the more popular, en vogue but questionably successful mixed-use housing.  Proposals to rebuild housing in Louisiana, supported by federal tax credits, offer the more difficult and decidely political approach of developing mixed-income projects, versus the easier, cheaper and more conventional approach of building affordable housing.  This is despite the fact that Southern Louisiana desperately needs as many units as possible, and that both state and HUD officials have cautioned Blanco and the LRA against mixed-income that have a higher risk of not being built due to prohibitive costs and insurance.  Leaving out the fact that there’s not a huge market for mixed-income in an area where the average monthly public housing rent was $85/month, and we could use some clarification from the State on their vision for the Orleans metro area that pointedly is trying to transform a pre-Katrina city (for better and for worse; while folks might not want to see the same levels of poverty return, they also are rightfully proud of their historic single- and two-family homes and are likely to be unsupportive of larger-scale apartment complex developments that are neither appropriate for the architectural character of the city nor designed to withstand hurricanes.

  River Garden

 

Like Lower Manhattan, we should expect the New Orleans of the future to be a remarkably different place than people’s memories of the pre-Katrina city.  New Orleans, and Katrina’s devastation, nonetheless illustrate the dire affordable housing situation we face in this country – victims in New Orleans extend beyond the very-low-income residents that populated the Housing Authority’s waiting lists and include the middle-income residents who had all their equity tied up in their homes and now lack enough to rebuild, and face losing the primary material asset that placed them squarely in within America’s celebrated and apparently at-risk middle-class.  While we may see former public housing residents on tv and pity them, offering our sympathy, it is empathy that we have for these other Katrina victims.  Unfortunately, we see how much more similar the plights of these different groups have become after Katrina’s wrath, and the botched government efforts – at all levels – to offer adequate assistance to resettle, rebuild and generally re-start lives in safer, more secure settings. 

It’s clear most New Orleanians are not coming back, in the near future, or possibly ever.  But beyond that, as Americans, we should be aghast at the holes the Bush administration has ripped in our government safety net that might be of need to all Americans at some point in their lives, not just the very poor, who are merely the most frequent users of the system.  As post-Katrina insurance rates (at 2-6x pre-storm prices) and the very existence of the government flood insurance program demonstrates, the private market will not bail Americans out of unforeseen catastrophes like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.  It’s times like this that we need strong, reliable government intervention, not the disastrous discovery that the government’s been toppled and looted as well. 

I’ll be listening to Hillary, Obama and the rest of the Dem crew for their new and innovative ideas as our collective desert wandering of the last 6 years starts to come to an end. 

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