HUD’s Vision: Neither Just Nor Humane

This weekend I caught up with some of my best friends at the Ft. Lauderdale wedding after-party of one of their old friends from NY (Yes, the M.A.S. and I are wedding crashers).  I had not seen my friend Shannon’s husband in forever; he immediately wanted to know if I was still working in New Orleans.

With his inquiries, my latest efforts to generate research funds for some NOLA summer projects, and The Washington Post’s appalling, inaccurate op-ed on the public housing lawsuit this past Monday, I needed no more signs that it was time for a little Redstar perspective on the latest in the Crescent City. 

For those of you who consider this blog a way to keep tabs on me, I have one project in New Orleans that requires one to two quarterly visits down there.  I continue to pursue some of the research projects I began last year as well, and I’m hoping that these will bring me back to the city for an extended period this summer.  These summer inquiries will shape where I’m headed with my dissertation.  So stay tuned, this is about as specific as I can get.  I was last in the city for a week in Jan/Feb, and have two trips planned this month.  Looking forward to it.

Moving on, from what I can glean, and according to the folks I know involved in the lawsuit, this Post article on public housing is heavily informed by the developers directly – i.e., this is a publicity stunt to sway public opinion in the direction of the developers, for whom proceeding on this $$$$ project is impossible given the lawsuit standing in the way.  There are many things to keep in mind to resist the slant of this op-ed:

1.  The Advancement Project (AP) is a civil rights firm based in Washington, D.C. that has taken on this legal battle on behalf of former public housing residents.  Anderson v. Jackson is a class action lawsuit (ever see Erin Brockovich?); the plaintiffs are 18 former tenants, 17 of them women, who asked the AP to represent them “in their own right and as representatives of all similar situated displaced New Orleans, Louisiana public housing residents.”  It is an injunction to prevent the demolition of public housing on behalf of more than 5,000 former tenants.  To make the AP the “enemy” in this op-ed is a shameful ploy to make invisible the actual families – predominantly the elderly and single mothers with children – who are fighting to save their former homes.

2.  The real culprits here are not the developers, either, despite any freedom fighter’s natural inclination to blame them for this delay.  The fault with the delay in re-opening public housing lies with HUD.  Doris Koo, the CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, one of the developers charged with rebuilding Lafitte (the first to go under HUD’s demolition plans in New Orleans), has a celebrated track record of one-to-one replacement of public housing in Seattle, as well as a long history of affordable housing development in low-income and minority communities.  Her development team has indeed voiced the commitment to replicate one-to-one replacement and community building after physical redevelopment on – and around – the former Lafitte site in New Orleans. 

This requires some extensive innovation and creative financing on the part of the developers, as HUD actively discourages the practice.  In fact, according to Assistant Secretary Orlando Cabrera, HUD does not

recommend a one-for-one replacement policy in any context. [The agency does not] believe that someone trying to develop units should be subject to that constraint. The constraint that they should be subject to is one of economic viability…one of the reasons Hope VI worked, incidentally, was because one-to-one was removed out of the Hope VI context.”

That’s funny, from what I knew the jury was still out on whether HOPE VI “worked.” Keep in mind, HUD’s HOPE VI program has been THE primary federal public housing revitalization strategy in the last fifteen years (1993-2003). Without question, it was a remarkable vehicle for financing resource-poor communities; estimates indicate that $5B in seed money over the decade leveraged an additional $11.4B in investments.  HOWEVER, it also exceeded its goal by 15% of demolishing 100,000 units of severely distressed public housing in the country, but produced only 60,000 “revitalized dwellings.â€? Furthermore, many areas shift merely from high poverty status to a more typical low-income profile.

Too often, the money that flowed towards these communities did not land in the pockets of the targeted residents in need of housing revitalization.  It exited with the developers, and or was used to bring in higher-income tenants as a critical ingredient for neighborhood improvement.  Studies show that many relocated residents disappear in the redevelopment process, or fare as poorly or worse due to displacement.  (Check out The Urban Institute for a wide range of evaluative reports on HOPE VI.)

There’s also the deeper issue of requiring “economic viability” for government subsidized housing for the poor, but I know you’d all like me to just keep on keepin’ on with the facts here. 

3.  Prior to Hurricane Katrina, HUD was slowly dismantling public housing in New Orleans via willful neglect (I say HUD vs. the local Housing Authority of New Orleans as they’ve been in federal receivership since 2002).   The Bush Administration has consistently reduced funding for public housing since 2000; according to the residents’ lawsuit, HUD had reduced the number of available units in New Orleans from 13,000 to 7,000 by shuttering rather than repairing them.  Plans for redevelopment of the four developments now in litigation were underway prior to the storm, and followed on several other mixed-income projects in other public housing communities around the city (the most notable, I need not remind you, being St. Thomas). 

Hurricane Katrina was a opportunity that HUD wasted no time in grabbing.  Despite its own post-storm survey that indicated 60% of residents planned to return, it physically barricaded the buildings with fences and metal plates over doors and windows, released false reports of the developments’ post-storm damage (countered by expert witnesses from MIT), and has put only 1,000 to 2,000 units back on-line in the almost two years since the storm.  The residents’ lawsuit was not even filed until July 27, 2006, 11 months after the storm.  Who’s to blame for the inaction of those first 11 months???

4.  Lest you’re becoming inclined to take a hard look at how your government treats the neediest in society, The WP takes a swing at our natural biases about public housing – and poor communities, more generally – as

“squalid and dangerous housing projects that were isolated cauldrons of dysfunction and pathology…gripped by drug and gang activity, making the projects among the most dangerous areas in the city.” (I just know the author of this piece was so pleased with his poetic slandering of public housing in that first phrase!)

Well, chalk one up for the environmental determinists!  With the shuttering of public housing, the drug and crime activity has seeped beyond these natural physical borders and now terrorizes the entire city.  Though it seems it’s not the ghosts of poor people past that are causing the skyrocketing murder rate, but the drug trade reorganizing itself in a post-storm world, with meaner and better-resourced gangs rolling in from Houston and elsewhere to fight it out for control of the disorganized city.  Somehow the WP has failed to mention the police and local government’s inability to fight crime before and after the storm, even though their competence was about as celebrated as HANO’s, which this op-ed makes sure to include.  Fair and balanced.  I love it.

5.  Finally, I know we’d love to pretend there’s no race issue here (and we definitely don’t have a problem with class!), but until we can prove this to poor, black people boxed out of their homes, I suggest we face up to the roles of race and class in this conflict.  The WP does its damnest to dismiss as conspiratorial the lawsuit’s claim that

“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.”

Of course, the WP tries to do so by aggregating the individual, institutional elites’ comments on race and class in an attempt to make them sound preposterous:

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.

Perhaps the recent report released by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center on post-storm rental discrimination against blacks might be more indicative of systemic “racial animus,” but what do I know, I’m just a privileged whitey.  And one who’s not very good at vacationing, apparently!


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