Public Enemy #1

I’ve written extensively here about HUD’s efforts to demolish half the public housing in New Orleans, a project underway since long before the storm, in part due to what is known as “demolition by neglect.” (The local Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), has been in receivership and under HUD control since the early 2000s.)  HUD/HANO’s machinations in the Crescent City are part of a larger, much longer movement in the U.S. to get the government out of the business of housing the poor, though mortgage subsidies, especially for the wealthiest Americans, continue to be a core staple.  In addition to a class action lawsuit filed against HUD for refusing to re-open public housing, a House-Senate bill for affordable housing in the Gulf Coast would re-open 3,000 public housing units, guarantee any one-for-one replacement should demolition occur, require demolition be in phases and reflect residential input on redevelopment. 

I am repeatedly amazed that post-Katrina criticisms of HUD/HANO stem far beyond the vociferous cries of displaced tenants and a small group of righteous activists who fight for the future of public housing.  In meetings with heads of national community development organizations, foundations, and other large institutions, I hear the same complaints of stonewalling by HUD: how dealing with them is like “dealing with the devil,” how municipal and regional leaders can’t “get a call back from [them],” and so on.  The complaints – and shock – are widespread among individuals used to having at least the appearance of a two-way conversation with politicos.

So, it is with great pleasure to see one settlement reached in a case filed against HANO by a former public housing tenant who was denied an apartment promised to her in the River Gardens mixed-income development that replaced the St. Thomas projects prior to Hurricane Katrina.  A settlement requires that HANO and River Garden set aside fixed numbers of affordable units for former tenants, including some specifically for the elderly, and some for first-time homebuyers in current and planned buildings going up on the site.  In addition, “other HANO clients, defined as anyone who is, or was of Aug. 28, 2005, living in public housing or getting Section 8 vouchers to rent private housing,” are also prioritized for the units.  The settlement requires River Garden management to adequately market the available units, including “to the many former HANO tenants who are still Katrina evacuees [by posting] information about available River Garden units “in the housing authority offices in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, and Houston.” 

Perhaps more pleasurable than the actual outcomes are the words the judge reserved for HUD/HANO’s brutal, roughshod treatment of its Gulf Coast tenants, in which he lambasted River Garden and HANO for leasing “units meant for St. Thomas residents to HANO management employees at rates designed only for low- or no-income occupants.”

“The scorn and incompetence visited upon those citizens in such perilous need set a new low for federally supported agencies, whose very reason for existence was to provide decent low-income housing,” Beer said, deriding HANO for putting its own employees in River Garden “all the while playing bureaucratic games with those whose lack of education or understanding left them essentially without an avenue of relief.”

“The central tragedy here is that their callous and indifferent ‘leadership’ was not unlike that which stalked our city generally after Hurricane Katrina,” Beer wrote. “That same, self-serving, uncaring, ‘pass the buck’ bureaucratic swampland followed the examples set by city, state and federal officials.”

His only mistake, I’d counter, is his use of the past tense “stalked” and “followed,” and his limiting of this “callous and indifferent ‘leadership'” to the city. 


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