The Untouchables

For thousands of evacuees like Ms. Cole, going home to New Orleans has become a vague and receding dream. Living in bleak circumstances, they cannot afford to go back, or have nothing to go back to. Over the two years since Hurricane Katrina hit, the shock of evacuation has hardened into the grim limbo of exile.

“We in storage,� said Ann Picard, 49, cocking her arm toward the blind white cracker box of a house she shares with Ms. Cole, her niece, and Ms. Cole’s three children. “We just in storage.�

Here’s hoping we can get this coverage on New Orleans evacuees to surpass this foolishness on the NYT’s most e-mailed list (and even place it on the most blogged list!).

The Times today offers a seriously depressing and enraging view into the lives of the (most likely permanently) displaced from New Orleans, a population that includes sizable numbers of the elderly, disabled, low-waged and unemployed. In addition to describing in vivid detail the daily struggle of more than 43,000 families living in “limbo” in FEMA-subsidized apartments and trailer parks – the latter where public transportation stops only a couple times per week, and “hunger is so prevalent that lines form when the truck from the food bank appears” – the article also covers the absolute failure or resistance of government at all levels to assist renters from either coming home or rebuilding their lives in their new locations.

A summary of malevolent government action and inaction, and what you can do, after the jump.

At the Federal and State Level:

– Providing government grants and tax credits to cover redevelopment of only 21 percent of the 77,000 rental units in the five parishes in the New Orleans metropolitan area…”with a disproportionate number for families on teacher or police officer salaries, rather than much lower-paid home health aides or hotel clerks.” (For a complete evaluation of government rental assistance, click here.)

– Failure to prevent rent gouging and housing discrimination;

– Often in response to NIMBY outcries, segregating households in trailer parks off public transportation grids, miles from supermarkets and employment opportunities (keep in mind the 100,000 stranded in New Orleans after Katrina were predominantly those without access to private transportation);

– Refusal to date to re-open Charity Hospital, “where the poor received heavily subsidized medical care”;

– Allocating a disproportionate and unfair amount of federal funds for homeowners: $6.3 billion versus “$869 million allocated to the Small Rental Property Program, which housing advocates say is the most likely to replace affordable units quickly”; (The “Louisiana Recovery Authority, which controls the money, recently voted to transfer 5 percent of the budget for renters to the fund for homeowners,” though the LRA claims it is “temporary” and expects Washington to “replace the money down the road.” Fat chance!)

And lest we think discrimination plays out only in seemingly isolated and idiosyncratic episodes like what we’re witnessing in Jena, LA right now, take a look at the systematic efforts in local municipalities to prevent these “new pariahs” from remaining in their host cities and towns. Local jurisdictions are throwing up “legal barriers” such as

“revoking permits for trailers or allowing their zoning exemptions to expire,” impacting “families still living in 7,400 trailers across the Gulf Coast, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group based in Washington that has sued to stop the evictions.” Joseph D. Rich, project director for fair housing and community development with the committee, said “There are severe racial overtones to these actions,â€? he said. “Because there’s all this concern that black and low-income people will be coming into your neighborhood.â€?


“[preventing] the construction or repair of rental units, including elderly housing and multifamily buildings. “You have some people that just lack any degree of civilization,â€? said Chris Roberts, a Jefferson Parish councilman who has fought to remove FEMA trailers and block subsidized housing developments. “I think low-income housing which is not properly run invites those people.â€?

(The article also offers some insidious details on employer discrimination.)

For a change, I’m not ending this post on only an angry tirade, but taking a cue from my Pandagon and Friends of Justice peeps and pointing out how we can help. In March, the House passed the progressive H.R. 1227, the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007 that provided federal funds for affordable housing re-development and construction and guaranteed, among other things, the re-opening of public housing, one-to-one replacement of public housing should any of it be demolished, and legitimate resident participation in redevelopment of public housing. Critically, this bill guaranteed the “right to return” for former public housing residents. The Senate recently introduced its own version, S. 1668, that is remarkably similar, if less committed to the rights of former residents of New Orleans. This bill also guarantees the re-opening of some public housing and one-to-one replacement of former units, and adds even more funds for affordable housing construction. Both bills have support from prominent low-income and African-American advocacy groups, incl. the NAACP, ACORN, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and others. So, the easiest thing to do is to contact your representative in the House and Senate and tell them you support this legislation (remember, the last time Gulf Coast funds came through they were packaged in the Iraq Omnibus bill!!).

For those of you engaged in the struggles for racial and economic equity and justice, human rights and equitable development, there is work to be done in merging the explicit commitment to the “right to return” of the House Bill with the easily violated requirements of HUD’s “best efforts” in the Senate Bill. Furthermore, the failure to require the re-opening of all public housing, versus only occupied units, in the Senate bill, completely ignores the long, long waiting list for public housing in New Orleans prior to Katrina, as well as the increased need for subsidized housing since the 2005 hurricane season further eroded the precarious economic situations of so many. The reliance on project-based vouchers – and any policy euphemistically described as “housing choice” – will need to be monitored and enforced, as voucher programs, while widespread, leave families particularly vulnerable to the whims of the market, especially the participation of landlords in an extremely tight, extremely expensive rental housing market now. The requirement that FEMA-assisted families be transferred to Section 8 assistance after January 1, 2008 is a good one, but is also already under ideological fire from Republicans. A discursive fight awaits us.

Finally, these struggles over rights, development, repatriation, access, mobility, equity and justice are underway at the local level, by individual organizations and coalitions such as the STEPS Coalition in Mississippi, The LA Disaster Advocacy Project (LA-DAP) in Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast Action Network. From the grassroots level rises the real energy for self-determination, local control and participation in policy making, development and recovery.


6 Responses to “The Untouchables”

  1. July 12, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    A couple of things:

    – as much as the parking space story in Manhattan is typically upscale of the Times, that too has to do with forced scarcity of things that I think actually has some serious topics lurking within it. As much as New Yorkers want to rely on public transportantion and all, there’s something troubling about parking spaces for sale out of reach to all but millionaires.

    – second, and I think I will try and write this myself, what struck me immediately about the Times story on these folks in the trailers was that no one talks about protecting renters. We have a lot of polite platitudes for home ownership – that’s the American Dream, after all – but no one seems to give a damn for renters. And as one, I find it appalling.

    PS, nice work at Pandagon. 🙂

  2. July 12, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    People only care about renters as a potential homeownership pool.

  3. July 13, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks to Sheezlebub at Pandagon for bringing some of the info I provided re: philanthropy, activism and legislation re: the Gulf Coast into wider circulation!!!


  4. July 13, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Thanks for the housing information. It seems so useless to so many. The New York Times wrote another article on exiles http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/12/us/nationalspecial/12exile.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

  5. July 13, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    Thank you for this, Leigh!

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