Tent City U.S.A.

After 7+ years of Bush, our economy is in the worst shape since the Depression.  Tent cities are even in the public consciousness.  These developments point to the consistent, callous pattern of government neglect and abdication of responsibility under the Bush Administration, who, along with a GOP-led Congress, put into overdrive the worst trends of three decades of government devolution. 

Take my favorite example of New Orleans, where a flourishing Tent City should come as no surprise to anyone following post-Katrina recovery trends.  One of the worst travesties of the destruction of public housing in New Orleans is the grossly inadequate replacement of subsidized housing units in the proposed mixed-income developments.  Only one proposal – Lafitte – includes one-for-one replacement, in part because one of the development partners, Enterprise Community Partners, knows first hand the success of this model from past public housing renovation in Seattle.

A significant number of developer/do-gooder transplants to New Orleans hail from affluent cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle, which tend to have highly competitive, sophisticate and activist affordable housing development sectors.*  They bring these high-capacity models of affordable housing development with them to New Orleans.  Yet, several fundamental problems in New Orleans impede their replication. 

Obviously, all cities have unique socio-political cultures and different demographics.  That New Orleans is a distinctive place in the nation cannot be overstated.  Second, the political economy of New Orleans was weak prior to the storm, and is in tatters now.  Most of the non-profit and civil society actors in the city are trying to fill a serious void left by the financially eviscerated city government.  Third, and most problematically, the massive displacement of the poorest and most vulnerable, the overall whitening of the population, and a corresponding shift to a more conservative, middle-class urban politics, makes alive and well the spirit of Rep. Baker’s (R-Baton Rouge, LA) comment

“We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

This spirit is driving local and national decision-making behind affordable housing development in post-Katrina New Orleans. 

At the conference I was at in NOLA two weeks ago, in a panel on affordable housing development tenant activists routinely questioned the featured scholars, researchers and developers on the issue of displacement.  It came up over and over again, no matter how strenuously the panelists tried to frame market-based housing solutions as an overall positive for cities and low-income residents.  Cities like Boston et al. are not acting out of any unique urban altruism to retain low-income households, but out of political necessity (votes) and reality (suburban political power and NIMBY-esque zoning + federal funding for cities for low-income populations).  When one of the poorest cities in the country like New Orleans sees a silver lining in Katrina displacing a significant percentage of its neediest tenants all at once – versus the slow trickle generated in other cities in the last twenty years – you can be damn sure the political elites will do everything in their power to keep those folks out. 

They owe a big thanks to the GOP-dominated government we had until 2007, who denied the HUD and Medicaid funds that could have flowed to properly shelter, care for and bring home these families after Katrina.  Actions like this reflect the same spirit behind the massive funding cuts to HUD and HHS Programs and the complete absence of regulation of the housing and homeownership boom that contribute now to rising rates of foreclosures and homelessness nationwide. 

A national pollster at the NOLA conference talked about widespread Katrina fatigue, accompanied by a sense of “we’ve got our own problems now.”  No doubt.  I just hope that as we turn inward to deal with local economic insecurity and crisis, we all remember that post-Katrina New Orleans was never the exception, but the harshest of realities for our country. 


1 Response to “Tent City U.S.A.”

  1. 1 Jerry Lee Mayeux
    January 21, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Consider the Connection to:
    President Obama & Congress
    It will take The White House, Congress, and the people.
    Please visit:www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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