Saturday, August 18, 2007

A political storm - Two years after Hurricane Katrina, many of N. O.'s poorest have not returned. Is this what some in the city really wanted?

A political storm - Two years after Hurricane Katrina, many of N. O.'s poorest have not returned. Is this what some in the city really wanted?
By Christopher Grimes
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 18 2007 03:00 | Last updated: August 18 2007 03:00

The last couple of hundred miles before reaching New Orleans have always filled me with nervous energy. On long, youthful drives there, I used to get a special jolt somewhere around Mobile, Alabama - only two more hours, I would think, and I'll be feasting on pink crawfish tails, Gulf Coast oysters and Louisiana boudin, all washed down with cold Dixie beer. But I felt a different sensation as my aircraft prepared to land on a clear, humid morning this spring. I had not been to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and I was worried that I wasn't prepared to see the city in shambles. I am a native southerner, and, like many southerners, I consider New Orleans to be our Paris - for its romantic, haunted architecture, for its jazz and for its different rhythm of life. I was ready for ruined houses, but I was not sure I could handle New Orleans if its spirit seemed broken.

I was greeted by signs of storm damage - I saw a piece of twisted roofing still lodged in a treetop - but also resilience. Broadmoor, a low-lying neighbourhood that some planners thought was not worth rebuilding, was alive with workers. Spirited residents displayed placards reading "Broadmoor Lives!" in their yards and on signposts, showing a determination to rebuild no matter what the men with the flood maps said.

Edging into the Garden District, I was struck, as always, by the grand 19th-century mansions built from cotton, sugar and shipping fortunes. They were still there, along with wide, columned front porches, flickering gaslights and lush gardens. Fortified with strong New Orleans chicory coffee, I headed down St Charles Avenue - by bus, as the streetcar was not working - to the French Quarter. Nothing seemed out of place: I found Johnny's Po-Boys, where I ate an oozing and delicious soft-shell crab sandwich. Private-equity executives were in town for a conference, splashing cash around the city's hotels and restaurants.

From the horse-drawn carriages waiting outside Jackson Square to the shapely pair of legs swinging out of a strip club's second- floor window, the Quarter looked much like the place I had fallen in love with nearly 20 years earlier. Aside from a few boarded-up windows, the most noticeable legacy of the storm was the darkly humorous T-shirts in the souvenir shops. One made reference to the looting that followed the storm: "I stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was this lousy T-shirt, a new Cadillac and a plasma TV."

Uptown, the Garden District and the French Quarter are crucial to the city's tourism business, and all sit on high ground. If I had confined myself to these areas, I would have left New Orleans believing that the city was on its way to a full recovery. But large swathes of New Orleans remain desolate. In some neighbourhoods - Gentilly, New Orleans East, Lakeview, to name a few - swinging hammers and buzzing saws provide evidence of the struggle to reclaim the city. But in the poorest quarters, I was greeted by an ominous silence.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans' population stands at about 250,000 - down from 450,000 before the storm. Former residents are scattered around the country - in Texas, across the deep South and further west. Some of the scattered are African-American and among New Orleans' poorest and most vulnerable former residents; surveys show that most want to return home, but feel they cannot. Some cite a lack of affordable housing - the depleted housing stock has sent rents skyrocketing - and some say they don't want to withdraw their children from the schools in the areas to which they have relocated.

The US federal government's housing department has developed a controversial plan that it says will help some of the poorest residents return while also eliminating the segregation and violence that marked many lives before the storm. Alfonso Jackson, appointed by President Bush to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has outlined a plan to bulldoze some of New Orleans' most notorious housing projects - home to over 5,000 families before the storm - and replace them with mixed housing. "They deserve new homes in a socially and economically integrated environment, where their children can play safely and the families can thrive, not in row houses that were built 30 years ago to house people to keep them away from everybody else," Jackson said in June.

Jackson's plan has been hotly debated. A coalition of preservationists, advocates for the poor and some residents are seeking to stop the bulldozers, saying that the New Orleans housing projects are well-built and worth preserving - particularly at a time when the city faces a severe housing shortage. Even more serious is their accusation that the hurricane is being used as an excuse to rid New Orleans of the largely African-American population that occupied most of the projects.

It was only when I reached the Central City neighbourhood, home to the Lafitte houses, one of the projects on HUD's list to be bulldozed, that I began to appreciate the extent of the damage to the city. As my car rose on to an elevated highway, acres of ruined houses spread out below, topped with flapping, blue-plastic tarpaulins, placed on roofs to keep out the rain. Unlike in Broadmoor, there did not appear to be much work being done to repair the houses.

It is eerie to walk among the silent remains of a community whose life has been interrupted suddenly by an urgent need to leave. The sight of mundane everyday objects - dishes stacked in a sink, shoes strewn across a floor - stirs the instinct to flee. Surrounded by chain-link fences, their doors bolted shut by the authorities, the neat rows of beaten yet solid, three-storey brick buildings - constructed during the 1940s, the golden years of American public- works projects - seemed like a forgotten relic of another time. The stillness and the emptiness was chilling. But after walking the grounds, I could understand why historic preservationists wanted to save them. First there is their size. Instead of the imposing high- rises that have been demolished in recent years in American cities such as Chicago - most famously, its notorious Cabrini-Green houses - these are compact brick buildings, with only four flats in each unit. Decorative wrought iron, painted deep red, lines the second- floor balconies and ground-floor porches. Elegant old oaks line the grounds.

And the construction looks solid, which, according to a study by engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is. From the outside, it was hard to see evidence of the destructive powers of strong wind, heavy rain or flood waters. Open the padlocked door of one of the units, however, and the signs of flooding are apparent. Dark black mould creeps up the walls. Children's toys and clothing lie scattered across the floor where the water left them when it receded, along with family photographs, Mardi Gras beads, sporting trophies and sofa cushions. Carpets, furniture, mattresses, colouring books - they all bear the dark stains left by filthy water, which rose a foot or more inside the flats. The air is dank. Still, I left wondering whether this damage was enough to warrant destroying the buildings.

The debate over what to do with these buildings has been conducted in Congressional hearings, a federal lawsuit and a number of confrontational protests in the two years since Hurricane Katrina struck. It has kept alive the difficult discussions about race and racism in New Orleans that began with harrowing images of residents, many of them African-American and poor, trapped on rooftops in the days after the flooding. Mistrust is in the air, especially when the subject turns to who might live in the planned new developments. Oliver Thomas, a black member of the New Orleans city council, angered some by insinuating that former public- housing residents had been unwilling to work, and were unwelcome back in the city. "We don't need soap-opera watchers," he said. Jackson, who is also black, told reporters that "only the best residents" should be allowed to return to public housing in the city. "It's important [to remember] that everybody suffered in this disaster, not just black people," he said. A black New Orleans official retorted that Jackson should remember what colour he is.

Although Jackson says the debate should not be about race, it is. Bill Quigley, a law professor at New Orleans' Loyola University who has been active in civil rights and public-housing issues for 30 years, points out that nothing happens in New Orleans without race having something to do with it. "The federal government wants those buildings demolished and wants those people scattered. They have this racist, paternalistic attitude."

The Lafitte houses, along with a nearby complex called Iberville, were once models of public housing. Social services were offered to residents in the hope that they would get the leg up they needed to move up and out, but these services fell away decades ago amid mismanagement and corruption at the local housing authority.

"I remember when Lafitte was built," says Emelda Paul, who grew up nearby and eventually moved into the complex 30 years ago. "It was a beautiful place. Families were involved in the school system and involved in the church. The children were well-behaved, and the neighbours helped raise your children." She recalled open-air performances by future members of the Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty and a singer who sounded like Jackie Wilson.

Paul raised three daughters and also witnessed the decline of the fabric of life there. Though she says she was never scared to walk in the complex at night - "I was well-respected" - she concedes that Lafitte had more than its share of problems. "Time brings change," she says. "Children wouldn't listen to you. Babies were having babies." Others are more explicit, saying that heroin and, later, crack cocaine, played havoc at Lafitte and other projects, while the inept New Orleans housing authority failed to maintain the houses.

After Katrina, which hastened the death of her sister, Paul left the city to stay with family in Arizona. Since returning this year - she is now living in new government housing across the Mississippi in the Algiers section - Paul has become a prominent voice in the debate over the future of public housing in the city. And, while she loves Lafitte for what it once was, she is a proponent of building new housing on the land.

"I want things better. I don't want to go back to it like [it was]. I had mould in my home way before Katrina. I want to see people coming back to something decent," she told a congressional subcommittee in February. These comments earned her loud hoots of derision from activists and some of her fellow residents.

The plan for New Orleans - to replace the old housing projects with new developments that are less dense and available to residents of varying income levels - is rooted in a national policy shift that began in the late 1980s. The movement began after Congress created the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing in 1989, which found that tens of thousands of the nation's 1.3 million public-housing units were unfit for habitation. In 1992, the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched the Hope VI programme, which marked an end to the philosophy that underpinned housing policy in the US for half a century. New developments would now, more often than not, be built in partnership with private or non-profit groups, and they would strive to be "mixed income", and "diverse" - in other words, they would no longer house only poor families.

Some public-housing residents would be awarded vouchers, allowing them to rent apartments in other neighbourhoods, while others would live in the new developments. The goal was to break up "entrenched" poverty, rid the complexes of violence and foster stable families. The programme is "one of the most ambitious urban redevelopment effort's in the nation's history", according to a 2004 Urban Institute study.

Though Hope VI does not have a perfect record, many cities - including Chicago and Atlanta - have been effectively phasing it in over the past decade. Those plans often met local opposition, too, but independent experts say they have tended to produce positive results. Unfortunately, New Orleans - which had some of the worst public housing in the US - has had a dismal record. "There is a long history of terrible management of public housing in New Orleans," says the Urban Institute's Sue Popkin. Mismanagement was so great that HUD, the federal housing group, was forced to take over the Housing Authority of New Orleans in 2002.

Even before Katrina, federal housing officials were trying to emulate the programmes happening in Atlanta and elsewhere in New Orleans. It razed old buildings and built new mixed housing in its place. Some of these, including Desire (like the famous streetcar) and another called Florida, were badly damaged by Katrina before they were completed. Critics point to these storm-damaged homes to support their contention that the old projects are of higher quality than the new developments, and should simply be rehabilitated instead of replaced. But work is underway to rebuild the new projects. In June, officials marked the re-opening of some of the Desire houses. "This is a blessing," Debra Davis, president of the Desire residents' council, told the New Orleans Times- Picayune.

Another of the new developments withstood Katrina. River Garden, a cheerful if slightly prefab development, emerged from the storm with almost no damage. River Garden, built by private developers who were granted tax credits, is touted by housing officials as an example of what it wants to achieve in New Orleans. Its neat streets were filled with people returning home from work on the day that I visited. Yet, instead of bolstering the government's case for its plan to build similar redevelopments, the River Garden houses are viewed with suspicion by opponents. The critics say only a small fraction of the buildings are occupied by the former public-housing residents. Understandably, those public-housing residents say it has been a success. "It makes you feel like a home owner," Alfreda Carter, who has a two-bedroom apartment, told the Times-Picayune this summer.

River Garden is not far from a busy Wal-Mart store, whose presence is a remarkable break from the past. "These communities have long been under-served by retail stores, quality education and high- quality grocery stores," says Stacy Head, a member of the New Orleans city council. "Residents sometimes would have to take two or three buses to get to a decent grocery store."

But the design of River Garden and other new HUD developments has also drawn harsh comment from architecture critics and preservationists. Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic at The New York Times, has called them "generic" and an affront to the city's urban fabric. "The housing agencies' tabula rasa planning mentality recalls the worst aspects of the postwar modernist agenda, which substituted a suburban model of homogeneity for an urban one of diversity."

Some of the newer pastel-coloured houses, with modest front yards and porches, do seem to have been designed to evoke a nostalgic ideal of suburban life that probably never existed. On the other hand, it seems to be popular with the residents, who have planted gardens in front of their houses and decorated their porches with hanging flower baskets.

The development group that HUD has commissioned to redevelop Lafitte, Providence Community Housing, an arm of Catholic Charities, is seeking to blunt such criticism by surveying residents to find out what style of buildings they would like to see replace the old houses. Jim Kelly, Providence's chief executive, says: "They want something new and better." Yet the plan also includes the preservation of at least one of the old Lafitte buildings, which might be used as a management office or community meeting space. In addition, Providence is pushing for social services to combat illiteracy and provide childcare. "These are mostly single working mothers and their children," Kelly says. "I don't think you'll find anyone who will say that concentrated public housing for the poor has been a successful social experiment."

Like those who criticise his plans, Kelly is troubled by the idea that old public-housing residents may not end up living in these new houses. So his group has won assurances that all of those residents who wish to move into the new houses will have places. This is unlikely to be the case for all of the new developments slated to replace the old projects once they are demolished. HUD says many residents may choose to take housing vouchers and move to another neighbourhood.

But Quigley, the Loyola law professor, has grave concerns about the effectiveness of this plan. Vouchers may be good in theory, but racial discrimination is rampant in some areas, limiting the residents' options. A report released by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center found that African-Americans faced discrimination in 60 per cent of rental transactions.

For this and other reasons - in particular, that the HUD plan will take years to execute, leaving some New Orleanians who are scattered across the country in limbo - Quigley has vowed to continue leading legal challenges to it. A federal lawsuit has demanded a halt to the HUD plan and seeks to allow residents to return to their old flats in public housing. "People are not just going to sit by and watch while bulldozers take down their houses. They're going to resist, and people around the country have pledged to help. We're a long way from an ultimate decision on this thing." A jury trial is scheduled for November 26, though the judge has ordered the two sides to talk in hopes of reaching a settlement. "The way we deal with public housing in New Orleans is going to be a bellwether of whether we're going to succeed," says the city council's Stacy Head. "If we go back to the broken, dysfunctional system, then shame on us."

Though it has been awkward - and sometimes, it seems, disingenuous - in its dealings with public-housing residents and its critics, the Housing and Urban Development department insists its approach is correct. "The policy decisions that concentrated poverty where people are stacked like cordwood in barracks is not conducive to stable families and stable neighbourhoods," Scott Keller, deputy chief of staff of the federal housing department, told me. "What you see now in these projects is almost like economic segregation, the way they're on the outskirts of concentrations of activity."

Perhaps a more compelling argument in favour of mixed housing comes from the Iberville housing projects, not far from Lafitte, where HUD has allowed residents to return to their old houses. Media reports show that drug-related murders have returned to the complex, including an instance when a 21-year-old man was found shot dead in an empty apartment with a bag of cocaine at his feet. The return of drug-related violence appears to make the case that the city should try something new.

A Republican from New Orleans, Richard Baker, in a comment which he probably regretted, said: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." Leaving aside the unknowable will of the Almighty, it strikes me that New Orleans - a city that has long revelled in its reputation for sin - has an unusual shot at redemption. Unfortunately, New Orleans is known more for political corruption and divisive racial politics than for visionary public policy.

But other cities have been torn over the fate of public housing and, through sometimes angry debate, moved to a fairer system. Popkin, who has studied housing policy for decades, notes that Chicago turned a bitter public fight into a model of good policy: "They started with bumps, a lot of angry residents, and then they regrouped. They put a lot of money and effort into making sure they knew where all the residents were and that they were offered [alternatives to the old housing]. They did it, and I would not have predicted that in 2000. You need effective leadership who are willing to engage with people who are angry."

New Orleans has every right to feel that its government failed in its hour of need. If I arrived feeling anxious, I left New Orleans with a desperate hope that a government plan will work this time - and help a wounded, divided place begin to heal.

Christopher Grimes is an FT correspondent based in New York.


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