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Obligatory and Unsatisfactory Ruminations on the Public Housing Debacle in New Orleans

Stop the Demolitions

The struggle over public housing has been building for years here in New Orleans. Now it’s ramping up to new levels.

It’s a disgusting and pathetic spectacle. With apologies to Mom and Dad, it’s a clusterfuck. There’s just no other word to describe it. I don’t have it in me to play reporter and account for the steady stream of protests and legal maneuvering, but it can be summed up like this: Some people want to tear all the public housing developments down to build mixed income developments, and some people think that’s a nefarious plan for “ethnic cleansing.” Emotions run high around this issue. Shrill rhetoric abounds, and civil discourse is in tragically short supply.

I’ve been following the issue half-heartedly for over a year now, and I still don’t know what to think. My politics are, perhaps, most closely aligned with the protesters who want to stop the demolition juggernaut, but at the same time I have to acknowledge that some of these housing activists are real jerks. So I’ve stayed away.

Plus, I’m not unsympathetic to the other side of the argument. I’ve only talked to a couple public housing residents about the issue, and they are both fully in favor of the proposed redevelopment. Granted, that’s hardly scientific, but it certainly does give me pause. The plan for redeveloping the Lafitte project, at least, is regarded by many as extremely progressive. I don’t know about the other projects. But I have a hard time with any plan that calls for tearing down sturdy building built in the 1930s. We just don’t build to the same quality today. But we seem to have developed a spatial fetish about those buildings.

No one seems to doubt that public housing was a failing proposition before Katrina. It was failing the residents and also the general public. The main beneficiary was the hospitality industry, who effectively got government underwriting for their poverty wages.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans is corrupt, so much so that it’s been run by the federal government for years. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development also appears to be corrupt. In any case, HANO & HUD have amply demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to provide quality housing. I don’t believe we can trust this administration (or any recent administration) to do the right thing, whether that’s re-opening the old projects or tearing them down.

But I’m not going to pick sides in this fight. I’m just watching from the sidelines. I hope the City Council can perform a miracle on Thursday. I hope some middle ground can be sought. I hope the principles outlined in the Unified New Orleans Plan are honored.

And now a bit of lagniappe, here’s a video we shot in the summer of 2006 which is unfortunately still relevant today:

Update: Just an hour later I have to revise what I wrote. I just had a conversation with Donna, who is former resident of public housing, and she said unequivocally that she thinks the demolition proposals are wrong, wrong, wrong. She doesn’t need or want to move back into public housing herself, but what about all those estimated 12,000 homeless?

Published inFilm & VideoNew OrleansPolitix


  1. Bart: not sure where in Indiana you’re from but this post reminds me once again of LOCKFIELD GARDENS a place that was built orginally as Public Housing in the 30s and today is a very expensive apartment complex (at least it was when I was attending school.)

  2. David David

    Speaking of the original buildings, a few of the original buildings of the St. Thomas (?, the one near Wal-Mart in uptown) project remains, and someone’s doing a very thorough renovation of them.

  3. I’m right there with ya on the confusion about where to fall. I just finished up a post on The Chic about it. I didn’t mention anything about the buildings themselves. Yes they are strong structures but it’s the layout of concentrated poverty that’s the real demon isn’t it? We could throw money at the buildings, renovating them and bringing them up to snuff but they are built in fortress style, meant to distinctly separate them and their residents from the surrounding neighborhood. It’s an exercise in exclusion. Also, in the middle of such complexes, people can’t even see the neighborhood (ie: the city and it’s opportunities) around them. It is no wonder that they feel outcast from the city. There is also the general notion by the public that the buildings are “the projects.” We had several projects in Pensacola where i grew up and they continued to try and rehabilitate the developments by changing their names from “Truman Arms” to “Oakwood Terrace” and such. People still called them by their old names. The places haven’t improved much either.

  4. I appreciate your struggle. As one who has worked with many folks who live in public housing now and pre-K, I have mixed emotions. In many instances, the housing is inhumane. However, it is the only option for some who for a variety of reasons can’t afford the new rent in New Orleans.

    I also struggle with the demographic of those who are complaining the most. Do they truly represent the folks who have or are currently living in public housing? Are they giving voice to the voiceless or are they grandstanding so they’ll have a cool story to tell when they go back home?

    After working with so many of the poor in New Orleans, I have lost all hope that they can be “served” by our government whether state or local. The good news is that I haven’t lost hope in the ability of so many of the poor to take care of themselves and their own. Yes, many slip through the cracks and it’s horrible, but I have found in many cases a community of support that is profound.

    My hope is that persons who care can find a way to help those who are struggling to survive.

  5. Civitch Civitch

    There IS a middle ground, one which was arrived upon by the months-long, city-approved UNOP process. It calls for the return of the street grid through Lafitte, resulting in some demolition, and then a renovation of the remaining buildings to create a mixed-income community.

    Unfortunately, the radicals on both sides have polarized and poisoned the discussion to the point where this very do-able plan, one that actually *has* the support of the community, has been completely sidelined and isn’t even on the table.

  6. Frank Schiavo Frank Schiavo

    I have stayed out of this argument, even though I get asked a lot about it in my recent spat of family needed traveling. Most folks I hear from outside the area don’t seem to know what all the protesting is about. I try to explain that it is mostly a communication problem–some protesters are so used to double-talk and lies from HANO & the Feds they don’t believe anything they say or promise. Others Protesters are concerned that the new mixed income housing won’t include them and/or will force them to seperate families and friends. Some of my friends point at the units completed across the river or in other communittees and wonder why would anyone want to go back to live in the conditions some of those units were in with all the crime & hopelessness in the first place. I wish I knew the answers to this one.

    More importantly, I wish both sides would sit down and try to find the answers.

  7. Civitch,

    Just wanted to point out that the proposed redevelopment plan for Lafitte does in fact already bring back the street grid. And not all buildings will be demolished under the redevelopment plan. Most will though, as HUD has said that it would be more expensive to rehab them than to redevelop them. This is due to a few factors (I’m just the messenger here relaying information) including mold remediation, the poured concrete build design, which makes knocking down walls for expansion very difficult and also impossible to raise the foundation to decrease flood risk and the insurance costs.

  8. Sean Sean

    One question I’ve heard is will the new buildings be like the Desire housing which didn’t survive the storm? It seems having the Fed Government in charge of the department of housing only makes communications more disjointed.

    Then there is the Edward T. Pound’s article on HUD dealings. Columbia Residential owes Housing Sec. Jackson money from a past agreement and C.R. was part of the team awarded $127 million competitive contract from HANO to redevelop the St. Bernard. Something is not transparent here…

    And Quigley’s comment on the number of apartments planned should be respectfully addressed by supporters of the demolitions:
    “HUD is spending $762 million in taxpayer funds to tear down over 4600 public housing subsidized apartments and replace them with 744 similarly subsidized units – an 82% reduction.”

  9. […] and seriously lacking in creative thinking. It’s not the buildings’ fault. I agree with editor b: But I have a hard time with any plan that calls for tearing down sturdy building built in the […]

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