Watch Tracy Washington of the NAACP Gulf Coast Advocacy Center talk about race and rebuilding in New Orleans.
On a chilly autumn night, Jocquelyn Marshall opened the door to her new home, an apartment tucked in a maze of quiet streets lined with townhouses south of downtown New Orleans. She’d been here only two weeks since making it back from Houston, and the newly-built, two-bedroom apartment was sparkling but almost completely bare. She sat on a milk crate in the middle of the hardwood living room floor, while her 12-year-old son, Justin, watched television on the white carpet in his bedroom.
This was their third residence in an odyssey that began when the floodwaters washed over New Orleans. It took them from their home of more than 10 years—a public housing unit inherited from Jocquelyn’s mother—to an overcrowded shelter in Mississippi, then an apartment shared with 14 other people in Houston, and finally to this eerily empty new place in their beloved city.
A round-faced, dark brown woman with her hair tucked into a soft black cap, Jocquelyn was about to turn 37 but looked much younger. She spoke in the unhurried, distinctive cadence of Black New Orleanians. She cried just once during our conversation, describing the hardships of a neighbor whose family had been stranded on a bridge after the hurricane, with only a box of crackers and a few bottles of water that the mother rationed in pieces and sips to her children.
“I know we’re living in difficult times. People who don’t understand that, they’re not gonna survive,” Jocquelyn said calmly. “You have to have faith, and that’s basically what I’m living on day by day, faith. Me and my child, that’s it.”
She was among the few public housing residents who counted themselves lucky enough to make it back to New Orleans. Most of her friends and neighbors remained scattered in Houston, Atlanta, and other cities, living on FEMA assistance with families often doubled or tripled up in apartments.
Jocquelyn grew up in the C.J. Peete projects, one of the “Big Four” that are at the center of a grassroots and policy battle over public housing and rebuilding in New Orleans. After thousands of public housing residents evacuated, housing authorities boarded up their apartments and announced plans to demolish 5,000 units in some of the largest developments—C.J. Peete, Lafitte, B.W. Cooper and St. Bernard.
About 4,000 of the 5,146 families who lived in New Orleans public housing remain displaced. As bureaucrats, politicians, developers and lawyers fight over the city’s redevelopment plans for low-income housing, these buildings remain closed, and residents have been told they’d have to wait for another three or five more years to return home. In all likelihood, without a drastic change of power and planning, many will never be able to come back and live in their city.
Their battle to return has encompassed months of back-and-forth with recalcitrant, heavy-handed local and federal housing authorities, a stalled lawsuit, several takeovers of a few units in St. Bernard and C.J. Peete, plenty of marches and rallies, and finally, this February, legislative hearings held both in D.C. and locally by congressional leaders who promised to figure something out.
“Katrina is about wrenching hundreds of thousands of people from homes to which most will never return. Katrina is about the sudden and complete loss of all that home means—safety, respite, privacy, comfort and security,” said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, at the D.C. hearing.
She added, “Unless policy and practice take a different turn from where they appear to be heading, Katrina will be remembered as a massive public failure.”
But beyond the future of working-class Black communities in New Orleans, this battle also epitomizes a renewed struggle—one with national reverberations—over the future of public resources for the poor.
Six weeks after the storm, the mandatory evacuation order was lifted and people who could began making their way back as New Orleans began its slow recovery from the devastation. The flooding destroyed 142,000 apartments throughout the city, which had constituted the bulk of housing for working-class families. In a city with stark divides of wealth, the existing public housing stock before Katrina (7,100 units) also served a key role in providing affordable housing for many low-wage workers. Residents included workers in the hotel and restaurant industries, street musicians, the elderly, and mothers and children on welfare.
Public housing everywhere in the country is owned and managed by local housing authorities. In this case, it’s the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), which for the past few decades, has been known for corruption and mismanagement. In 2002, the agency finally went into federal receivership. In New Orleans, then, the housing crisis directly implicates the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a resolution has to be fought through the Bush administration’s appointees in that agency. For residents and their advocates, it has made their activism national in scope by necessity.
In June 2006, after HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced that the “Big Four” developments would be razed, residents and their advocates began organizing to stop the demolitions and return to their homes. They filed a class-action lawsuit against HUD, Anderson v. Jackson, charging the agency with racial discrimination and demanding that it re-open their units. The lawsuit is expected to go to trial later this summer.
Residents have nowhere to come back to if not their old homes, now sitting empty in a city still dotted with gutted houses, FEMA trailers and a rental market inflated by up to 70 percent. The “bricks,” as the projects are called, are architecturally sound, everyone seems to agree, and even HUD’s studies show that it would cost less to clean up and fix than to demolish and re-develop the buildings.
Clearly, the drive toward demolition is about more than cost analysis. Before Katrina, New Orleans ranked second in the nation for high concentrated poverty (behind Fresno). Concentrated poverty is measured by the percentage of an area’s poor population living in neighborhoods with a 40 percent or higher poverty rate. Of New Orleans’ Black residents, 43 percent lived in neighborhoods with extreme poverty. After the disaster, public officials famously made race-tinged comments about the flood as an act of God cleaning up New Orleans public housing, and the city being better off without welfare queens, pimps and “soap opera watchers.” HUD’s Jackson signaled his own low opinion of public housing when he told the press that “only the best residents should return. Those who paid rent on time, those who held a job and those who worked.”
In the prevailing national thought about poverty, public housing is a failed social policy much like welfare. Between the image of the old projects as dead-ends of ghetto poverty, and the new, developer-fueled vision of “New Urbanism” mixed-income neighborhoods, there is little room for poor people themselves to be part of the solution. Rather, as many New Orleans residents point out, the solution has been to disperse the poverty, not to end it.
“What you see in New Orleans is happening in every other community around the country. What is different about New Orleans is Katrina gave the government a chance to fast forward what other communities are going through in terms of the conversion of traditional public housing, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of families,” said Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University and one of the main advocates on the residents’ lawsuit.
A large housing complex presents a great economic opportunity for a lot of parties—for the city to create jobs and bring in more private investment, for developers to apply for millions in federal tax credits and make more money with new, upwardly mobile residents and tourists.
In the wake of the hurricane, four large developments were suddenly up for grabs at the same time—which is, Quigley said, “a developer’s dream, and a resident’s nightmare.”
New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, in his influential article, “All Fall Down,” called the rebuilding of New Orleans “one of the most aggressive works of social engineering in America since the postwar boom of the 1950s.”
Jocquelyn Marshall moved into C.J. Peete, then known as the Magnolia, in 1973. Her then 37-year-old mother, Rosemary, had divorced her husband and couldn’t keep their home on nearby Clara Street. Along with four-year-old Jocquelyn, she took two young nieces whose mother had died and moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Willow Street.
To supplement their income, Rosemary sold “icebergs”—Kool-Aid poured over snow cones—in the neighborhood for a quarter each. “My mother was known as the iceberg lady on Willow Street,” Jocquelyn said, smiling.
Little Jocquelyn and her 8-year-old cousin slept in the same twin bed, one girl at the foot and the other at the head, while the 12-year-old cousin got her own bed in their shared room. Rosemary worked eight hours a day, sometimes six days a week as a dental assistant, so the older children babysat Jocquelyn, and neighbors were always on hand to look out for all the kids. Jocquelyn’s fondest memories from those days are of the talent shows that she and her friends staged in the courtyard. With their audience watching from porches, she sang the lead vocals in a girl-group rendition of their favorite song, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”
But her mother was strict about not letting them hang out too much. Every once in a while, there would be a shooting, but even then, Jocquelyn remembered the “old school gangsters” always made sure to warn residents to stay inside when something was about to go down.
“We all took care of one another…all that is gone,” she said.
By the time Jocquelyn was growing up in public housing in the ’70s, it had actually been in decline for years.
New Orleans public housing, like the rest of the country’s, was built in the 1930s and ’40s. Unlike northern cities with their high-rise towers, New Orleans’ soil required lower construction, and its public housing reflected a distinct architectural style much like the rest of the city’s unique character. Built of red brick, these complexes were two and three stories high with porches and wrought iron rails, set around grassy courtyards.
America’s public housing began initially under the Public Works Administration, and was formalized in the first National Housing Act of 1937, which gave federal loans to state and local authorities to build subsidized housing for millions of Americans affected by the Great Depression. Early working-class residents included both whites and Blacks.
“This contemporary notion of public housing as a place for poor Black people is an ahistorical one,” said Rhonda Williams, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University and author of The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality.
During this era, public housing was seen as part of a government mandate to provide “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family”—the exact words in the National Housing Act of 1949. But race-based stigmatization had already begun as more Blacks migrated into cities looking for jobs and better opportunities. In New Orleans, it was Hurricane Betsy in 1965 that brought about forced desegregation of public housing. So much housing had been lost in the storm that the federal government insisted local authorities open up whites-only projects to everyone. With desegregation, more and more white residents fled the projects and the city as a whole.
By the 1960s, “urban renewal” and interstate highway construction were displacing tens of thousands in cities across the country. Affordable housing and community spaces were torn down to make way for highways that helped pipe economic growth away from the urban core and toward the white-flight suburbs. Public housing became even more of a necessity for residents whose homes had been demolished in many inner cities.
But, with race as a key factor, the national perception of public housing shifted—from one of providing a safe, affordable step up for working people, to that of warehousing poverty and crime.
“Policies play a significant role in why we ended up with cities concentrated with racialized poverty,” Rhonda Williams said. “There’s suburbanization with white Americans having greater access to suburbs than African Americans. There’s also the movement of industrial work outside of urban spaces, and restrictions on jobs. All of this helps to understand the racial and class isolation that manifest together in urban spaces.”
At the start of the 21st century, there remained1.3 million people in the country who lived in public housing. With five-to 10-year waiting lists, only one-fourth of those eligible for housing assistance actually get it, according to the Brookings Institution.
Jocquelyn left public housing when she was 19. In her junior year of high school, she took advantage of job training available through the Magnolia’s community programs and became certified as a nursing assistant. “I wanted a skill so that when I graduated I could get a job,” she said.
She began working nights at Baptist Hospital while attending classes at Delgado Community College nearby. She was able to get her own small apartment, in the central city near her mother.
Her life, though characterized by strong will and determination, still teetered on the edge between upward mobility and working poverty.
“I kept trying to move out and stay out, and something would draw me back there,” she said. “I was actually clear about that, asking myself why I cannot stay out of this place. I knew I had the mind, the education to go further.”
Jocquelyn’s plan was to get a degree in sociology and criminal justice, then apply to Loyola University for law school. She wanted to become a civil rights lawyer. But two years into her college courses, a long-term relationship resulted in pregnancy. She remembered being so stressed during her pregnancy that her doctor told her she might lose the baby. In 1994, she moved back to her mother’s unit in C.J. Peete. A few years later, the relationship was also over, and Jocquelyn was on her own with her son Justin.
Rosemary had managed to buy a small house in Gentilly, and she turned over her lease at C.J. Peete to Jocquelyn. But in 1999, Rosemary was diagnosed with lung cancer. She moved back in with Jocquelyn, and died six months later at 62.
Jocquelyn stayed on at C.J. Peete, where the rent was $130, compared to the market rate of around $400 for a two-bedroom. She was busy raising her son, and trying to come up with a new career plan. She decided to look into starting her own business, something that she could still get help for through the resident community program. “We had a lot of entrepreneurs in the housing development,” she recalled. “Men who were barbers and cutting children’s hair on the porch, women who did suppers.”
She took a business administration class that the housing authority provided its residents, and then successfully applied for a small business loan. With $35,000 in financing, she set up a concession stand. She sold ice cream, snacks and, in the tradition of her mother—snowballs.
As she learned more about the resident programs, Jocquelyn started noticing “things that just didn’t make sense to me.” Many residents didn’t know about services and programs that were offered, and some told her that the programs discontinued as soon as they began to get involved. There was a community center, but some residents said they often weren’t allowed in it. With the urging of her neighbors, Jocquelyn decided to run for election to the resident council. The council’s five board members could intervene with the housing authority on behalf of residents, making sure services were provided and concerns heard.
She didn’t know it, but Jocquelyn was joining a long history of Black women’s activism in tenant councils.
Throughout the 1940s, tenant councils had been active in trying to improve living conditions in the housing developments, according to Rhonda Williams. They became radicalized along with the Black freedom struggle and the welfare rights movement during the ’60s.
“People were really talking about civil rights—not just in terms of the Voting Rights Act but having decision-making power in the housing administration itself. We should be able to decide what’s best for us, we know it because we live it,” Williams continued.
Led by Black women, resident advisory councils began organizing for real power, establishing citywide boards that sometimes even blocked HUD funds until the local housing authority agreed to negotiate with them. They formed the National Tenants Organization, whose membership often overlapped with the National Welfare Rights Organization. At the core of their demands was holding HUD accountable to its own rule that residents be consulted and included in decisions made about their lives.
“For the first six to eight months after Katrina, residents really believed the government was telling the truth when they said we just need to fix these places up before you come back,” Bill Quigley explained. “It turns out, that was a lie. And as a result, the government got way ahead in the game.”
Congress had directed HUD to preserve its public housing after Katrina, and permitted funds from the Section-8 pot to be applied to public housing to clean and repair damaged units. Throughout the first half of 2006, HANO made promises to fix and re-open 2,000 units by August. That date got moved to September, and then December. But on June 14, HUD finally declared its real intention. The planned demolitions represented a loss of 70 percent of all New Orleans public housing.
With displaced residents calling public interest lawyers and their own networks to figure out what was going on, and others setting up a “survivor’s village” in front of St. Bernard, the situation quickly heated up as the summer went on. Local human rights lawyers Bill Quigley and Tracy Washington joined forces with the Advancement Project, the People’s Hurricane Relief Committee and others to begin a campaign to stop the demolitions and re-open the buildings. On June 27, 2006, they filed a lawsuit against HUD and HANO, charging the agencies with racial discrimination under the Fair Housing Act and violation of residents’ due process rights.
“In the midst of this fight for the right of return—sitting dead in the center of it—is the issue of race. And the issue of poor folks having a voice for themselves,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project. “This is about prime land, that’s close to the city, and about developers and money.”
HANO’s recovery plan for C.J. Peete, issued in April 2006, found minimal damage to its interior but noted that the vacant property had “become a prime location for retail and residential development.” In fact, HANO had cut a deal a few months earlier to lease six acres of land within the C.J. Peete complex to Home Depot, which wants eventually to buy the entire site as a permanent location for its big-box store. According to the Times-Picayune, the deal allows HANO to share profits with Home Depot’s leased store if sales exceed $16 million.
Meanwhile, months after the demolition announcement, HANO eventually held public comment sessions with residents. Federal law requires that housing authorities consult with residents to include them in any decision-making about their homes and communities. At the last public meeting, in late November, more than 300 residents attended to speak out against the demolition plan. Nevertheless, a few weeks later, HANO said it would stick with the decision to raze and re-develop the Big Four.
By Martin Luther King Jr. Day this January, some residents decided to take civil disobedience action. A group of 10 residents and activists cut through the barbed wire surrounding St. Bernard and started cleaning the units with mops and buckets. They set up barricades and began occupying several apartments. HUD responded by seeking a restraining order to allow police to arrest the occupants. By February, several families decided to occupy their units in C.J. Peete as well.
As the standoff continued, advocates gained a powerful ally in Rep. Maxine Waters, who chaired the first congressional hearing on public housing early this February. Waters introduced a bill shortly after the hearing, H.R. 1227, requiring HUD to re-open 3,000 public housing units in New Orleans, and provide vouchers and replacement housing for the rest. The bill also would establish tighter oversight of the billions Congress appropriated in recovery funding for the Gulf Coast.
The public housing fight has been one of the most intense within the larger landscape of New Orleans’ housing crisis, and it has faced formidable challenges. Before the congressional hearings, “we were fighting it out, but we were like the little engine that could,” according to Browne-Dianis.
Chief among the obstacles is the fact that a lot of money is at stake, both in disaster recovery funding and in real estate opportunities and business development.
Shortly after Katrina, Congress allocated $10.4 billion in Community Development Block Grants to Louisiana for housing recovery. The state got another $1.7 billion in low-income housing tax credits, called the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act or GO Zone, which is aimed at offering incentives for developers and non-profits to build affordable rental housing. HANO, and by extension its receiver HUD, is applying for these funds to redevelop the four public housing complexes.
“As the agency responsible for oversight of the CDBG funds, HUD should not also be competing for these funds as a grantee,” pointed out Sheila Crowley of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
The Louisiana Recovery Authority, a body set up by Gov. Kathleen Blanco to administer the federal funds, has stumbled badly through its Road Home program. Not only has the state prioritized aid for homeowners when 47 percent of the hurricane damage statewide was done to rental housing, but the program has failed even to aid homeowners. To date, the Road Home has given out only about 400 grants, with more than 30,000 applications still bottlenecked.
“People have to get their money. That’s number one,” said Wade Rathke, founder and chief organizer of ACORN, which has its national headquarters in New Orleans. “For $100,000, $120,000, you can easily rebuild your house in the Ninth and Seventh Wards, where our people are—if you can get the money. If you can’t get the money, you’re stuck like Chuck.”
Heading off another potential crisis, ACORN filed and won a lawsuit against FEMA to extend its housing assistance, through trailers and rent subsidies, for more than 100,000 families whose aid was set to expire in February.
Many activists characterized the housing situation in dire terms—as being below water, a pitched battle for the soul of New Orleans, and as Rathke put it, “still Katrina all the time here.”
But the level of national attention, even from progressives, has been scant in comparison to the severity of what’s happening.
“It hasn’t gotten any attention really. Within the racial justice community, it’s been a weird and scary silence. People are disengaged or letting it play itself out,” Judith Browne-Dianis said. “To me, the fact that the racial justice community has not stepped up on this issue and on the greater issue of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina is outrageous. We shouldn’t allow this to happen on our watch.”
Jocquelyn had been running her snowballs concession stand for two years in the summer of 2005. She had just gotten a big new client in Southeastern University, and was able to promote party packages with deejays and even T-shirts her son Justin had designed.
The day after Mayor Nagin’s evacuation order, Jocquelyn and Justin packed up their car. They drove to a shelter in Tunica, Mississippi. There, along with a few other early evacuees, they watched the news.
“We were watching TV, and I’ll never forget…I called my girlfriend and I was trying to explain the levee broke, but the phone went out,” Jocquelyn recalled. “A lot of people were left in C.J. Peete. I got one of my nieces on the phone, and she said, the water’s rising.”
Within three days, the shelter was overflowing with nearly 400 people. They were treated well, Jocquelyn said, but after a week of panicking people and crying babies, she couldn’t take it anymore. “We had to leave.”
She got in touch with her niece who told her some relatives had gone to Houston. So, she and Justin drove three hours to the apartment complex where some of her extended family had set up temporary residence. For days, all she did was watch CNN late into the night. And she prayed for the rest of her family and neighbors in C.J. Peete—“just let everything be alright.”
After nine months in Houston, Jocquelyn called her HANO contacts to find out how to bring back the resident council members “because we needed to be there to help residents come back home.” The HANO directors that she worked with were ousted to make way for a new receivership team, and so her plans fell through. Instead, she applied for and got a disaster voucher, which operated like Section-8 vouchers that evacuees could use to pay for rent wherever they were.
Jocquelyn drove back and forth between Houston and New Orleans every month, sometimes two or three times. First she looked in her hometown for an apartment, but was told that her voucher was under the Houston system. In Houston, she was told that the voucher didn’t cover utilities, and she couldn’t pay for them herself without a job. “So I came back to New Orleans, but I could not find a house that was up to par,” she said. “A two-bedroom for $1,100 should at least be in decent condition. I’m not paying nobody $1,100 and not living in some wonderful condition for that amount. I don’t care if HUD’s paying, because eventually I’d be working and have to pay for it.” Other places that she found would not accept vouchers.
Finally, HANO officials told her that the resident council members could return and live in River Garden. But first, they had to wait for units to open up. Some HANO employees and New Orleans police officers had taken up temporary residence in River Garden’s public housing units.
Fifteen months after they lost their home, Jocquelyn and Justin moved back to New Orleans with one suitcase each and a new address on Josephine Street, near the riverfront.
Along the Mississippi River, just south of the French Quarter, the drive down Tchoupitoulas Street winds through warehouses and empty lots, giving way to, out of nowhere it seems, a Wal-Mart SuperCenter.
This area, which didn’t flood after the levees broke, is where “the moneymen are hoping to lure people back into the city to live nearer the waterfront,” according to Time magazine. Adjacent to the giant Wal-Mart parking lot, construction is beginning on single-family houses. Signs posted on the lawns read KB Home, which is one of the largest builders in the country. And spreading out past the perimeter of St. Thomas Street are the pale yellow and green and blue townhouses of the River Garden development.
In 2003, River Garden was built on top of the demolished St. Thomas housing project. It was one of New Orleans’ first experiments with mixed-income housing, replacing the 1,500 public housing units of St. Thomas with new apartments divided into one-third public housing, one-third tax credit, and one-third market-rate.
Pres Kabacoff, the developer who built River Garden, described the mixed-income philosophy to the Louisiana Weekly: “If you overload a neighborhood with very poor people, it starts tipping towards market rate people leaving. If a city is going to be healthy, you need to disperse your poor and concentrate your wealth. In New Orleans, we concentrate our poor and disperse our wealth. This particularly affects African Americans.”
The thinking went that mixed-income communities would help break the cycle of poverty by allowing poor children to be exposed to middle-class people who were more likely to have stable families and good jobs. It was a concept embodied in the national HOPE VI program. First introduced in 1992, and carried out by HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros during the Clinton years, it was one of the most ambitious urban redevelopment plans in U.S. history. The program set out to use public dollars in conjunction with private-sector investment to convert public housing into developments that “embrace the market rather than bureaucratic dictates,” as Cisneros put it.
In this model, the idea was that poor people would be able to have choice in the housing market, access to neighborhood stores and parks, a diversity of neighbors across income and skill-levels—and most of all an end to the isolation of concentrated poverty that bred many of the ghetto’s problems. Its supporters claimed success in cities around the country—Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburg, Denver and Boston—where median income and employment rose, while crime rates fell. But in most of the redeveloped sites, fewer than half of the original public housing residents returned, according to a GAO study. Part of the reduction was a result of fewer units available in the mixed-income development, as well as stricter screening requirements for residents.
With St. Thomas, the net result of redevelopment was that only 120 apartments ended up allotted for public housing residents. Eventually, the number of original residents was whittled down to about 40 remaining in River Garden.
HOPE VI has critics on both the left and the right. Its strategy of putting the poor next door to “middle-class values” has been widely decried by progressives as paternalistic and a papering-over of deeper problems of economic inequality. The Bush Administration, meanwhile, has all but phased it out in favor of privatization. Along with public housing and Section-8, HOPE VI has been de-funded while tax credits for developers are pushed as the way to create affordable housing.
“Deconcentrating poverty, that’s a good thing,” said Nicole Jarmon, who served as the HANO director from 2005 until 2006 and now works with Providence Community Housing, the Catholic Charities affiliate that’s redeveloping the Lafitte projects. “Where the mistake was, they should have been more thoughtful about the drastic cut in the number of units—a third, a third, a third. I’d like to see a deal that’s 70/30. That’s more of a realistic way of addressing the need. Any time you have a city with thousands of people on the waiting list, to take units away is not the best way to do it.”
HOPE VI tried to tackle the problem of over-concentration of poverty but ignored the question of where poor people would go afterward, explained Jason Reece, a researcher at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. In Baltimore, where Kirwan is working with the ACLU on a lawsuit to desegregate low-income housing, the strategy has been to focus on building more units while not eliminating the city’s existing housing stock.
“The bigger theme is that we have to connect more people to areas of opportunity, to have mobility options for people,” Reece said. “In New Orleans, they should be trying to preserve the public housing, but in the long term they need to be targeting more production of new housing.”
There’s been some question about whether Katrina evacuees are better off, for the most part, where they landed than in the troubled pockets of poverty they had come from. The New York Times’ Jason Deparle published a long piece last year, entitled “Katrina’s Tide Carries Many to Hopeful Shores,” exploring the possibility that “the exodus took low-income families to areas richer in opportunity.” Analyzing relocation patterns in 17 counties, he found that the average evacuee had ended up in neighborhoods with nearly twice the median income as their previous ones, along with higher levels of education, employment and home ownership.
Deparle asked a similar question to the one posed by mixed-income redevelopment: “Can better neighborhoods rescue the poor? Or will bad luck and habits follow wherever they land?”
But this is an ill-timed thought experiment that has little to do with the situation playing out on the ground, according to Bill Quigley: “As an academic exercise, we could debate the merits of old public housing versus mixed income, but in the shoes of people who lived there, they know it’s better to have their old apartments back now than to wait for years to maybe have a chance to maybe come back—because they have to live in the interim.”
For Jocquelyn, it was quite clear that her public housing neighbors wanted to return to New Orleans. She still got dozens of phone calls a day from C.J. Peete residents living in Houston and other cities, wanting to find out about coming home. She told them to give her number to anyone they knew who was still displaced. Her cell phone bill had climbed to $500 a month, but, as the only council member who made it back to New Orleans so far, Jocquelyn felt an even bigger responsibility to help the residents. She continued calling HANO on their behalf, and has helped get 10 people placed into River Garden.
“Residents say they don’t care where they stay, they just wanna come home,” she said. “Right now, I just want to see C.J. Peete move forward. All of this taking place right now, about who is developing the housing—people are suffering. We need to see something move forward.”
She added, “I want to see that each tenant is taken care of, that they have what they need to survive. It’s hard living in those other cities, especially if you don’t have transportation, and they’re not hiring people from New Orleans—I know that for a fact.”
Jocquelyn has found a part-time job as a health aide with a homecare agency. She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to work with C.J. Peete residents if she got a different job with a less flexible schedule, but this current job required her to take a taxi to work since her car’s transmission died back in Texas. She had applied for a small business grant, even though her snowball machine was stuck in storage in Houston, and she didn’t have a way to get it out or to keep paying the storage fee. She had to pay for utilities and water in the new apartment, along with $214 rent based on 30 percent of her salary. If her income goes up past the $25,000 cap, she’ll have to pay the market rate, which is $1,300 for her two-bedroom.
“You’re either rich or you’re poor here. If you get laid off, come tomorrow, you’re gonna be looking for a place like C.J. Peete to lay your head,” Jocquelyn said.
She paused, asked to remember what she loved about New Orleans.
“It doesn’t feel like that anymore. It doesn’t feel the same. It feels like a new beginning, but like everybody is out for themselves.”