Pushed Out and Pushing Back in New Orleans

Housing crisis? Corporate giveaways? It's already happened in the Big Easy. There, out of demolitions and displacement, has come a new demand: housing as human right.

By Tram Nguyen Apr 07, 2010

This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship, sponsored by the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism, a project of Tides Center.

For 29 years, Sam Jackson lived in a three-bedroom apartment in central New Orleans. He and his wife, Shirley, raised their five children in a tight-knit community within the sprawling, 1,546-unit public housing complex known as the B.W. Cooper. Every summer, Jackson boarded up the windows during the hurricane season, and the family always managed to ride out the storms inside the sturdy walls of one of "the Bricks"–the local name for New Orleans’ public housing projects.

In 2005, the Bricks survived Hurricane Katrina, too. The Jacksons had no water or electricity, though, and after hearing about broken levees and flooding in other parts of town, they packed up their truck and drove to Baton Rouge. A month later, Sam Jackson drove back to check on things at the B.W. Cooper. He found the door to his apartment broken open and the apartment ransacked. When he returned a week after that, there were "No Trespassing" signs everywhere. A metal fence had been put up around the property, and Jackson soon realized that it was the residents themselves who were being kept out.

The Bricks made it through Katrina with little flooding and minor damage. But none of the city’s four big public housing developments–the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard–survived the demolition plans of the government and private developers in the post-Katrina rebuilding. Two years ago, the New Orleans city council cast a controversial, unanimous vote to tear down and redevelop what became known as the Big Four. The demolition of all those homes turned Sam Jackson into an activist.

"We had nowhere to stay when we came back, and I said, ‘We should go and make some noise,’ even though we had only a few residents here to protest," Jackson recalls.

With a few other returnees, he held one of the first press conferences on the demolitions; eventually, he traveled to Indonesia and Thailand as part of an international delegation to meet with tsunami victims and share rebuilding strategies. "As the process went on, I wanted to let people know we were forced out of our place and we couldn’t return. We have to be the ones keeping the noise up about it. You just can’t give up."

Community advocates estimate that almost 20,000 people, all Black and low-income, remain displaced and separated from their communities. Worse, the 4,500 or so Big Four households have been thrown into a tight rental market, competing with thousands more low-income people also living precariously in a city where rents spiked almost overnight. This includes nearly 9,000 families transitioning out of the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which provided subsidies for people whose homes were destroyed by hurricanes Katrina, Rita or Gustav.

In New Orleans, "there are more people who are scared of losing their housing than feel secure in it," observes Eric Tars, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

He could have said the same about the rest of the country, where the combination of widespread foreclosures, rising tenant evictions and double-digit unemployment hitting like hurricanes is pushing the lack of adequate housing to crisis proportions. According to the National Housing Institute, nearly half of all renters in the United States face unaffordable housing costs, defined as paying more than 30 percent of one’s income for housing.

New Orleans seems a particularly good place to understand the problems engulfing so many U.S. cities, because things here are so extreme and exposed. By some estimates, close to 6 percent of the city’s residents are living in deplorable conditions. They include families with children living out of cars, immigrant workers packed eight or ten in an apartment and many elderly, mentally ill or disabled people squatting in abandoned buildings.
In a city with a total population hovering around 300,000, at least 12,000 people are homeless. That’s double the number before Katrina and Rita, according to the homelessness agency Unity of Greater New Orleans. The group estimates that at least another 5,000 people are living in abandoned properties, of which there are about 65,000–a third of all buildings in the city.

The city’s housing crisis also reflects the disastrous impact of public housing demolitions and redevelopment policies. In New Orleans, many former public housing residents say that on top of losing their homes, they were shut out of participating in the redevelopment process. For many, it was clear that there was just too much money at stake to let the residents get in the way. In the wake of Katrina, Louisiana became a bonanza of federal subsidies for firms ready to take advantage of the opportunity to rebuild. The developers, as a former staffer for one private company put it, stood to "make money hand over fist" through a number of unusually generous bond deals.

That all the homes in the Big Four are gone is a stark reality in New Orleans. So now, after decades of government policies that put housing needs into the hands of private developers, local activists are looking beyond simply fighting for better and more affordable housing. They are joining with housing advocates throughout the nation to emerge from the national crisis with nothing less than the assertion of housing as a human right.

Reasons to Raze
The most common reason given by redevelopment proponents for demolishing public housing is a compelling one: No one should have to live like this, they say. If you drive through parts of the Iberville, the last remaining large-scale public housing complex in New Orleans, you’ll get a sense of what home was like for thousands of people: shattered streetlights, boarded-up windows; there were even reports of raw sewage seeping out of broken pipes.

The state of public housing has become like the proverbial chicken and egg. If housing authorities, from local officials all the way up to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), had not for decades mismanaged and neglected these complexes, the country’s public housing would not have fallen into such disrepair. If public housing were not in such terrible shape, the housing authorities would not have as good a case for getting rid of it.

Public housing is so stigmatized that many Big Four residents take pains to defend their former way of life, which generally consisted of the day-to-day tribulations of working poverty but also the normal joys and traditions of family and community. The Bricks were home to many of New Orleans’ street musicians and Mardi Gras Indians, ironworkers and shipyard workers, cooks, maids and waiters. Public housing was also what passed for a safety net for the elderly, disabled, unemployed and underemployed. For many people, it was the "housing of last resort"–a stable and still-affordable place to call home.

Residents and their allies have fought long and hard, not solely to save their old homes. "It’s not that we don’t want new housing," says local public interest lawyer Tracie Washington. "We want one-for-one replacement and guarantees that the housing actually gets built."

But the plans to demolish the Big Four’s 4,500 public housing units never included new- housing assurances for all the inhabitants. The mandate of developers in New Orleans and elsewhere is to "deconcentrate poverty" by building housing to accommodate a new mix of residents: poor, low-wage and middle-class. Thus, in each of the smaller mixed-income developments replacing the Big Four, only 150 or so units are reserved for the original residents.

"We’re trying to reach a middle ground," says Shawn Escoffery, director of housing at the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, part of the team rebuilding the C.J. Peete.

Escoffery, who says he chose a career in housing to address systemic poverty and inequality, speaks passionately about stabilizing the Central City neighborhood surrounding the old C.J. Peete "block by block–to create a domino effect of improvement, fighting gentrification, getting it so that the people who live in the neighborhood can own in the neighborhood and stay."  

For some advocates like Escoffery, mixed-income housing is a strategy to combat the poverty, isolation and crime of the old project neighborhoods. But getting rid of the Big Four has not significantly improved local crime statistics. Despite a slight drop in violent crime, New Orleans had the nation’s highest per capita murder rate in 2008, according to an FBI report issued in June 2009, the most recent available.

"Building new buildings does not solve issues caused by the fact that the educational system is troubled or that people can’t make a living here," says Audrey Stewart, who organized with public housing residents while at the Law Clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans. "We’ve lost a lot of affordable housing, and the issue of crime and violence did not go away."

Losing the Battle
At one time, HUD’s own internal study found that fixing the Big Four would be cheaper than leveling them.

In fact, housing authorities originally promised to repair and reopen several thousand units in the buildings by August 2006. The date got moved back again and again, until finally, that June, HUD declared its intention to demolish all four public housing complexes, citing poor maintenance and damage and touting its plans to "redevelop and expand housing" for New Orleanians.

By then, some residents and their supporters had set up a "survivors’ village" in front of the St. Bernard to publicize their plight. The tents, across from the fenced-off buildings and along the median of St. Bernard Avenue, were one of the first public actions by residents to reclaim their homes. As the summer wore on, Tracie Washington and another public interest lawyer, Bill Quigley, working with a national civil rights organization called the Advancement Project, sued to stop the demolition.

All the activity made national news. In early 2007, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-California) introduced legislation to reopen the housing developments and replace the units one for one, and that November, the New Orleans city council passed a resolution in support of the bill. But the November 17 elections brought in a new city council–and for the first time in more than two decades, whites were in the majority, holding four of the council’s seven seats.

The city’s electorate had been reduced by half, from the 112,000 votes cast in 2006 to 52,614 votes in 2007. The racial power shift in a majority-Black city reflected the fact that more than 200,000 residents did not or could not return or participate in elections.

"I think it’s going to be one for the history books," says James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Action Center and a candidate in the mayoral election this year. "People who have not voted in two years have been purged from the voter rolls. The majority of people who are in the Diaspora are low-income citizens. The effect is that there will be fewer lower-income people and people of color voting in future elections."

The decision to tear down the city’s major public housing developments came despite an escalating campaign by displaced residents and activists that included taking over abandoned housing units and rallies in housing authority offices. That December, hundreds gathered outside the building where the city council was meeting. They were locked out, with police in riot helmets reportedly Tasering and arresting dozens of protestors. Inside, council members voted unanimously to demolish the Big Four.

Money Talks
With so little political clout, displaced residents have fewer and fewer ways to hold private developers accountable. And there is much about the Big Four redevelopment that calls out for public disclosure and accountability.

These redevelopment projects came with nearly $100 million in community development block grants, as well as $34 million in Gulf Opportunity Zone tax credits. These so-called Go Zone credits, designed to provide businesses with incentives for investing in "difficult development areas," are worth more than typical tax credits. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana received nearly 20 times its regular allocation of tax credits.

Officials at HUD and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) gave the Big Four’s tax credits and federal block grants to several big out-of-state firms and their local partners. Some of the developers were later found to have financial and personal ties to Alphonso Jackson, who was HUD secretary under George W. Bush and later faced a federal investigation for alleged misconduct. (Jackson resigned in April 2008.) In a series of investigative stories in the National Journal beginning in late 2007, journalist Edward Pound revealed Jackson’s ties to Columbia Residential, the developer chosen for the St. Bernard. Jackson, who had worked as a private consultant for the company, was still owed as much as $500,000 in fees when Columbia got the contract.

Pound later discovered connections between Jackson’s wife, Marcia, and the design firm Kennedy Associates, which had partnered (under the name KAI Design & Build) with St. Louis-based developer McCormack Baron Salazar and gained the contract for the C.J. Peete. Scott Keller, Jackson’s deputy chief of staff, played a key role, Pound reported, in selecting and participating in the four-member panel that awarded the contracts to replace the Big Four.

A typical project–for the St. Bernard redevelopment, for example–represents $27 million in community development block grants, as well as $7.4 million in Go Zone tax credits to sell to private investors for equity. The cost of demolition and construction is covered by the government funds, and meanwhile, the developer is leasing from the city vast acres of land in the urban core for practically nothing. It costs the developers literally a dollar a year for a 99-year lease of this land–all of it potentially prime real estate near the center city and downtown areas. With the total cost of replacing the Big Four estimated at $762 million, taxpayers are paying developers an average of $400,000 per new apartment.

For ten years, the tax credits can be used on other projects, too. Even more enticing, the contracts specify that the Big Four must be converted to mixed-income housing, which means that just a third of the units will be "deeply affordable" for the poorest public housing residents. Their rent would be based on income levels at 20 percent of the area’s median income. The next third, affordable for another tier of residents, would be rented at 40 to 60 percent of the median income. The last third would be rented at market rates to middle-class residents able to pay up to $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

The plan does little for poor New Orleanians–and the reality is likely to be worse. In one of the little-known intricacies of affordable-housing finance, the track record shows that development deals like these eventually phase out the deeply affordable rentals. Typically after 10 to 15 years, developers are allowed to convert low-income properties into market-rate units.

So, in the end, the developers get their cake and eat it, too. At least that was business as usual before 2008, when the U.S. financial system was shaken to its core.

A Financial Storm Hits
By the beginning of 2008, bulldozers had razed three of the four New Orleans complexes, and with great fanfare, groundbreaking for new housing began at the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper and St. Bernard sites. Then construction stalled, as the credit markets collapsed and the recession began in earnest. Tax credits, which investors had deemed worth up to 92 cents on the dollar, dropped to 65 cents. Investors, who normally provide capital for development projects by buying tax credits to offset their tax liabilities, had no profits to offset.

By the end of July 2009, about 10,000 new affordable housing units in Louisiana–5,000 of them planned for New Orleans–were at risk of losing their financing. The Big Four developers raced against a 2010 deadline to find investors, secure funds and start construction. Eventually, with the help of last-minute maneuverings and public money from other federal pots, the developers were reported to have found financing. The C.J. Peete and St. Bernard projects got backing from Goldman Sachs, one of the few big financial institutions in need of a tax shelter. FEMA contributed $17.5 million for demolition on the premise that the buildings were a public safety hazard and HANO shifted funds from stalled projects.

"Obviously, it’s politically untenable for the redevelopments not to move forward," Morgan Williams, a lawyer for the Greater New Orleans Action Center, said at the time.

The B.W. Cooper development, once touted as one of the largest tax-credit deals in U.S. history, has since fallen short of a needed $22 million in equity, according to its Ohio-based developer, KBK. In 2009, the firm’s CEO, Keith B. Keys, became the subject of an attorney general’s investigation in his home state. (Keys was allegedly involved in a deal to provide prison monitoring devices at exorbitant rates to the corrections department, whose deputy director was a college fraternity brother.) Meanwhile, the Lafitte developers told Congresswoman Waters they would need until 2012 to finish construction.

Stiff Competition for Housing
The longer the delays, of course, the less likely it is that former residents will be able to return, even to the few affordable units available to them. Not only will it be harder to locate people, it’s also more likely that former residents will be priced out of New Orleans housing. Apartments in the city now cost twice as much to rent as they did before Katrina.

And each development is setting its own criteria for returning residents, who must apply for admission. Developers prefer applicants who have jobs; in fact, Columbia Residential is making employment a requirement for adult residents, although that is prohibited under federal housing law. Another problem for locals is the criminal background checks the developers require. Laura Tuggle, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, notes: "It’s kind of challenging in this city for a young African American male to have no arrest record."   

Along with employment and credit checks, the developers have rules governing outdoor gatherings, visitors, holiday decorations, even the flowers planted in the yard. This is the developers’ way of ensuring order in their mixed-income neighborhoods, claimed Noel Khalil, Columbia Residential’s president, in the March 2007 issue of the magazine Affordable Housing Finance. "We’ve learned we need to have very clear guidelines about who can come back to the community…You can have different people living with different incomes, but we must make sure people share the same values and hold them accountable."

Government agencies have apparently given the developers carte blanche in devising criteria and rules, leaving public housing units built with public money in the hands of the private sector. Though some of the developers may be violating fair housing laws in their readmission policies, local activists are not yet able to take on this issue while the rebuilding remains unfinished.

A Human Right to Housing
Late in the summer of 2009, tent cities once again cropped up in the national media. After attracting attention earlier in the year in cities like Sacramento and Seattle, tent cities were now scattered across the country, the Wall Street Journal reported: Nashville, Tennessee; Ontario, California; Ventura, California; East Harlem, New York; Champaign, Illinois. The new face of homelessness, declared the Washington Post, was no longer single men with substance abuse and mental illnesses but rather families with children. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, close to a million people are homeless, with that number expected to double without major intervention to make more housing available and affordable.

"This really is a national crisis," says Tiffany Gardner, director of housing rights for the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. "Many people are paying more than half their income for housing. We’re talking about the need for affordability for all Americans, not just poor people."

Even as millions more families are in need of affordable housing, the supply is dwindling. Public housing buildings are increasingly being replaced by mixed-income developments. The HOPE VI program, one of the major federal vehicles for redeveloping public housing, does not require one-for-one replacement. Studies suggest that HOPE VI redevelopments have managed to bring back fewer than 12 percent of the original residents. Meanwhile, with struggling banks unable to buy tax credits, there’s not much affordable multifamily housing going up.

"There’s been an extreme focus on the private sector in our nation’s approach to housing," says Gardner. "I’ve worked in Africa and Southeast Asia, and I’ve never seen so much emphasis on this privatized model."

In the summer of 2009, the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina brought renewed attention to New Orleans’ housing struggles. In late July, a United Nations advisory group made a fact-finding mission to the city. Then, on August 21, Rep. Maxine Waters held a congressional field hearing in New Orleans, spotlighting the status of the city’s public housing redevelopment. International attention culminated in late October with the first official visit to the United States from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik.

"As it is now, we can’t get anyone in the [U.S.] government to pay attention to what happened here," Sam Jackson told Justice Roars, the blog of the Louisiana Justice Institute. "So we bring in the U.N. representatives and let them know what’s happening. And then people start to ask, ‘Why do we have to get folks from outside the country to come visit us? Why couldn’t we get folks from our own government to visit?’"

In her preliminary report, Rolnik stated: "An approach to housing redevelopment has overly emphasized housing as real estate rather than as a basic social need. This approach has led to displacement of public housing residents, disruption of families and the social fabric of neighborhoods." These days, of course, far more people than the residents of the Big Four have suffered displacement as a result of housing-as-real-estate policies.

The fight for housing for those who once lived in the Big Four is an exceptionally difficult one, but former residents and their advocates are still at it. As of January 2010, volunteers were setting up a new survivors’ village–a rehabbed building now called the Fight Back Center–on the site of a former community center near the St. Bernard to use as a base for community organizing and to help more public housing residents to return. And the battle in New Orleans has prompted larger groups and struggles. One is the Campaign to Restore National Housing Rights, a national coalition of housing rights organizations and community groups–Sam Jackson’s May Day New Orleans among them–working to spread the message of the U.N. visit and to hold congressional hearings on the housing crisis in some of the hardest-hit cities. Other grassroots organizing efforts, such as Miami’s Take Back the Land, are helping families to resist foreclosure evictions or to move into bank-owned, abandoned properties.

It is still unclear how the Obama Administration will respond to the fact that, nationwide, housing is a rapidly growing problem that has reached crisis proportions for many low-income individuals and communities of color. The Institute for Southern Studies has issued a report card giving President Obama a D-plus on Gulf Coast recovery, only a little better than the Bush Administration’s D-minus. Advocates acknowledge that the notion of housing as a public good is a long way from mainstream debate in this country. But with the severity and scale of the housing crisis, and a friendlier ear in the White House, there may be more opportunity to make that case than at any time in the last three decades.

Sam Jackson says that national and international attention must be leveraged into political will if anything is to change. "This is a new fight," he says. "We done been through the old fight. That was about demolition and right of return, and then one-for-one replacement. This is something new here. It’s about housing as a human right."

Tram Nguyen is a freelance writer in Oakland, California.