Stealing land, hope after Katrina: the how-to guide

By Guest Columnist Jun 22, 2007

by Jacob Faber Jacob Faber, a Researcher at the Center for Social Inclusion, looks at how state policies concerning post-Katrina housing and business development are laying a blueprint for the expulsion of Blacks. He writes for RaceWire: "The Future of New Orleans ‘Recovery Zones’" *** Ed Blakely managing recovery in New Orleans recently announced 17 “Recovery Zones” that the city will pump $1.1 billion of public money into over the next few years. At first glance, this appears good. But my research shows that this might be another harmful land grab using our tax dollars. And, another barrier to keep poor people of color from coming back and rebuilding their lives. The planned Recovery Zones are spread across most of New Orleans, with the highest concentration in or around Mid-City and Central City/Garden District, both of which are job centers and homes to many poor people of color. According to the Times Picayune:

The city will provide loans and other incentives to developers interested in investing in key locations within the zones. The zones are generally high visibility sites, with sufficient land and other assets. They also have a high potential to attract investors and possess adequate resources to catalyze development such as schools and libraries.

Initiatives planned for these areas include creating financial incentives for business development, and expanding eminent domain— the very controversial power of the state to claim privately-owned land (homes, small businesses, etc.) for public use (parks, highways, etc.). Of course, cutting red tape and investing in local business can be great, but the further expansion of eminent domain in a city where it is already being used to keep Blacks and other “undesirable populations” out is a scary thought. Just a few months after the storm, the city proposed blocking immediate redevelopment of many neighborhoods while expanding use of eminent domain to force many from their homes in heavily-flooded areas across the city. The Picayune explained:

The City Council…approved a law giving the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority the ability to seize property using "quick-take" power, an enhancement of the agency’s already formidable seizure power. The law gives the agency the power to take blighted property with minimal red tape, provided the owner is paid the property’s appraised value.

The Supreme Court, in the extremely controversial 2005 case Kelo v. City of New London, affirmed a city’s ability to use eminent domain to condemn privately-owned property as part of a larger economic development plan, essentially allowing the forced, state-facilitated transfer of land from one private owner (homeowner) to another (developer). Evidence of eminent domain abuse can be found in the overwhelmingly-Black Lower 9th Ward, where the city bulldozed homes without informing their owners. Then there was the plan to raze 3,000 units of affordable housing in the city’s housing projects, which many Black New Orleanians called home, even though they were in relatively good shape. Add to that, only half the city’s population (and only 30% of the city’s Black population) has returned and you have the potential for a replay of all that we know about large scale displacement and its disastrous consequences. (See Mindy Fullilove’s “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurt America and What We Can Do About It”) This all leaves me with a deluge of important questions such as: Who will Mr. Blakely’s eminent domain powers and Recovery Zones benefit? How will the many Black homeowners and entrepreneurs still living outside the city represent their property? Will already-struggling communities of color have to worry about city-sanctioned permanent displacement of former residents? Will “appraised value” for property be determined by pre-storm worth or storm-depressed real estate values? Where will the $1.1 billion of public money come from and what is the relationship of the Recovery Zones with the broad, city-wide Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP)? With broken promises of affordable housing, an ineffective housing rebuilding program (Road Home) that is now running out of money, widespread housing discrimination, and elected officials who see Katrina “clean[ing] up public housing in New Orleans”, many former residents can’t even find a place to live, let alone establish employment, access quality healthcare, or feel safe in their communities. If left to their own devices, the powers that be seem to be heading toward the gentrification model, which will rake in the bucks for a small minority of people with vested interests in real estate, finance and politics at the expense of most of the people. For more, including our latest New Orleans Recovery Report Card, a monthly gauge of recovery efforts, and check out our Hurricane Katrina Project. Jacob Faber is a Researcher at the Center for Social Inclusion