Black Out

Rose Harris can't get into her old apartment in New Orleans.

Rose Harris was a resident of the Lafitte Housing Projects in the Treme (rhymes nearly with "dismay") neighborhood of New Orleans for 28 years. She lost a brother, a nephew, and a sister-in-law in Hurricane Katrina. The first floor of her home was flooded, and she has not been able to retrieve her things from the second floor because the project, like the majority of New Orleans' public housing, is currently locked to its former residents.

"HANO is not reopening at this time due to security and safety concerns," reads the Housing Authority of New Orleans website. "HANO has secured your unit with security doors and/or windows."

Mike Howells, of the public housing rights group C3/Hands Off Iberville, estimates that 3,750, or about half of the city's previous number of public housing units, are either habitable or can easily made so (this does not include the projects like Lafitte with serious flooding). And yet only a few dozen units, at a senior citizens' development, have been officially reopened. This at a time when the Gulf Coast director of FEMA, Thad Allen, is telling the New York Times, "Our No. 1 priority is housing, our No. 2 priority is housing, and after that, at No. 3, we'd put housing."

At the moment, public housing residents or those with Section 8 housing vouchers who wish to return to the city are being asked to register with FEMA and wait for rental assistance, as though they were still evacuated.

Comments by U.S. Representative Richard Baker of Baton Rouge and Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, suggest a different motivation besides safety for changing the locks on New Orleans' 10 public housing projects. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did," Baker was overheard telling lobbyists in September, as originally reported in the Wall Street Journal. Jackson predicted to the Houston Chronicle that those who return to the city will be just 35 to 40 percent black, saying, "New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again."

What has housing activists in the city really upset is that national and local officials are publicly planning to repeat across the city what was done at the St. Thomas housing projects. In 2002, after a long public fight, they were demolished and replaced with River Garden. The new development, built using a federal HOPE VI grant and brokered by local businessman Pres Kabacoff, had 25 percent units rated as affordable, versus 75 percent labeled market-rate, and was anchored by the first Wal-Mart in Orleans Parish. Out of 800 families who previously lived in the projects, only about 70 were able to come back in the years before the storm.

"We're not going to build traditional public housing anymore," Jackson said at a November 3 press conference flanked by local leaders, calling St. Thomas "the model."

It's hard to say where that leaves Ms. Harris, who is staying with her godmother. She has 13 grandchildren and one on the way. They are currently evacuated to Houston and Garland, Texas. "Of course, we want to come back home. This is home," she says.


Yesterday, the mostly African American residents of the devastated Lower 9th Ward were allowed back yesterday for a quick look-see of their private homes. They aren't hopeful. The Times-Picayune talked with several families:

The Washingtons, and other Lower 9th Ward originals, are frustrated at the neighborhood's grim reality and bleak future. It's a time when the Lower 9 is caught in the sights of developers seeking mass property buyouts. Activists have papered the streets off Caffin with red and white "No Bulldozing" signs, even on Fats Domino's compound.

"I stayed away for two months because I had nowhere to stay," said Wilmot Washington, who retired after working 35 years at the Folgers coffee plant. "The system didn't bring me back. I brought myself back. I've moved five times since the storm. My sister moved to Atlanta and I moved back into her house" in New Orleans.

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