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MIT: Take Your Hands off of New Orleans' Housing!

MIT is partnering with the Catholic Church and other entities in the "redevelopment" of Lafitte Housing Development, which will entail the destruction of over 800 units of affordable housing. We call on MIT to withdraw from this plan.
Letter to:

Dr. Yossi Sheffi
Professor at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


From:
Elizabeth Cook
C3/Hands off Iberville
New Orleans, La.

October 3rd, 2006


Dr. Yossi Sheffi,

I read with your interest your statements, in regards to New Orleans, on the MIT web site, dated September 7, 2006 ( http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2006/katrina-sheffi.html).

I must say, that it is one of the most dishonest and self-serving analysis of the situation in New Orleans I have read in some time.

As someone serving in the field of academia, it is rather surprising that your analysis would be so flawed. But then again, when one examines your bio, the fact that you have personally profited off of government contracts probably explains this situation.

I am a native of New Orleans, having lived here most of my life, and just prior to Katrina, I became involved in housing issues in the city, namely in regards to public housing.

I am with C3/Hands off Iberville, and we have been involved with organizing and working with residents of public housing to save the Iberville Housing Development from developers, and, since Katrina, to reopen public housing in New Orleans.

HUD has slated much of public housing to be demolished, though many units were hardly damaged by the flood waters. MIT has chosen to become involved in one such demolition project, that of the Lafitte Housing Development.

MIT is partnering with Enterprise Foundation and the Catholic Church, through Providence Community Housing, to "redevelop" Lafitte after its demolition, and create "mixed-income" housing. I have seen some of the Lafitte apartments, since Katrina, and they are in excellent shape, many just needing a good scrubbing.

In terms of racial and social justice, so-called "mixed income" housing in this country has fallen far short of those ideals.

Under the guise of creating "mixed income" housing in the year 2000, the St. Thomas Housing Development was demolished, and 1400 residents permanently displaced. No one knows where the residents are living now or how they have fared since the destruction of their neighborhood, and then further displacement due to Katrina.

Fewer than 100 residents have been allowed to return to St. Thomas, in the "new" River Gardens Development. Does the same fate await the Lafitte Housing Development?

The 860 Lafitte units were built during the New Deal, in response to the Fair Housing Act of 1937, and the units are of excellent construction, and in much better shape than much of the private housing stock in New Orleans currently.

Providence Community Housing has said it will take five years to complete the "redevelopment" of Lafitte. We believe that in a matter of weeks, Lafitte could be reopened.

I give you all of this information as background for my need to respond to you, and as background for MIT's involvement in New Orleans.

With MIT's involvement in the potential destruction of hundreds of units of public housing, it is interesting to read your statements and analyze them accordingly.

It is as though you are attempting to "soften" the market for further plundering by outside interests.

Let me explain, and let's start at the beginning of your "analysis".

You said, "The fact that there is no agency at this point to rebuild New Orleans with all this money in a more coordinated fashion -- that's deplorable," said Sheffi, an expert in systems optimization, risk analysis and supply chain management."

This is false. There is a state agency charged with distributing and coordinating the funding of rebuilding in Louisiana: the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA).

The LRA board is stacked with corporate representatives, and those who coddle corporate interests. Their actions in this recovery process, pushing for the privatization of health care and public housing in New Orleans, for example, has insured that low income workers would be left out of the recovery process itself.

However, given that this is a state agency, created by the governor,
at least this board and those appointed members are theoretically accountable directly to the people.

Your advocacy for a "task force, perhaps run by an experienced military commander" would strip what little recourse our citizens now have in holding our officials accountable.

You said, "It's not a question of more funding. Indeed, Sheffi said, the federal government is virtually throwing money at New Orleans, only to see much of it dissipated in waste.
Congress has allocated more than $100 billion in disaster relief to New Orleans -- a city with a pre-storm population of less than 500,000, Sheffi noted. 'The government is doing its part. The government is pouring money in. It's nonsense to say the government doesn't care.' "

First of all, you and the reporter who interviewed you need to get your facts straight. $100 billion was allocated for the entire gulf coast area, that was affected by Katrina: this includes the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Of those funds, Louisiana will receive $10.4 billion specifically targeted, in the form of CDBG funds, for the rebuilding of housing. Given that in New Orleans alone, 70% of the housing stock was severely damaged, the funds will not nearly cover recovery costs.

Apparently you are unfamiliar with cronyism in government contracts for rebuilding. Maybe the Center for Public Integrity could refresh your memory. On their web site ( http://www.publicintegrity.org/katrina/filter.aspx?cat=3), there is this:

"May 9, 2006
Through a partnership with a smaller, minority-owned company, a multinational firm with ties to the Federal Emergency Management Agency has landed four rebid deals that could be worth $400 million, federal records show. The Times-Picayune reports that the contracts were awarded to PRI/DJI, a joint venture between Del-Jen Industries and the Asian-American-owned PRI Inc., therefore qualifying under the terms of a federal program for disadvantaged businesses. However, Del-Jen is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fluor Corp., which held a mammoth FEMA disaster relief work contract that was up for rebidding when Katrina hit. FEMA then broke that contract up and awarded four $500 million deals for temporary housing work, but later agreed under pressure to rebid them. PRI/DJI's success has angered competitors who say it's outrageous that one partnership especially one linked to the disaster relief giant would win four of the 36 contracts awarded when no other company appears to have landed two. FEMA insists the process has been aboveboard.
See Times-Picayune article"

Multi-national corporations with strong ties to the Bush administration have profited immensely off of this disaster. The question you should be asking, as an academician and one supposedly concerned with the truth, is why haven't the citizens of Louisiana directly benefited more from the billions that have been poured into the Gulf Coast area?

Why? Because profiteering off of disasters in the U.S., by corporations with ties to the White House, while certainly nothing new, has reached new levels of greed with the Bush administration. The huge scope of this disaster serves to amply highlight how little of "relief" monies actually filter to the little guy.

Layer upon layer of major contractors, and then their subcontractors, "filter" the monies, so that much profit is made off of disasters.

Hence the situation in New Orleans where much of the housing stock has yet to be rebuilt, and our vital public infrastructure is still badly damaged.

In your next breath, in your analysis, you take aim at local contractors and businesses:

You said, "But the instruments of government are broken at this point. The instruments work if the recipients are using the money to help themselves -- to actually rebuild homes and businesses. But they're not. They're trying to take as much as they can, whether by shady contractors coming to homeowners or local business owners."

You "diss" local contractors and business owners, yet offer not a shred of evidence to back your statement. In the meantime, what you fail to mention is that the vast majority of local businesses damaged by Katrina, have failed to get a single dime from the SBA, money vitally needed to help get businesses back up and running, particularly small businesses.

Hence we have a situation in New Orleans where many businesses are shuttering their doors. In this very manmade disaster, poorly built levees, neglected and eroding wetlands, issues in which the Federal government has failed the people, and issues in which you fail to mention in your "analysis", local business owners have been left to largely flounder and struggle.

You also target local contractors as "shady". Granted, I'm sure there are people who are here and who move in to the area to take advantage of those down on their luck. Certainly though, there is ample example of large corporations doing the very same thing, corporations with strong ties to the federal government.

One need only look at the tremendous war profiteering by Halliburton and others for example, and those same corporations getting their piece of the disaster pie in the Gulf Coast area as well.

Would that you had mentioned the shady profiteering of those corporations in Iraq, at the tremendous expense of the American tax payer, and what those same funds could have already done, if used wisely, for the Gulf Coast people affected by Katrina.

Your next statements involve the praising of the Coast Guard and two large corporations in the rescue efforts: Wal Mart and Folgers. You fail to mention a single, local entity who responded admirably to the crisis.

The Louisiana Wildlife and Fishery boats were some of the very first boats to engage in rescue operations, as were the so-called "Cajun Navy": hundreds of local citizens who brought their own boats, or commandeered what boats they could find, to save lives.

Indeed, I've heard amazing stories of rescue by New Orleans and Louisiana citizens, doing it on their own, without the help of federal, state or local government. Largely abandoned by their government, citizens pulled together and helped each other, saved lives, and despite all odds, are returning to rebuild as best they can.

You fail to mention any local efforts of New Orleans citizens helping each other, which leads me to believe you are either completely ignorant of any of these stories, or are purposefully attempting to distort the truth of what actually went down.

You make this analysis: "Unfortunately, Sheffi concedes, New Orleans is a "basket case," ridden with a culture of victimhood, dependence on government handouts and greed. One only needs to look, he noted, at the videos of the police brazenly looting stores, even in front of cameras, to see the extent of this "where's mine" culture. Change, he said, must come from within the New Orleans community, at the local level, particularly in religious institutions, parishes and churches."

I'll address this "where's mine" culture in a moment, but let's first take a look at the looting issue by the police that you highlight, apparently, to illustrate the decline and fall of modern civilization, at least in New Orleans.

Police looted, citizens looted, largely for food, water and clothing in the aftermath of Katrina. I know of many "holdouts", people who would not leave, many because they had no where to go to and preferred to take their chances remaining in the city.

They were often treated like common criminals, threatened at gun point by various law enforcement agencies, particularly when Hurricane Rita was approaching . Food and water was withheld from them for days after the flooding began, so citizens turned to looting to save their own lives. Remember, the flooding shut down the water system, so looting was the only means to obtain water, and of course, food.

There were citizens, and police personnel, who looted for profit, though compared to those who looted for necessity, in my view, the bad apples were much fewer than the good. I have eye witnesses who can attest to the issue of looting to save lives.

If you really want to examine the issue of looting, then why don't we look at "sanctioned" looting, again, those multi-national corporations who profit off of disaster and war, at the expense of the victims and the American citizens .

Regarding dependence on government handouts, corporations like Halliburton who largely subsist on government contracts, and whose practices in war and disaster profiteering seriously call into question ethical and criminal considerations, should be first on your list for well-earned derision in terms of "looting" the American taxpayer.

And they are just first on a very long list of corporations that have looted the American tax payer, in times of war and natural, and manmade, disaster.

This "where's mine" culture permeates the corporate culture of greed in America, where, particularly under the Bush administration, taxes for the rich and social services have been slashed at a time when corporate profits are up.

Given that you have worked on government contracts, I suppose calling out the greed of corporate America would be a conflict of interest on your part.

You then say, "Change, he said, must come from within the New Orleans community, at the local level, particularly in religious institutions, parishes and churches."

Given that the Catholic Church, under the guise of Providence Community Housing, has partnered with MIT, among others, to "redevelop" Lafitte, it is interesting that you would encourage change to happen through religious institutions.

I personally heard CEO of Catholic Charities in New Orleans, Jim Kelly, explain away their involvement with Lafitte "redevelopment" this way: since HUD has scheduled Lafitte for demolition anyway, why not get involved in its redevelopment, in so many words. Besides, we're going to make sure its done right.

We deplore this type of justification and collaboration. Instead of speaking out for the human rights of the people to decent and affordable housing, the Catholic Church instead has chosen to profit off of the demolition of hundreds of units of public housing.

Instead of advocating for the reopening of Lafitte, the church will, with money pocketed, continue to pay administration costs on the backs of the working poor.

Your suggestion that we as a community should rely on religious institutions for change is somewhat ironic, in light of these developments.

Lastly, your suggestion that with a military task force, the city could finally "begin to take advantage of the volunteers who want to do their part to help the city recover."

Citizens have already taken advantage of thousands of volunteers that have poured into the city since Katrina. Thousands of homes, however, still need to be gutted, and the need is much greater than any volunteer force can handle.

The New Orleans City Council recently passed an ordinance requiring the gutting of homes in a timely fashion. As many residents continue to be displaced, and have yet to see a penny of road home funds, they are having to rely on these non-profit agencies for gutting services. Most of these services have waiting lists of several years, and many of the agencies have stopped answering their phones. You can talk to the local Acorn office to confirm this.

Reliance on volunteers to do what ought to be funded by the federal government in the aftermath of a disaster such as this is a wait and see game. Wait and see who has the resources to return in a timely fashion, and wait to see how many people simply give up.

The fewer people that return to New Orleans, the less pressure on state, local and the federal government to fund and rebuild our vital public infrastructure. It is a waiting game that New Orleans citizens, those displaced and those who have returned, can't afford to lose.

New Orleans is a "basket case", but not in the way you described, nor for the reasons you cite. The suicide rate is up, and there have been some notable suicides of prominent citizens. PTSD and depression in our citizens are quite common, and with a health care system that has been largely dismantled, many citizens remain untreated.

"Analysis" such as yours, are not deserved by the citizens of our city, and appear timed to justify MIT's involvement in the gentrification project of the redevelopment of Lafitte. Your analysis also serves as an attempt to get the federal government off the hook in terms of the lack of success of rebuilding so far.

Given that you personally have profited from government contracts, this analysis appears particularly self-serving and dishonest.

Your analysis seems as a justification and cover for further efforts that would take advantage of our citizens while they are down, and exploit our city in order to enhance the reputation of MIT.

If we are seen in the light that you present us, then outside attempts to manipulate the rebuilding process, as is currently happening, for the sake of pet, urban redevelopment theories that have nothing to do with the actual realities of the working poor, is further justified.

Further, the Federal and state governments' attempts to privatize public services, as in public housing and public health care, are further served by an analysis such as yours.

I call on you to retract your inaccurate, misleading and false statements regarding our city. Further, I call on MIT to withdraw from the Lafitte "redevelopment" proposal, and instead advocate for immediate reopening of public housing where possible, and clean-up work to begin immediately on those units damaged by flooding.

I also call on MIT to denounce the push to dismantle and privatize public services in our city. Citizens desperately need those services restored, as soon as possible, in order to make the Right of Return a reality.


Elizabeth Cook
C3/Hands off Iberville
New Orleans, La.

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