NOLA Public Housing Battle Continues
By Kari Lydersen
March 5, 2007
New Orleans -- Sharon Sears Jasper starts to cry as she remembers the
good days at St. Bernard Housing Development, one of New Orleans'
public housing projects at the center of the fight over the future of public
housing in the post-Katrina city.
"I was always in the kitchen making gumbo," says Jasper, who
grew up in the development, raised children there, moved out with her
husband then moved back after a divorce to take care of ailing family
members. "We had a family lunch every Sunday, we'd laugh and talk
and go to church, go on family picnics and reunions."
Jasper was displaced to Lafayette, La. after Hurricane
Katrina, but came back in November to reclaim her old home. She said
her unit is virtually livable, and along with other former residents and
supporters who cut through a fence around the development, she has been
cleaning the building out.
On Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 15, residents and supporters
held a large protest demanding they be allowed back to the development.
But federal authorities who maintain the buildings sustained
too much wind and water damage to be fixed filed a restraining order
legally barring residents from the premises. In January the federal
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has held the
Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) in receivership since 2002,
filed a lawsuit against residents and their supporters for entering and
cleaning up the units.
"We're showing them we can do it, but they don't want us to
do it," said Jasper.
Bill Quigley, an attorney who has filed a class action
lawsuit on behalf of the residents, said he thinks 80 percent of the
about 5,000 people who formerly lived in St. Bernard want to return.
An organization of supporters called May Day NOLA have been
living in St. Bernard units, with the residents' permission, to
symbolically hold onto the homes and clean them up. On Jan. 31
activists were arrested in the middle of the night at gun point by police SWAT
"We were there because we believed in the fact that people
who lived in these public homes deserve to come back," arrestee Jamie
"Bork" Loughner later told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.
"There's no reason for HANO to hassle people who are just trying to reopen public
housing and even have them arrested, when they should be concentrating
on getting housing back for families."
Residents and activists see the city's plans to demolish
most New Orleans public housing developments, including 4,500 units in
four major developments, as part of an overall plan to keep low-income
black people from returning to the city. They expect that if the St.
Bernard, CJ Pete, Lafitte and B.W. Cooper developments are demolished,
they will be replaced by upscale housing catering to wealthier, whiter
residents. The plan has even drawn the ire of preservation groups,
including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who say the
public housing buildings have architectural and historical
Several national architects and engineers, including a study
by MIT, have backed up residents' claims that the structural damage
to St. Bernard is relatively minimal. Residents note that the projects
used to always be known as the "safe" place where people from other
parts of the city would take refuge during storms.
"Everyone loves the projects for safety," said Edward
Druckner, assistant executive director of the New Day organization
based at St. Bernard, shortly after a tornado hit New Orleans in February.
While displaced in Lafayette, Jasper said, "every day
someone died, from the stress, the pressure, and our broken hearts made
it that much worse." She notes that moving back to their homes is key
to reuniting families who have been scattered across the US, trying to
survive with little income or social ties in places like Houston, Baton
Rouge, Chicago, Birmingham and Atlanta.
"Kids are not getting along at school, people are sick and
stressed out, people are dying," she said. "Some are terminally
ill. If we're going to die, let us die at home. All the money they would
spend on the demolition and that they've spent on the lawyers to fight us,
they could be using that money to fix public housing and get us job
training and social services and help us get our lives back
The privatization of public housing goes along with a larger
privatization trend in the city, including the closing of public
Charity Hospital and the mass transformation of public schools into charter
"This is definitely a land grab," said Quigley, who is
defying the housing authority's demand that he not talk to media.
"There are not many big areas in New Orleans where developers can put up
hundreds of apartments or homes. Public housing sites have always been
looked at by the big money people as wasted real estate opportunities.
Katrina gave those who want to make big bucks an 'opportunity' to
lock out residents and flip these public properties into private hands, and
use tax payer money to do it."
Since Katrina recovery money will apparently be used for
public housing demolition, federal disaster money will essentially be
used to pave the way for what ultimately will become for-profit private
development. And the redevelopment fits with the national trend in
public housing, where large public housing projects are demolished and
redeveloped as "mixed income" buildings with only a small number of
units earmarked for former residents. Many residents displaced from
public housing are deemed ineligible for further housing assistance,
due to stringent criteria, while others are given Section 8 vouchers to
subsidize housing on the private market. Holders of Section 8 vouchers
are often unable to find housing, since they face landlord
discrimination, a lack of affordable housing which meets Section 8 rent
ceilings and other problems.
There is practically no chance for former public housing
residents to return to New Orleans if their former units aren't
available, since rent prices have gone up at least 70 percent in the
post-Katrina housing crunch. A Section 8 voucher in New Orleans would
be virtually useless.
"Poor and working people, especially women, people of color
and renters, are not being welcomed back to New Orleans," said
"[Authorities] say 'Come home,' but their actions say, 'We do
not want you back.'"
Duckner noted that without public housing, the low wage
workers the city needs to revive its tourism and service sector may
have nowhere to live.
"These projects are the driving force of the service
industry in the city," he said. "Most of the service industry
workers came from the projects - waitresses, housekeepers. These are the
people who make the conventions and restaurants work."
The spike in crime in recent months seems to have bolstered
the city's public case for destroying public housing, which is often
stigmatized in the mainstream media and public consciousness as a
magnet for crime. But Jasper points out that bringing long-time residents back
to the developments could curb crime.
"You don't destroy homes to solve crime, you deal with the
issue and have community meetings," she said. "If we come back we
can work with the police to solve crime. If they put more resources in our
community, we wouldn't have so much crime. Don't forget crime
starts in the White House!"
Jasper said she has trouble understanding how
decision-makers in the city government and housing authority can live
"They're doing everything possible to kick us out," she
said. "They're using politics to destroy our families. What kind of
people are they? They can go back to their homes with their children,
laughing and talking, while we're here suffering. But I don't care
what kind of restraining order they put on me. I'll keep fighting until I
can't do it anymore."
Kari Lydersen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the
Washington Post, In These Times, LiP Magazine, Clamor, and The New
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