Sunday, August 27, 2006
Last week, I wrote a post describing the lack of planning leadership in the Lower Ninth Ward and issues of concern for homeowners. The fate of displaced renters is if anything more perilous. Homeowners are guaranteed at least some portion of their property values as part of the Road Home Plan. As eloquently described in a recent post on Counterpunch, human rights attorney and Loyola of New Orleans Law Professor Bill Quigley, displaced renters at this point have been abandoned. Quigley writes:
"Renters, who comprised most of the people of New Orleans before Katrina, are much worse off than homeowners. New Orleans lost more than 43,000 rental units to the storm. Rents have skyrocketed in the undamaged parts of the area, pricing regular working people out of the market. The official rate of increase in rents is 39%. In lower income neighborhoods, working people and the elderly report rents are up much higher than that. Amy Liu of the Brookings Institute said “Even people who are working temporarily for the rebuilding effort are having trouble finding housing.”
Renters in Louisiana are not even scheduled to receive assistance through the Louisiana CDBG program. Some developers will receive assistance at some point, and when they do, some apartments will be made available, but that is years away.
In the face of the worst affordable housing shortage since the end of the Civil War, the federal government announced that it refused to allow thousands of families to return to their public housing units and was going to bulldoze 5000 apartments. Before Katrina, over 5000 families lived in public housing – 88 percent women-headed households, nearly all African American."
In response to the federal government's announcement, public housing residents (represented by Quigley and others) filed a civil rights law suit, Anderson et al v. Jackson, to prevent HUD from demolishing the public housing units and replacing them with mixed-income developments. The complaint recounts some of the outrageous comments made by government officials. Congressman Richard Baker's comment that "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did" was widely reported. The comment by head of the City Council, Oliver Thomas, that New Orleans doesn't need "soap opera watchers" was new to me.
Like the desire to shrink the footprint of New Orleans as part of rebuilding the city, replacing public housing projects with mixed-income housing makes a great deal of sense in theory. The ills of concentrated poverty are well known. However, the ideal of mixed-income development seems naive in the context of a destroyed New Orleans, little action to assist renters to return, and the backdrop of comments like those described above. If little to nothing is being done to provide access to housing for low-income people, the law suit to save the public housing units seems critical to protect displaced renters from being completely excluded from New Orleans.
In the immediate aftermath of Katrina when our national shame was at its peak, many had hope that the failure to protect the most vulnerable might prompt new action on their behalf. We have seen little evidence that government at any level has taken steps in this direction.