Tuesday, August 22, 2006
The media is providing a dizzying array of material devoted to post-Katrina New Orleans this week. Spike Lee's HBO movie "When the Levees Broke" aired last night and tonight. This week's New Yorker includes a carefully crafted Letter from New Orleans, by Dan Baum, and Fortune has published a special report, entitled "The Long, Strange Resurrection of New Orleans."
I spent a few days in New Orleans this summer as part of a public health and environmental justice meeting. The city is not wholly recovered, but as the media has reported, the real devastation is in the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. Both areas are predominantly African American. New Orleans East is an affluent community and the rebuilding has clearly begun there. The Lower Ninth is a much more complicated story.
The Lower Ninth is known for its high poverty and crime rates -- but pre-Katrina, it was also home to families who had been present for generations. Baum reports that sixty percent of homes were inhabited by homeowners. In the early days after the flooding, many people, including Mayor Roy Nagin, were skeptical that the Lower Ninth should be rebuilt. The Bring New Orleans Back Proposal proposed "shrinking the footprint" of the City. Some discussed using eminent domain to force buy-outs of areas that would better serve the City as wetlands or green space. Eminent domain was a political non-starter, however, and the idea of shrinking the footprint was widely criticized by residents of the Ninth as well as civil rights leaders. Shrinking the footprint was replaced by the mantra "let the homeowners decide."
The State of Louisiana has adopted a plan, the Road Home Plan, that in some sense lets homeowners decide whether to rebuild. It awards funding to rebuild or repair homes, or offers state buy out for homeowners who would prefer to relocate. But in small print, it also gives the state and local government the option of limiting some homeowners to the buy out provision "in areas where a high proportion of homeowners are choosing not to invest."
This tactic seems reasonable in some respects. If few homeowners plan to rebuild in a particular area, it will become blighted. But it raises many troubling questions as well. The document gives no guidance on how the government will determine what constitutes a "high proportion." And, this portion of the plan has gotten little attention that I can see. If displaced homeowners don't know that their fate is tied to their neighbors, they have no incentive to work collectively to decide whether to rebuild. They may simply find themselves forced to sell. But the state and local government are protected from the claim that they chose to shrink the footprint.
In light of New Orleans' recent experience with governmental failure, the distrust of any governmental land use planning that will force people out of their homes is not surprising. However, the government's abdication of rational land use planning in favor of a non-plan that nevertheless may force people from their homes seems far worse.