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New Orleans activist Mike Howells explains...
How one fight against evictions was won

November 18, 2005 | Page 11

IN THE face of evictions and gentrification in post-Katrina New Orleans, some residents are fighting back. MIKE HOWELLS, a longtime community activist in New Orleans, has been a spokesperson for residents who defied orders to evacuate after the hurricane. Here, he tells the story of one victory in the fight for the rights of poor and working-class residents.

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RESIDENTS OF Forest Park Apartments in the Algiers section of New Orleans are fighting attempts by the management of the complex to displace them from their homes under the pretext of repairing damage allegedly caused by Hurricane Katrina.

On October 14, residents found written notices attached to the doors of all units ordering them to vacate by October 15. At the time of the order, about 50 apartment units were occupied, mainly by Section 8 renters.

Faced with a dire shortage of moderate-income rental units in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans area, residents and community activists quickly organized a fightback against the de facto eviction, which clearly violated Gov. Kathleen Blanco's temporary ban on evictions in Louisiana.

Many of the apartments of Forest Park escaped Hurricane Katrina unscathed. For example, Charlestine Jones, spokesperson for the Forest Park Tenants' Association, found, after returning to her home after she and her daughter evacuated, that her apartment was "perfectly habitable." The building in which her unit is located stayed dry and free of wind damage, and residents continued to occupy other units.

Jones assumed that she and her daughter could begin the task of rebuilding their lives in post-Katrina New Orleans from the comfort of their old home. Unfortunately, the management of Forest Park had other plans.

On October 4, the assistant manager of Forest Park told Jones that she would have to vacate her apartment. When Jones asked why, she was told maintenance needed to repair storm damage and eliminate mold. Jones countered that her apartment didn't have either mold or storm damage. The assistant manager, in the presence of the manager of Forest Park, simply reiterated that Jones would have to leave.

Ten days later, the Forest Park management posted written notices ordering tenants to vacate their apartments by the following day. This simply ignored a decree by Blanco prohibiting the eviction of renters in the state's disaster areas prior to October 25.

The shortage of low- and moderate-income rental units in post-Katrina New Orleans is dire. Flooding in east New Orleans and the Ninth Ward has made the lion's share of the city's Section 8 housing uninhabitable. The Housing Authority of New Orleans has refused to reopen even those public housing units undamaged by Katrina--on the grounds that insurance adjusters must first inspect them. Plus, landlords in the unflooded sections of New Orleans are raising rents to astronomical levels to capitalize on the housing shortage and the temporary but huge influx of disaster relief personnel and out-of-town building contractors.

Determined to stay, Jones attempted to contact local authorities to help her block the eviction action. She tried to contact Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, but her phone calls went unanswered. So did her calls to the office of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

The local court that normally oversees legal evictions was closed indefinitely, and with no official source of recourse available, Jones concluded that her only hope of successfully fighting the eviction was to protest.

Jones and her husband decided that the first anti-eviction protest should coincide with a rally to welcome the return of evacuees arriving in a bus caravan organized by Operation PUSH. At the rally they unfurled a banner saying, "Stop the Forest Park Evictions."

When Jones confronted Mayor Nagin at the rally, he refused to address the eviction. But she and her husband did get support from many participants, including members of the C3/Hands Off Iberville coalition, who were picketing the same event to demand the reopening of public housing in New Orleans. Jones and C3/Hands Off Iberville joined together to fight the attempted eviction of Forest Park residents.

On October 14, about 40 residents and local and visiting activists demonstrated outside the office of the management of the Forest Park Apartments. When protesters attempted to enter the manager's office, the police were called. Upon arriving, the police forced protesters onto the sidewalk. Protesters shouted back: "This eviction is illegal, arrest the landlord!"

Eventually, management agreed to meet with tenants on the condition that non-tenants stay outside. At this meeting, the assistant manager told residents that they would have to vacate by October 17.

The following day, Jones attempted to present a list of demands to Forest Park management--including that renovation would not result in increases in rent, and that Forest Park would assist temporarily displaced tenants in securing affordable housing.

Initially, the management refused to accept the demands. However, later that day, an attorney from the New Orleans Legal Assistance Clinic warned that Forest Park would face an injunction against the obviously illegal evictions.

Visiting activists also orchestrated protests against the NHP Foundation--the owners of Forest Park--at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The NHP Foundation recently received a grant of $225,000 to provide housing and assistance to Katrina evacuees now in Texas.

The protests quickly produced victories. On October 18, Forest Park management announced that the date for vacating apartments had been pushed back to October 31.

Most importantly, the NHP Foundation forwarded a letter of intent to the Forest Park Tenants Association accepting four of the tenants' five demands. This means that dislocated tenants will be able to return to their homes after repairs are made without facing a rent hike. In the meantime, the NHP Foundation is obligated to guarantee that temporarily displaced renters are placed in housing they can afford until their return is possible.

The victory of the Forest Park residents demonstrates that grassroots struggle is an essential component in the huge battle to defend affordable housing in post Katrina New Orleans. Forest Park is, hopefully, the opening salvo of a metropolitan-wide campaign to defend the rights of tenants in the greater New Orleans area. Activists in New Orleans are studying its lessons closely.

Call Mike Howells at 504-587-0080 to help in the struggle to defend tenants under siege in New Orleans.

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