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The fight for public housing in New Orleans
"They want to keep us out"

May 26, 2006 | Page 8

MIKE HOWELLS is a community activist in New Orleans who has been part of the grassroots struggle to defend the rights of residents during and after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Here, he reports that the fight reopen public housing in New Orleans has intensified.

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ON THE 38th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., residents of the St. Bernard Housing Development and supporters stormed past a line of housing security guards and police to reoccupy the grounds of New Orleans' largest public-housing complex.

The development has been closed since Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order just prior to the landing of Hurricane Katrina last August 29. About 3,000 residents lived in the development at the time of the storm.

Tens of thousands of public-housing residents from New Orleans now languish in exile because the federal government, in collusion with local authorities and real-estate developers, refuses to reopen all but a paltry number of the city's public-housing units.

Fed up with government stonewalling, St. Bernard residents took matters into their own hands April 4 by forcing their way into the cordoned development. At noon, more than 100 protesters gathered in front of the barbed-wire fence, erected in March, which seals off the St. Bernard Development from its now-exiled residents.

The residents of St. Bernard are infuriated that, seven months after the storm, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), now in federal receivership, has refused to commit itself to reopening the development. Virtually nothing has been done by HANO to prepare the development for reoccupation, despite a truly dire housing shortage in the city.

Instead, housing authorities recently installed a barbed-wire fence around the complex at a cost of $300,000 to taxpayers. Carolyn Jones, a St. Bernard resident and rally participant, identified what she and many others believe is the real reason why HANO has not committed to reopening St. Bernard: "They want to keep the poor Blacks out."

The purpose of the April 4 action was to make it clear that public-housing residents are coming back to New Orleans, whether HANO and Washington want them or not!

The main speaker at the rally, Endesha Juakali, a longtime housing activist who grew up in the St. Bernard Development, emphasized that the reopening of the public-housing complex can only be achieved through grassroots struggle. Juakali referred to the campaign rhetoric of City Council President Oliver Thomas: "Oliver Thomas said if you aren't willing to work, then don't come back to New Orleans. I say, if you aren't willing to fight, then don't come back to New Orleans."

In her address to the rally, Lethia Guichard, a resident of the partially reopened Iberville Housing Development and a member of the C3/Hands Off Iberville group, stressed that the residents of her complex support the reopening of all public housing.

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THE DESIRE to return home propelled residents attending the rally to defy a show of force by law enforcement designed to prevent residents from entering their complex.

Immediately after the rally, demonstrators marched across the street to the heavily guarded front-entrance area of the St. Bernard Development. Protesters approaching the development's entrance were met by a line of armed HANO security and New Orleans police determined to keep residents and their supporters from entering.

A 70-year-old grandmother, Gloria Irving, led the first wave of demonstrators onto the grounds of the St. Bernard complex by driving her motorized wheelchair through the line of police and HANO security. About 20 residents and supporters followed Irving into the development before police and HANO security were able to temporarily close the main entrance.

Once inside the development, Irving, surrounded by a contingent of residents and supporters, told those around her, "I want to come home. If I'm going to die, I want to die at home!" Irving is living in exile in Houston.

With the vast majority of the protesters no more than 20 feet away on the other side of the entrance, the demonstrators inside the complex called on the rest to join them. Within minutes, the contingent of demonstrators still outside the complex charged into the police line guarding the entrance.

Standing in front of the one unlocked gate to the development, police attempted to close it. This sparked a tug of war between police and demonstrators for control of the gate. Many of the residents in this contingent, though by no means all, were young and middle-aged women.

Soon, the authorities retreated. The remainder of the protesters poured into St. Bernard. Speaking aloud to fellow demonstrators, Edward Buckner, a longtime resident of the development, expressed a sentiment no doubt shared by many of his fellow protesters: "I was born and raised here. I came to fight for my people."

Many residents, once inside, used the action as an opportunity to visit their homes.

Injuries were sustained as a result of the struggle between protesters and police. Two public-housing residents, both women, suffered bruises as a result of a shoving match with police.

One officer, Mitchell Ducett, the director of HANO security, maintained that he suffered an injury as a result of the protest action. Ducett told local reporters that a woman in a motorized wheelchair ran over his foot, causing him great pain.

With their demand to be allowed to return home, the residents of the St. Bernard Development expressed the sentiment of tens of thousands of exiled public-housing residents and Section 8 renters. In December of last year, HANO reported that 8,400 exiled public housing and Section 8 families had informed the agency of their desire to return to New Orleans.

Even this figure underestimates the real extent of the current displacement of the Crescent City's low-income housing population. Prior to Katrina, according to HANO statistics, 14,000 local families--50,000 people in total--were living in public housing or Section 8 apartments.

As of this writing, 90 percent of the pre-Katrina public-housing units, many of which escaped serious flooding or wind damage during the storm, remain vacant. Much of the city's vast stock of pre-Katrina Section 8 housing, concentrated mainly in the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, did sustain major flood damage. Skyrocketing rents since the storm have prompted landlords of many undamaged rental properties to opt out of the Section 8 program.

This bleak scenario feeds a de facto campaign of class and ethnic cleansing whose main target is the working-class and overwhelmingly African American Section 8 and public-housing population of the city.

Responsibility for the continued exile of New Orleans' Section 8 and public-housing residents lies with Washington.

HANO operates under the direction of a one-member board, an appointee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This HANO functionary answers to HUD Secretary Alphonse Jackson.

Jackson is an outspoken critic of the city's traditional public housing and public-housing residents. Last November, Jackson told a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune that his agency is committed to imposing HOPE VI-style mixed-income housing "reform" on all of the city's traditional public-housing complexes.

The problem with this path, from the perspective of public-housing residents, is twofold. First, instituting HOPE VI will add years to the wait for the reopening of public housing in the targeted complexes. Worse still, across-the-board implementation of HOPE VI will drastically--and permanently--reduce the total number of low-income public-housing units available in New Orleans.

The city, according to HANO, possesses about 7,400 low-income public-housing units. Housing reform of the sort that Jackson and President Bush advocate would all but guarantee the permanent exile of tens of thousands of working class and African-American New Orleanians.

This is just fine with Jackson. He is on record as saying that many pre-Katrina public-housing residents do not deserve to return to New Orleans.

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THE MOST influential local Democratic politicians are doing their part to help pave the way for a radical downsizing of the city's public housing. The Democrats have ignored exiled public-housing residents or scapegoated them.

Mayor Ray Nagin, who recently won a heated re-election campaign, has simply avoided the issue of public housing altogether. Nagin's main challenger in the election, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, endorsed implementation of HOPE VI-style mixed-income housing "reform."

City Council President Oliver Thomas, a liberal African American Democrat, has made the scapegoating of public-housing residents a theme of his re-election campaign. At a recent meeting of the City Council's Housing and Human Needs Committee, he dismissed public-housing residents as "soap opera watchers." Several weeks later, at a meeting of the full City Council, Thomas referred to public-housing activists as "poverty pimps."

Another prominent local African-American Democrat, Sherman Copelin, is spearheading an effort to prevent the return of Section 8 housing to the heavily flooded New Orleans East area. Copelin is a former state representative and a onetime chair of the Louisiana Rainbow Coalition.

If successful, the political offensive against the reopening of public housing will pave the way for a massive land grab of HANO's properties by the city's politically dominant real-estate developers.

Joseph Canizaro, the city's leading real-estate developer, chairs the Urban Planning Committee of Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission. The main responsibility of this committee is to provide federal authorities with a plan of action for redeveloping hurricane-ravaged housing and businesses in post-Katrina New Orleans.

During the 2004 election, Canizaro emerged as Louisiana's biggest contributor to President Bush's re-election campaign. Furthermore, Canizaro made generous contributions to the 2002 election campaigns of Mayor Nagin and all the standing members of the City Council.

The investments Canizaro has made in public officeholders have paid off handsomely. With the enthusiastic support of local politicians, most notably Oliver Thomas, Canizaro and another local developer, Pres Kabacoff, prodded authorities into decimating the St. Thomas Housing Development, under the guise of implementing "mixed income" housing reform. This scheme for "housing reform" purged thousands of low-income housing residents from the city center. Many found themselves pushed into now-flooded Section 8 housing in the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, just several years before Hurricane Katrina.

On the other hand, Canizaro, who at the time owned acres of land adjacent to the St. Thomas Development, profited handsomely from the decimation of St. Thomas. He sold his land, after authorities committed to applying "mixed income" housing reform to St. Thomas, for a profit of $70 million!

Now Canizaro and his fellow developers are situating themselves so that they can reap mega-profits from the privatization of the city's existing public housing.

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THE FATE of Section 8 and public housing in New Orleans--and with it the homes of 50,000 already traumatized human beings--hangs in the balance. The ruling class seeks to make the temporary closing of thousands of units of local public housing permanent as a prelude to the privatization of these properties.

Such a development would all but guarantee the permanent exile of tens of thousands of Katrina survivors. This would signal the triumph of calculated mass ethnic cleansing, a true crime against humanity.

In addition, the liquidation of public housing in post-Katrina New Orleans would surely embolden racist gentrifiers to step up attacks on the 1.2 million units of public housing elsewhere in this country--at a time when skyrocketing rental prices are already pushing millions of poor in the United States to the brink of homelessness.

The main impediment to the privatization of the Crescent City's public housing stock is the united front of public-housing residents and supporters now battling for the reopening of all pre-Katrina public housing. The April 4 protest shows that public-housing residents and supporters are not about to stand by idly while authorities try to use Katrina as a pretext for dismantling the city's public housing.

Still, many battles lie ahead if the Crescent City's public housing is to be reopened. With this in mind, public-housing residents and community supporters have formed the United Front for Affordable Housing. The United Front is determined to fight what amounts to a conspiracy by the U.S. government and local elites to permanently exile tens of thousands of working-class Katrina survivors.

But to win this battle local public-housing residents need national support. The United Front is asking progressive individuals and organizations throughout the country to join forces with public-housing residents in their struggle to return home.

To contact the United Front, e-mail [email protected].

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