Who Exiled New Orleans' Poor?

By Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights organization (THE WASHINGTON POST, 17/05/07):

Mary Ann Wright has been waiting to return home to the Lafitte public housing development in New Orleans for 20 months, but the federal government stands in her way. She's used to waiting for a federal response to Hurricane Katrina. After all, she was left in the floodwaters like thousands of other low-income African Americans.

For several weeks the 51-year-old evacuee lived in the Houston convention center, hoping to return to her apartment, which sustained very little flood damage. Wright eventually rented an apartment in Houston and found a job there a year later, but her salary is substantially less than she made in New Orleans. Stressed and depressed, she is struggling to survive with few family members nearby and no access to medical care.

Wright is among those in nearly 4,000 families who remain displaced from New Orleans public housing; these people's lives are in limbo, but not because of Hurricane Katrina and certainly not, as the April 30 editorial "Return to New Orleans" suggested, because of a civil rights lawsuit.

When the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans was lifted, residents of public housing, many of whom left with only the clothes on their backs, returned to find most of their homes locked and boarded up. This closure was not due to hurricane damage or flooding. In fact, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology architect's assessment in October 2006 showed no structural damage and minimal interior damage to most of these buildings because these all-brick structures were built to withstand such storms.

As residents of public housing watched the city attempt to come back, they wanted to know when they, too, could return. Although they knew the government had failed them during the evacuation, they did not imagine that the next federal insult would be locking them out of their homes.

The federal government might as well have put an ad in the paper: "Blacks Not Wanted." One month after Katrina's landfall, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who is charged with providing housing to the poor and eliminating discrimination, stated that New Orleans "is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again." Worse, just days after the storm, Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.) proclaimed, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

Then, HUD, which controls New Orleans public housing, announced that it would demolish 5,000 units of public housing, reopen 2,000 units by August 2006 (to date only about 1,200 have been reopened) and redevelop additional units. No date certain, just a promise of future mixed-income housing developments.

Residents of New Orleans public housing know this history too well. Over the past 10 years, 6,000 public housing units have been closed despite a waiting list of thousands. In 2000, 700 families were displaced for a "mixed-income" development. When HUD seized the storm as an opportunity to build more mixed-income developments, residents responded in kind; filing a lawsuit protects people's right to return.

The city, developers and the feds are planning the largest urban renewal and black removal in U.S. history. While it's clear that blacks were hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, there is no aggressive plan to bring them home.

While HUD professes to want something better for public housing residents, its plan falls woefully short. There is no strategy to replace every unit that is demolished nor to increase the number of affordable housing units to meet growing needs.

Residents of New Orleans public housing want to go home now, not in five to 10 years. Most are depressed, some talk of committing suicide, others are suffering the effects of high blood pressure, and several elderly residents have died.

In addition to the lawsuit filed by the Advancement Project, residents have organized themselves and met with members of Congress. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) took the lead to win House passage of the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007, which requires the reopening of public housing in New Orleans (a minimum of 3,000 units to start) and one-for-one replacement of demolished units, as well as seeking residents' input. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and her colleagues should restore residents' hope by following the example of the House.

The effort to return these families is a historic moment not only for the 4,000 displaced public housing families, but for every poor family in America. The outcome will determine whether the federal government can pounce on families, dispose of them and continue to marginalize them because they are poor and/or black. These families refuse to be silenced and exiled.