Demolition is developments' destiny, HANO says Agency confronts civil rights lawsuit

Gwen Filosa, Staff Writer, Times-Picayune
Date Published: 
October 18, 2006
Public housing in New Orleans has a date with the wrecking ball, and residents, activists and their attorneys need to accept the harsh reality of a post-Hurricane Katrina world, attorneys for the Housing Authority of New Orleans say in court responses to an ongoing civil rights lawsuit.

Former tenants this year sued HANO and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for closing four of the largest New Orleans developments. The plaintiffs depict the HANO-HUD plan as racist: a cold-hearted abandonment of the poor that violates their civil rights.

HANO denies any wrongdoing and, in its most detailed response to critics since the levees failed 13 months ago, says it cannot afford to repair what the floodwaters damaged. So does its co-defendant HUD, the federal housing agency that has directly run HANO since 2002 after finding rampant mismanagement that stretched across two decades.

Between 1981 and 2001, HUD sunk slightly more than $1 billion -- $800 million in the 1990s alone -- into New Orleans public housing without any documented results of improvement to the lives of its tenant families, a federal audit found. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson in June announced that his office would mastermind the post-Katrina plan.

To start: Tear down four major complexes and start over, he said. HANO describes its holdings as "deteriorated, obsolete, high-density public housing developments located in areas of racial and poverty isolation." Repairing them is beyond the scope and skills of its maintenance staff, HANO argues, and hiring contractors would cost hundreds of millions per site.

Nor does HANO have much patience with the notion that returning to New Orleans is a civil right. HANO's message to former residents of St. Bernard, Lafitte, B.W. Cooper, and C.J. Peete is that they need to move on with their lives. They also point out that HANO has issued vouchers to help its pre-Katrina residents find places to rent. "To the extent that there are no alternative accommodations available in New Orleans, HANO certainly has no duty to provide plaintiffs with housing in New Orleans," attorney Rachel Wisdom wrote on behalf of HANO and its administrators, HUD officials Donald Babers and William Thorson. "It is an unfortunate result of the hurricane that many people who would like to live in New Orleans simply cannot do so at the present time," wrote Wisdom, of the New Orleans firm Stone, Pigman, Walther, Wittmann, LLC. "Plaintiffs have been provided with housing vouchers to use anywhere they want, whether in New Orleans, as some have done, or in nearby Louisiana communities or those out of state."

HANO also dismisses the allegation that its mass closings are racist, noting that all of its tenants are African-American, therefore no one class of people is being discriminated against over another. A full-blown hearing on the matter is set for Oct. 25 in federal court before U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle.

Vision for future
For now, the government agencies consider Cooper, Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard candidates for demolition and redevelopment, while two additional complexes in the 9th Ward, Florida and Desire, remain closed.

HANO already has struck a lease with developers to take the reins in redeveloping the Lafitte site. In place of the old concentrations of uniformly low-income tenants in uniformly squalid housing, HANO promises modern-day housing clusters that mix subsidized tenants among middle- and even upper-income residents living in housing styles that range from apartments to single-family homes. That is the future, like it or not, the city agency and its federal overseers say.

HANO doesn't build housing and estimates that it would cost at least $80 million to repair just one of the flood-damaged complexes. Instead of building, HANO manages and maintains units that date back to the 1940s and a portion of new homes built by private developers as part of the River Garden complex, which comprises mostly market-rate renters who live on the site of the former St. Thomas public housing development.

The first foray into the revamping of public housing is taking place in Treme and in the adjacent city district known to post-Katrina planners as Tulane-Gravier, a piece of the city bordered by Treme and the Pontchartrain Expressway and stretching from Mid-City's South Broad Street to Claiborne Avenue. Nonprofit developers Providence Community Housing and Enterprise have teamed up to demolish Lafitte and develop 1,500 new homes. Jim Kelly, chief executive officer of the local Catholic Charities agency and Providence's president, is taking care to present himself and his colleagues as home builders, not hired guns. They have promised to replace the 900 apartments at Lafitte, keeping the same formula for rents as HANO, which is 30 percent of a tenant's income. "We're trying to bring people back to New Orleans while we try to develop the site," Kelly told a crowd of at least 300 neighborhood residents during a meeting this month. "That's what our mission is:
to bring you home."

Dwindling supply
Public housing has been slowly disappearing from the city's landscape for decades. HANO's housing stock, which in 1996 numbered 13,694 units, had shrunk to 7,600 apartments before Katrina, with only 5,146 occupied. The number of occupied homes today is fewer than 1,100. HANO's response to the federal lawsuit makes no apology for its handling of the disaster.

Part policy paper, part tough-love lecture, the documents filed in answer to the tenants' lawsuit constitute the most direct statement yet from the beleaguered housing authority, taken over by the federal government in 2002, years after the feds started monitoring what they found to be rampant mismanagement of money that was supposed to go toward complex upkeep.

HANO has the support of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and is raring to roll forward with its decision to redevelop its holdings rather than patch them back together. But ridding the city of the aging clusters of brick buildings hinges largely on private developers, who would have to create housing that serves a poor community and gamble that government tax credits would make it possible to offer rents as low as HANO's.

With residents required to pay 30 percent of their income, HANO rents range from $25 a month to $418. On average, tenants pay $85 monthly. HANO contends it has done its best under difficult circumstances, handing out housing vouchers for displaced tenants and cleaning up the mess that Katrina and the ensuing floods made of the public housing complexes -- some, such as the Desire complex, that had been recently overhauled.

Some units reopened HANO had been planning to reopen a number of units at the C.J. Peete development in Central City when vandals and looters stripped copper pipes and wiring from them, rendering the vacant buildings unsalvageable. Pre-Katrina, only 144 of the complex's 723 apartments were occupied.

The Iberville complex, which borders the French Quarter, was reopened not long after the storm and has become a catch-all residence for tenants shut out of other public housing, such as St. Bernard, which, like its neighbors in Gentilly, was flood-ravaged. Iberville had 836 apartments pre-Katrina but only 673 occupied.

Today, the number of units open and filled is 217. St. Bernard has more than 1,400 apartments, but only 1,015 were filled with families before the storm. Meanwhile, Lafitte in Treme, home to 865 families before Katrina, is on track for demolition and rebirth by a team of nonprofit developers with a track record for successfully turning blight into working neighborhoods.

Providence and its counterpart, Enterprise, unveiled plans this month to residents during a series of public meetings, during which developers repeated that they are not HANO or HUD and that they had nothing to do with the decision to tear down the brick buildings. Instead, developers gave tours of modular homes put up in the 1800 block of Dumaine and invited residents to pitch their ideas.