Displaced residents file suit; Local, federal housing agencies face civil rights allegations

Gwen Filosa, Staff Writer, Times-Picayune
Date Published: 
June 28, 2006

New Orleans public housing residents filed a civil rights lawsuit Tuesday against the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying the agencies are preventing low-income black families from returning to the city.

Two weeks after HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced sweeping plans to redevelop New Orleans' public housing, with four traditional complexes in line for the wrecking ball, residents filed the suit claiming HUD's plan violates laws of fair housing, equal protection and even international law.

"We want to return to our homes," said Pamela Mahogany, who lived in the sprawling St. Bernard complex in the 7th Ward before the floodwaters of Aug. 29. She has since found a rental using a federal housing voucher but said she wants her neighborhood back.

"We have a right to live in public housing," Mahogany said Tuesday, during a news conference on the steps of the federal court building.

Permanent and affordable

Eighteen people who lived in public housing units before Hurricane Katrina filed the federal suit on behalf of thousands of others who haven't been able to return to their homes in the city's complexes, such as the flood-damaged St. Bernard in the 7th Ward.

The complexes "are permanent, affordable housing units within the community of their choice," the federal lawsuit says. "Instead of moving quickly to reopen habitable units and make repairs where necessary, for the most part, HANO boarded up units. Most recently, HUD made clear that these families would not be able to return anytime soon when it announced its plan to demolish 5,000 public housing units."

HANO has said that the complexes are far too damaged for rehabilitation and that the enormous St. Bernard, along with three other complexes, will be torn down and redeveloped within three years. Meanwhile, only about 1,000 of the 5,100 pre-Katrina public housing units have reopened, HANO said.

Even that number is inflated, said attorneys for the public housing residents Tuesday, who said the number of returning families numbers about 880.

"HUD is constantly changing the rules," said attorney Bill Quigley, one of several representing the residents. "In court, a judge is going to make them (HUD officials) raise their hands and they're going to have to tell the truth or face the consequences."

Looking toward the future

HUD said Tuesday that it wants all residents to be able to return to New Orleans, but it will not place people back into damaged, substandard units.

The redevelopment plan will help New Orleans rebuild a prosperous city, HUD spokesman Jerry Brown said.

"This is about the next generation," Brown said.

Most of the named plaintiffs in the suit continue to live outside of New Orleans since the floodwaters forced them to flee their hometown.

Donna Johnigan, a 30-year resident of B.W. Cooper and a resident leader, remains in Houston but wants HANO to repair her apartment because it is affordable for her, the lawsuit says. Emelda Paul, a 40-year resident of the Lafitte complex in Mid-City, is living in Arizona and said her apartment suffered "minor flood damage, mold and mildew."

The public housing residents are being represented in part by local attorney Tracie Washington and the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group based in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit sues by name Jackson, HUD, HANO, and the two federal officials recently assigned to run HANO's board, Donald Babers and Bill Thorson.

'Not disposable'

Many public housing residents in New Orleans either have been relocated to different public housing complexes, or now use federal Section 8 vouchers to live in the private sector. Others live with families or friends in the New Orleans region.

Having a temporary home isn't the same as returning home, said attorney Judith Browne-Dianis, of the Advancement Project, and the families are in distress.

"Public housing residents are not disposable," Browne-Dianis said Tuesday outside the federal courthouse in New Orleans. "You can't move them around like checkers. When you have boarded up the units and spent money on gates and fences instead of on mold remediation, that is a clear sign you don't want them to come home."

Before Katrina, New Orleans was home to 5,100 families living in public housing and an additional 9,000 families renting homes with Section 8 vouchers.

The city's housing crisis, however, has seen rents spike and available apartments and homes turn into rare finds for people of the highest incomes.

"St. Bernard is not just public housing," said activist Endesha Juakali, who grew up there and lived near the 1,300-unit complex before Katrina. "It's a neighborhood. We want out neighborhood rebuilt, and the anchor of the neighborhood is public housing."

Juakali, a local gadfly who briefly was chairman of HANO under Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, said the public housing protest won't end soon and that it won't be pretty.

"If we're unhappy, we're going to make the whole city unhappy," Juakali said. "We're going to disrupt this whole city. We're going to run the tourists away. None of it comes to us anyway."

HANO is not taking new applications for public housing and the Section 8 waiting list is closed. U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle will preside over the case.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. Gwen Filosa can be reached at gfilosa [at] timespicayune [dot] com or (504) 826-3304.