Everyone has a right to come home

Michael Steinberg & Evan Casper-Futterman
Date Published: 
November 21, 2007

New Orleans rallies to save public housing, considers nation-wide call for mass protest to stop demolition

New Orleans housing rally
In the shadow of the looming skyscrapers and corporate wealth of Poydras Street in New Orleans and the impending plan to demolish and redevelop public housing, dozens of public housing residents, activists, organizers and supporters rallied in front of the federal courthouse last Tuesday to shine a light on the corruption of housing officials and demand the re-opening of public housing. With demolition threatened to begin as early as Nov. 28, talk of a mass protest in New Orleans is heating up around the country. Many activists believe New Orleans is a test ground for the demolition of public housing across the nation and its replacement with “mixed-income” developments that would displace thousands of families. They say: “Pledge to come to New Orleans and resist this privatization of public housing!” Photo: Mavis Yorks

It was a little past 4:00 on Tuesday, Nov. 13, and Sharon Jasper was leading the crowd in a chant in front of the federal building on Poydras in downtown New Orleans. The call and response was simple, loud and clear: "What do we want?" "Housing!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"

A section of heavy chain lay across Jasper's shoulder, while she held a noose in one hand. A resident of the St. Bernard public housing complex, her accessories dramatized the current plight of New Orleans' shut-out public housing tenants.

"Take the noose from around the poor working class people," Jasper declared. "Take the shackles off our feet. We are out to fight all the corruption of the city government. Public housing is a human need and a human right."

As she spoke out, people marched in a circle on the plaza in front of the federal facility, carrying signs that read, "They push out, we push back," "Stop high rents" and "Down with poverty pimps."

The "poverty pimps" are being called out for either profiteering from the demolition of public housing in New Orleans or for their obstruction of any attempt to re-open the developments that currently exist. Speakers called out Federal District Judge Ivan Lemelle for his dismissal of large portions of a class action suit filed on behalf of the residents of public housing, and Una Anderson, a former School Board official running for a seat in the Louisiana Legislature, who has partnered with development firms to assume redevelopment rights for the C.J. Peete Housing Development.

HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson was called to task for his ongoing financial ties to Atlanta-based Columbia Residential, one of the firms given a lucrative role in the St. Bernard redevelopment project. Also being investigated is a close friend's claim that Jackson lobbied to award him a no-bid $500,000 contract for consulting assistance to HANO after Katrina. Jimmie Thorns is also said to be a close friend of Judge Lemelle.

Referring to a publicized plan to convert the St. Bernard Development into a golf course, attorney Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, said, "We don't need a golf course at the St. Bernard housing development! You want to build a golf course? Go to [nearby suburb] Metairie!"

A number of barbs were directed at Sen. David Vitter, the Republican from Louisiana, for his ongoing obstruction of Senate Bill 1668, which allows for, but does not demand, one for one replacement of public housing units. Vitter's recent scandal involving moral indiscretions in Washington, D.C., was brought up on more than one occasion. A sign read: "Tell David we need housing, not brothels!"

According to an information sheet handed out at the rally by organizers, pre-Katrina there were 5,200 families living in New Orleans public housing, with another 2,000 units temporarily vacant while awaiting renovation.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took over the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) long before Katrina. But the Bush administration's fingerprints are all over its current course of action.

HUD, through HANO, has opened up only 1,600 public housing units post-Katrina. In addition, HUD is planning to completely demolish four of the city's major public housing developments: Lafitte, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper, and C.J. Peete.

The info sheet reports: "After demolishing these thousands of apartments, HUD has approved plans to lease the property to private developers for 99 years to build mixed income housing at each of these sites. HUD has approved developers' plans to dramatically downsize each development."

The net result would work out to an 82 percent loss of low-income public housing units. As one long time New Orleans activist put it at the rally, "If you can't see that the overall plan is to keep poor people out of the city, you must be blind."

NY Katrina survivors rally
Katrina survivor Joetta Chestnut speaks to the press as the New York Solidarity Coalition with Katrina & Rita Survivors rallied Nov. 13 in solidarity with New Orleans against the planned demolition of public housing there. Photo: Monica Moorehead, Workers World
New Orleans' public housing, extraordinarily well built WPA-era brick buildings, arranged college campus-style, suffered little or no wind or water damage from Katrina. If replaced by mixed-income housing, only 16 percent of the homes would be affordable for public housing residents, providing no opportunity for most former tenants to return to their old neighborhoods. And there would be more years of displacement before occupancy is possible.

Furthermore, these replacements would take more than three quarters of a billion dollars for more flimsy construction and little provision for hiring local construction contractors or workers, plus more millions for rent subsidies and consulting, legal and other fees. Since the developers can expect to make a profit on their buildings, rents to help defray these taxpayer-supported efforts will mostly be out of reach for former public housing tenants, who are paid minimum wages for the jobs they do for the rest of the city in tourism, health care and other services. That these are mostly African Americans suggests either institutional or intentional racism.

Another reminder of the city's worsening housing/no housing crisis are the homeless people currently massed in Duncan Plaza, directly across from City Hall. At the federal building, a representative of Homeless Pride, a group organizing in the park and a member of the coalition sponsoring the rally, said: "Our cause at Duncan Plaza is to build a movement of homeless people, and it is growing bigger and bigger ... The private landlords are getting richer and richer. This has got to stop."

NOLA These are our homes
The sign on this New Orleans public housing apartment building – empty of its residents who are literally dying to return home – reads, “These are our homes.” Photo: People’s Hurricane Relief Fund
A Homeless Pride flyer handed out at the rally stated: "There are over 16,000 homeless men, women and children living in the city of New Orleans. We are residing in abandoned homes, buildings, cars and street underpasses across the city. The government does little to help us. Money that could house us never seems to be available for us.

"It is time that this inhumane treatment stops! We, the people of Homeless Pride, are taking a stand against atrocities." Lafitte, which could house almost 900 families but is now almost empty, sits across the street from a homeless encampment where dozens of people live under a freeway overpass.

At the City Council meeting on Monday, Nov. 19, public housing advocates confronted Councilwoman Stacy Head over her refusal to support a bill in the U.S. Senate, SB 1688, that would mandate reopening 3,000 units of New Orleans public housing within 90 days of its passage.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, described by Mike Howell as "the person in the U.S. Senate doing everything he can to block public housing," claims he opposes SB 1688 because of Stacy Head's stance against it.

Howell stated the coalition's basic demand: "Everyone who needs a house should have one. The first step is to reopen public housing. Let all the public housing people come home. Everyone has a right to come home."

E-mail Michael Steinberg at blackrainpress [at] hotmail [dot] com and Evan Casper-Futterman at evan.casperfutterman [at] gmail [dot] com. This story is a compilation of their reports, which are posted at neworleans.indymedia.org, and information from Malcolm Willison, malcolmrw2002 [at] yahoo [dot] com, Workers World, workers.org, and Revolution, revcom.us.