Housing projects will be demolished, a majority of City Council confirms

Gwen Filosa, Times-Picayune staff writer
Date Published: 
December 19, 2007

The New Orleans City Council appears poised to approve the demolition of the city's "Big Four" housing complexes despite continuing protests, with four of its seven members signaling approval.

Council members Jackie Clarkson, Stacy Head, Shelley Midura all said in interviews this week they will approve the demolition permits in a vote scheduled for Thursday. And a representative of Council President Arnie Fielkow, who asked not to be named, this morning confirmed his intent to vote for demolition.

Two other members -- James Carter and Cynthia Willard-Lewis -- declined to preview their votes. The remaining member, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, could not be reached for comment.

In approving the demolition of federally financed public housing units, the Council finds itself in a new, powerful and controversial role. HANO wanted to begin demolition of 4,500 units on Dec. 15, but a state judge agreed with the Loyola Law Clinic's attorneys that the council must approve the permits first for each of the four sites slated for the wrecking crews: Lafitte, C.J. Peete, St. Bernard and B.W. Cooper.

Though highly public protests from activists continue this week, some council members nonetheless stood firm in their support for tearing down the aging and often delapidated complexes to make way for new, mixed-income developments.

"I'm going to vote to support redevelopment of the projects in the city," said Midura. "I'll be voting to support the path that most effectively reforms and reopens public housing. That path requires a demolition permit."

Head agreed. "Redevelopment requires demolition," she said, adding that the "overwhelming majority" of her constituents want Peete and Cooper transformed into mixed-income neighborhoods.

Midura's district includes the Lafitte development, which has been shuttered since Katrina struck, forcing out 865 families, while Head's district includes both the C.J. Peete and B.W. Cooper. The St. Bernard development, closed since Katrina, is within Cynthia Hedge-Morrell' s district.

Clarkson said New Orleans would be ill-advised to try and stop HUD's plans for redevelopment.
"This is our opportunity to do it," said Clarkson. "We need to provide better housing than before Katrina. By going along with HUD, we get an opportunity to spend their money on our people. We do it better for the poor people and better for the city. It's a win-win."

Fielkow has made public statements recently supporting mixed-income housing, but stopped short of promising a vote for demolition. A representative of his confirmed this morning, however, that he plans to support the demolitions.

Cynthia Willard-Lewis, in a prepared statement, said only that she has met with public housing residents and others to "find common solutions to these difficult problems."

Clarkson, the at-large councilwoman, recalled that her former district included the Fischer, which has been transformed from a high-rise tower and barracks-style apartments to modern-day housing, including a "senior village" on the West Bank.

"We did not displace the poor, and I plan to make sure we don't," said Clarkson. "We don't have to build a whole bunch of supply if there's no demand."

Thursday's council meeting likely will draw crowds of activists, who have argued the old buildings, many of which date back to the 1940s, should be rehabbed and reopened.

The Coalition to Stop the Demolitions, an umbrella group for scores of activist groups opposing HANO's redevelopment plans, sent out instructions on protesting Thursday's vote via an e-mail, which speculated that the council vote will fall along racial lines.

"At least three of the white city council members are going to vote against us," the email by Kali Akuno said. "The third black council member, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, is definitely a critical swing vote."

Akuno told his supporters that Fielkow "might vote in favor or abstain in order to not lose favor with" black constituents.

Clarkson, the at-large councilwoman, said last week that tearing down and redeveloping the Lafitte complex would "save Treme and rebuild the neighborhood better than before."

The Lafitte plan, by nonprofit developers Providence and Enterprise, calls for "one-to-one" replacement of the 865 public housing units, unlike the plans for redeveloping the other three complexes, which may include far lower numbers of public housing units."I consider that the compromise," said Clarkson, of the Lafitte plan.