HUD pays millions to open Lafitte, but complex will be demolished in March

Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune
Date Published: 
August 26, 2008

For the $2.7 million it paid to renovate 94 temporary units in the Lafitte public housing complex -- the same units slated for demolition in March -- the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development could have put up residents at New Orleans' finer hotels.

Eliot Kamenitz / Times-Picayune

A few residents move into some of the 94 interim units at Lafitte Housing Development, Thursday, August 21, 2008. Annell Winfield in her kitchen where she has moved in some boxes. She still is awaiting furniture.

Because the units will be open for only seven months, the agency will pay a whopping $4,103 per unit per month -- more than $130 a night -- to put people into subsidized housing that they will be moved back out of less than a year later.

On Tuesday afternoon, Rozellia McKoy, 84, sat on her front porch and let out a happy sigh. She's grateful, to be sure.

"Peace and quiet, once again, " said McKoy, who moved to Lafitte from the Iberville complex, which she called chaotic.

"But I can't get too settled, " McKoy said, knowing she'll soon have to start planning another move in March.

The 94 newly renovated units will be demolished then to make way for mixed-income housing, which must be completed by 2010 for the Lafitte developers to receive Gulf Opportunity Zone tax credits.

Renovation delays

The renovation of the units stemmed from a worthy goal -- to increase the supply of affordable housing, decimated by the flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina -- as well as a request from City Hall.

But the work got delayed repeatedly, at once inflating the cost and shrinking the usefulness of the project.

Two years ago, Mayor Ray Nagin first requested that HUD reopen units at the centrally located Lafitte to house workers needed for the city's recovery. In December 2006, Nagin said, HUD assured him that the agency would reopen some Lafitte units as the redevelopment of others proceeded.

In letter written that month to then-HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, Nagin emphasized that the two men had agreed to "show immediate progress" on "implementing a phased-in reoccupancy of the Lafitte."

On Tuesday, HUD could not confirm the 2006 agreement. But after Nagin's letter, the plans apparently lay relatively dormant for nearly a year, until September 2007, when the Housing Authority of New Orleans awarded the first Lafitte renovation contracts, with an initial goal of opening the temporary units in May 2008, then moving tenants back out in January 2009.

The move-in date was pushed back four months because of extensive construction-site thievery and a damage to a gas line caused by demolition machinery, HUD spokeswoman Donna White said.

Last week, HUD extended the move-out date by two months, to March 2009.

'Building consensus'

White said that old buildings like Lafitte's require large sums of money to renovate, part of the reason why HUD has opted to demolish all of the Big Four public housing developments ultimately and rebuild from scratch. But despite its misgivings, the agency renovated part of Lafitte to show good will toward the city.

"While it has cost the Housing Authority of New Orleans a lot to fix these units, HUD was committed to building consensus among elected officials, housing activists and residents, " she said.

Despite the brief stay, McKoy said she much prefers the Lafitte apartment to the Iberville complex, which she called drug-infested and violent.

"As for me, I'm glad to be back in the Lafitte, even for a few months, " said McKoy, who lived in the Lafitte development for 20 years before the 2005 flood.

No matter that her granddaughter scrubbed green mold out of the medicine cabinet Tuesday, that the faucet yielded only a trickle and that McKoy had called HANO electricians to repair a light switch that, when used, sparked and turned on every light in the apartment.

McKoy moved into the Iberville complex about a year ago, after being displaced in San Antonio, Texas. She stayed only because she couldn't afford to live anywhere else on her fixed income, she said.

At Lafitte, like Iberville, she pays the standard public housing rate, one-third of her income; in her case, that's $181 a month, she said.

Former Lafitte residents were given first-refusal rights on the renovated units. But many opted out after the construction delays, to avoid being uprooted after such a short time, residents said during a recent meeting. HANO said this week that 65 Lafitte residents had requested renovated units, and about a third were elderly or disabled. Any units former Lafitte residents don't take will be offered to former residents of the other Big Four developments.

Happy to be home

McKoy's neighbor, Annell Winfield, said she had been sleeping on the floor in her Iberville apartment out of fear of gunfire.

Now back in Lafitte, Winfield is happy with the redone floors, sinks and toilets.

And for her part, she's not fretting about the March deadline.

"I know eventually that they're going to postpone it again, " Winfield said.