Nine Myths and Realities of Public/Low-Income Housing in New Orleans: Reasons to Support Displaced Residents' Right to Return Ho

Date Published: 
December 17, 2006

Nine Myths and Realities of Public/Low-Income Housing in New Orleans:

Reasons to Support Displaced Residents’ Right to Return Home

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Opponents of public and affordable housing continue to make inaccurate and misguided arguments

calling for everything from the total demolition of public housing stock in New Orleans to changes in

housing policy that would negatively affect all low-income residents of the city. Below are nine common

public misconceptions followed by the facts.

1) “The storm did irreparable damage to public housing projects like St. Bernard. For this reason

they should be demolished.”

Some public housing apartments were damaged by Katrina, but most were not. The developments

HUD wants to demolish remain fit for human habitation. Dr. Marty Rowland, a civil engineer who

conducted an informal survey of the units in several developments including St. Bernard, has

assessed that the vast majority of units are habitable with rewiring and restoration of utilities.

Second and third floor units were hardly damaged at all.1 Reopening the units would allow

residents to return and begin the work of cleaning up.

2) “Those [public housing projects] were horrible places to live in before hurricane Katrina. We

should all be glad they’re gone.”

Life for public housing residents in New Orleans may not have been ideal before

hurricane Katrina, but this is no reason to demolish their homes. Destroying public housing and

displacing residents will only make their lives more difficult. It will uproot communities, separate

families, increase homelessness, and raise unemployment as displaced residents find themselves

forced into unfamiliar and hostile surroundings.2

Our first step in addressing the problems that public housing residents face should not be to

destroy their homes. Reductions in the total number of affordable housing units is exactly the

opposite of what New Orleans needs right now as more than 200,000 citizens remain displaced.

3) “The projects were breeding grounds for poverty, crime, drug abuse.”

Public housing does not create poverty, crime, drug abuse, or any of the other problems affecting

residents and their surrounding communities. These problems are much more complex and

widespread. The vast majority of public housing residents are law-abiding productive citizens, no

different than in other communities. Reducing public housing subsidies, demolishing units, and

forcing out residents is simply another example of the overall problem – we are taking too much

from the working poor who live there and not giving anything back. Public housing does not breed

social ills; they are symptoms of racism and poverty.

4) “Public housing and low-income housing in general were always intended as a crutch, a

temporary place for people to live while they get back on their feet, find a job, and a permanent home.”

Public housing was created so that families and persons who cannot afford market rate housing can

have a roof over their heads. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development imposes no

time limits on the duration of a family or individual’s stay in publicly assisted housing (and never


Sasser, Bill. “Locking Out New Orleans' Poor.” June 12, 2006.


On hostile environment would be St. Tammany Parish whose Sheriff has called displaced Katrina survivors “trash,” and “animals,” and has advocated racial profiling:

if you're gonna walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee-wee hairstyles, then you can expect to get a visit from a sheriff's deputy,” said Sheriff Jack Strain.

See – Lewis, Edmund W. “A ‘strain’ on relations.” Louisiana Weekly. July 10, 2006., accessed on July

10, 2006.

has).3 Public housing was never intended as “temporary assistance.” In fact, projects like St.

Bernard and Iberville were built because the country recognized that people working entry-level

jobs didn't earn enough to support a family. Living in these projects carried no stigma.

By the 1960s public housing was increasingly designed to serve the needs of those 8.2 million

families living below the poverty line in the United States.4 In New Orleans before hurricane

Katrina, there were at least 26,000 poor families and almost 30,000 individuals who were eligible

for publicly assisted housing.5

Another way of estimating the city’s need for better low-income public housing assistance is by

gauging the affordability of housing in New Orleans. Before Katrina 36% of families in New

Orleans spent more than 35% of their income on housing.6 According to HUD, for housing to be

deemed affordable a family should have to “pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on

housing.”7 Since Katrina, the cost of housing has drastically risen, further increasing the

percentage of income that families spend on housing. Clearly there is an enormous need for public

housing in New Orleans to support those who cannot afford the privilege of living in Uptown, the

Marigny, or out in Jefferson. We should not expect time limits to public housing. It is unrealistic

and cruel.8

5) “High density and concentrated poverty is the problem. If we just reduce the number of units by

redeveloping them, spreading them out, and building ‘mixed income’ or ‘mixed use’ buildings we can

revitalize these communities.”

This statement illustrates what social scientists call a “spatial fetish.” A spatial fetish is a theory or

belief that claims poverty, crime, delinquency, or other social ills are caused by poor urban

planning, residential density and crowding, or general urban environment. It is a fetish because it

draws attention away from the real causes of poverty.9 It is appealing because it proposes simple

solutions that involve mostly the redevelopment of urban space without the need to address issues

of racism or social justice.

Social scientists have not demonstrated a causal link between concentrated poverty and increased

social problems within specific neighborhoods.10 There is a correlation, but simply erasing pockets

of concentrated poverty by demolishing and redeveloping them does nothing to solve the problem.

It does however cause mass displacement of public housing residents in the meantime.

6) “Poor people will have more opportunities to better themselves when they are integrated in mixed

income communities.”

This is wishful thinking at best. Many displaced residents experience no positive change in their


US Department of Housing and Urban Development. “HUD's Public Housing Program.”, Accessed on July 8, 2006.


US Census Bureau. Historical Poverty Tables. “Table 13. Number of Families Below the Poverty Level and Poverty Rate: 1959 to 2004.”, accessed on July 9, 2006. This figure is for 1960. The overall poverty rate has not changed too much, however.


US Census Bureau. American Factfinder: New Orleans city, Louisiana., accessed on July 8, 2006.


US Census Bureau. American Factfinder: New Orleans city, Louisiana. “DP-4. Profile of Selected Housing Characteristics: 2000.”,

accessed on July 8, 2006.


US Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Affordable Housing.”, accessed on July 8, 2006.


The suggestion that public housing should become temporary assistance mirrors the discourse that succeeded in dismantling welfare in 1996 and replaced it with the

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. While the pre-1996 Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Emergency Assistance (EA) welfare programs were

by no means perfect, they were not as harsh on the poor and structurally un/underemployed. By demolishing these entitlement programs and imposing strict time limits and work

requirements on recipients of government assistance a drop in the number of recipients was accomplished. However, a concomitant drop in rates of poverty, child poverty, and

general hardship has not been achieved. The root causes of poverty remain. Welfare reform accomplished little in terms of empowering the poor to make their lives better while it

forced many into the lowest paid ranks of the workforce to the detriment of their children, dependents, and selves (for an authoritative discussion of this see – O’Connor, Alice.

Poverty Knowledge: social science, social policy, and the poor in twentieth-century U.S. history. Princeton University Press, c2001.). Public housing in New Orleans should by no

means move in this direction.


Spatial factors are certainly important parts of the problem, but there is no clear line of causality between urban design and urban problems such as spatially fetishistic

theories claim. For an authoritative discussion on this issue see – Sayer, Andrew. "The Difference the Space Makes," in Social Relations and Spatial Structures. Derek Gregory and

John Urry (eds.). London: Macmillan, 1985.


For a review of the literature dealing with this problem see – Curley, Alexandra M. “Theories of urban poverty and implications for public housing policy.” Journal

of Sociology and Social Policy. June, 2005.

life chances after their former homes are demolished and redeveloped along these lines.11 Indeed,

because redevelopment takes years and 80-90 percent of residents are not allowed to return, many

find themselves further dislocated and entrenched in poverty.

The real problems are poverty and racism. Mixed income communities cannot be created by

decree. They can only be created once society is more equitable and people have more control

over their lives. If we are serious about creating mixed-income communities we will develop

affordable and public housing in affluent communities and provide more support and services to

poorer areas rather than forcing out residents and redeveloping their homes in the name of some

elusive goal.

7) “Public housing and low-income housing programs are government handouts (entitlements) that

should be ended. It just perpetuates the cycle of poverty, hopelessness, and irresponsibility amongst the


Public housing programs are ‘government handouts,’ but so are the enormous middle and upperclass

housing subsidies that dwarf HUD’s programs targeting assistance to the poor and working

class. In 2006 the federal government will funnel $136 billion in guaranteed loan commitments to

middle and upper-class homebuyers. Compare this to only $6 billion that will spent on housing for

the elderly, housing for the disabled, AND public housing combined. So who’s getting handouts?

8) “Residents don’t want to come home. They’ll be happier and better off with the opportunity that

hurricane Katrina has provided.”

It’s probably true that some residents are choosing not to return to their previous homes. However,

published US guidelines guarantee the right of return for internally displaced people, and many

thousands do want to return to their homes in New Orleans. Instead of assuming what residents

want, HANO, prospective developers, and civic groups should do everything they can to reach out

to public housing residents and listen to their concerns and desires.

9) “HUD has already decided to demolish St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, and the Lafitte

projects to build better ‘mixed-income’ communities in their place. People should move on.”

While HUD’s proposal is unfortunate, it is by no means the final word. Residents are returning

and want their homes back. We should support them in their right to return regardless of what

HUD has said it intends to do. HUD’s plan for these four developments is virtually the same

blueprint it used in the failed River Garden experiment that has not provided adequate housing for

former St. Thomas residents.12 This is a national trend that is pushing tens of thousands of poor

citizens out of their homes and demolishing their communities. So called “mixed-income”

communities are always built on demolished low-income communities. They typically result in far

fewer affordable housing units for those who used to live there and marked increases of homeless



Popkin, et. al., HOPE VI Panel Study: Baseline Report and HOPE VI Resident Tracking Study.” The

Urban Institute, 2002.


Arena, Jay. “The War At Home: New Orleans, Public Housing, and the ‘Chilean Option’.” ZNET. November 12, 2005. Also see – Bagert, Brod, Jr. “HOPE VI and St. Thomas: Smoke, Mirrors, and Urban Mercantilism.” 2002.

As Police Arrest Public Housing Activists in New Orleans, Federal Officials Try to Silence Leading Attorney for Low-Income Residents

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

New Orleans police raided the Saint Bernard housing project this morning where activists had been occupying a building to prevent government plans to demolish it. Meanwhile, the Housing Authority of New Orleans has sent a letter to one of the lead lawyers for the residents, Bill Quigley. asking him to stop speaking to the media and to remove statements he made that appear in several online videos. [includes rush transcript]

New Orleans police raided the Saint Bernard housing project this morning where activists had been occupying a building to prevent government plans to demolish it. Two people were arrested. Last summer, federal housing officials announced plans to demolish four large public housing developments even though tens of thousands of low-income New Orleans residents remain displaced. The move sparked one of the most intense struggles in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Just before the program we received a call from one of the two activists arrested this morning. Jamie "Bork" Loughner spoke to us from Orleans Parish Prison. She described what happened.

New Orleans activist Jamie "Bork" Loughner, speaking from Orleans Parish Prison.

Well the battle over the future of public housing in New Orleans recently took an unexpected turn. A few days ago the Housing Authority of New Orleans sent a letter to one of the lead lawyers for the residents asking him to stop speaking to the media and to remove statements he made that appear in several online videos. The letter accused attorney Bill Quigley of making "prejudicial extrajudicial statements to the press and others." The New Orleans Housing Authority also threatened to haul Quigley in front of the state's Bar Association's disciplinary board if he did not agree to stop discussing the case.

Bill Quigley joins me now from New Orleans. He is a law professor at Loyola University. We invited the New Orleans Housing Authority on the program. They did not respond to our request.

  • Bill Quigley. Law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, also the director of the Law Clinic and Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University.


This transcript is available free of charge. However. donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.

Donate - m,..$.2J., :£l.QQ. more ...

AMY GOODMAN: Before the program, we received a call from one of the two people arrested this morning. "Bork" Loughner spoke with us from the Orleans Parish Prison. She described what happened.

JAMIE "BORK" LOUGHNER: Last night at 2:30 in the morning, MayDay NOLA. which had been in the middle of a 17-day occupation of the New Day Community Center, with permission of the leaseholders, had been raided by SWAT team members at gunpoint. It was quite scary.

We were there because we believed in the fact that people who lived in these public homes -- St. Bernard Project and CJ Pete and the others -- deserve to come back. There's thousands of families that have been displaced, almost 5,000 units that are scheduled for demolishment, and we believe firmly that they shouldn't be demolished, that people should be allowed to return home to New Orleans to their communities. We believe that these are internally displaced people here in the United States and that everything should be done to get them home.

The public housing development is in good shape. It was solid concrete walls. Even though it was flooded, it was architecturally sound, according to MIT architects. And there's no reason for HANO to decide to hassle people who are just trying to reopen public housing in and even have them arrested, when they should be concentrating on getting housing back for families that need it.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie "Bork" Loughner, speaking from the Orleans Parish Prison. She was arrested this morning.

Well, the battle over the future of public housing in New Orleans recently took an unexpected turn. A few days ago, the Housing Authority of New Orleans sent a letter to one of the lead lawyers for the residents, asking him to stop speaking to the media and to remove statements he made that appeared on several online videos. The letter accused attorney Bill Quigley of making "prejudicial extrajudicial statements to the press and others." The New Orleans Housing Authority also threatened to haul Quigley in front of the state's Bar Association's disciplinary board if he doesn't agree to stop discussing the case.

Bill Quigley joins us now from New Orleans, a law professor at Loyola University. We invited the New Orleans Housing Authority on the program; they didn't respond to our request. Bill Quigley, what is happening in New Orleans?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, thank you for helping explain what's going on in New Orleans, but we are really engaged in a fight for the soul and spirit of our community. The public housing struggle is part of the overall struggle in the city to see that there is room in the new New Orleans for renters, for working-class people, for the elderly and for the disabled. We have significant racial overtones to who is being excluded from the city and very significant economic overtones in terms of who is been excluded from the city.

And the public housing struggle is about 4,500 affordable apartments that the federal government, HUD, is trying to demolish to make way for many fewer apartments that would be pitched to a different audience

altogether. The people in charge in the federal government, in cooperation with some private developers in the areas, have actually seen Katrina as an opportunity to get rid of the lowest-income people in the community and to, in a sense, start over without the participation of people who used to live here, who could go back into their apartments on very short notice, and that the raid this morning and the charges that have been filed against residents who went back in to clean their own homes, the threats against myself and Tracey Washington, the civil rights lawyers who are working with the residents, just shows that this is really a pitched battle for who gets to come back to New Orleans and who is going to participate in the rebuilding.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Bill Quigley at PBS station WLAE in New Orleans. You've got a piece that's on Counterpunch right now online: "Why is HUD Using Tens of Millions in Katrina Money to Bulldoze 4,534 Public Housing Apartments in New Orleans When It Costs Less to Repair and Open Them Up?" Well, what is the city saying? Do you have the support of, for example, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin?

BILL QUIGLEY: No. We really don't. The residents have the support of very few elected officials. Most elected officials are remaining silent. They're not coming out in favor of the demolition, but they're also not opposing it. There's a real transition going on in New Orleans over and a struggle over who's going to be in charge. Is it going to be the white business community who is going to be politically and in every other way in charge of the community, or is it going to be the majority of the city who -- or its citizens pre-Katrina, where the city was over two-thirds African American and over half renters and mostly-working class people? The white power structure, assisted in many cases by black professional workers, are in the process of trying to claim the city and claim a new vision for the city that does not include the people who used to live here.

And the tragedy is that they are using the money that Congress gave to the victims of Katrina, and they are what I call like a Robin Hood in reverse. They are stealing the money that should be coming to the low­income community, and instead converting that money and using it for property owners and the developers and the like. And in case of public housing, they're using Katrina tax credits, they're using Katrina rebuilding money in excess of $100 million and additional money to destroy houses that are structurally sound and are actually in better physical shape than almost any of the residential buildings in the city of New Orleans. So they are using money to help Katrina -- that was designated to help Katrina victims, to destroy affordable housing, put money into the pockets of developers and then put up some other housing that they're not going to let low- income people back into.

AMY GOODMAN: So where are these people, if they're not allowed back home?

BILL QUIGLEY: Some are in the suburbs or around New Orleans in a Section 8 house or that, but most of the people are actually still very far away from New Orleans in Houston, in San Antonio, in Memphis, in Birmingham, Atlanta, and really do not have the ability to come back unless there is affordable housing available. Our rents in the city of New Orleans have gone up 70% in the city, 80% in the suburbs, because we still have tens of thousands of properties that are destroyed and demolished.

And the city is undergoing an overall privatization. They are privatizing the public education system. They are privatizing public housing. They are privatizing public healthcare, and they are privatizing the public employee's work force. So the public housing is really the most visible symbol of the attack on the poor, the attack on African Americans, attack on the elderly, the disabled, renters and people who the powers that be in Washington, in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans would just as soon never come back.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you going to do about this demand that you be quiet, that you remove the video from the website that includes your comments. AP did a story on this, quoting Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, saying, "To bypass the judge is unusual, and to make the threats is even more unusual."

BILL QUIGLEY: Yeah, I have been involved in a lot of controversial exchanges and struggles with governmental agencies in the past, but this is really -- to have the federal government and the local government say, "Stop talking to the press," insist that interviews on documentaries be taken down and the like is just -- it's very troubling. I have told them I'm not going to do it. I said no lawyer looks forward to anybody's attempt to yank their license, or a gag order from the court, but I said we're not going to do it. This is a fight that the residents and the residents' advocates, civil rights lawyers, are involved in that goes on in Congress, goes on in the state legislature, city council and every place. It's not like some private divorce case, where you want both sides to be quiet and just handle it in court. This is an issue of public policy. It's an issue of the direction of our country. It's an issue of economic justice, and it's actually, as the person who spoke to you from jail said, it is a matter of international concern. These are internally displaced people that the United Nations Human Rights Council has said have been mistreated on the basis of race an their economic status. So we're not going to be quiet. The residents are not going to stop fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, just 30 seconds, then we have to move on. But 16 protesters were given prison terms this week. This is on an entirely different issue. But you're the connection between them, an attorney for the School of the Americas protesters given prison terms ranging from one to six months during the annual demonstration. They were charged with trespassing.

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. People, ages 17 to 70, went to federal court in Georgia earlier this week, and I was with them, gave beautiful testimony about their connections and solidarity with the people of Latin America who have been abused, killed, massacred by graduates of the School of the Americas, now called WHINSEC, that's on the grounds of Fort Benning. So that's part of an ongoing struggle, where over 200 people have spent 92 years in prison standing up in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Latin American. So people should take a look at the website, and they can find some more about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, thanks so much for joining us, law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. And a shout out to our friends at the PBS station WLAE, where he is.