Public Housing Residents Take Back Their Homes; Newsletter

(***Note: Please scroll down and find the link to download the full February, 2007 POC newsletter. It's complete with pictures and many more articles. ***)

February 10 was a historic day in New Orleans. Residents of the C.J. Pete public housing development moved back into their homes, which the government had slated for demolition.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not seriously damage the buildings HANO and HUD used the excuse to evacuate all the public housing in the city and lock the residents out of their homes. Then they decided to demolish the public housing and replace it with so-called mixed-income housing, which basically means most people would never be able to come home.

In all previous hurricane evacuations, residents were able to come back to their homes after the storm passed. In this case, they were not even allowed to come back and get their belongings. Tens of thousands of residents evacuated to distant cities or trailer parks have not been able to get home at all. The government later broke into the apartments to throw refrigerators down stairs, breaking doors off hinges and leaving the units open to widespread looting and destruction, including theft of pipes and electrical fixtures. The $10,000 the government offered some residents can never cover what they have lost, including baby pictures, diplomas and other sentimental personal items. And still HANO and HUD have claimed that it would be illegal for the residents, who hold valid leases to their apartments, to come home.

Despite all of this, public housing residents have come together over the past several months and formed an organization, Residents of Public Housing, which is part of the New Orleans Survivor Council. They decided to move back home.

People’s Organizing Committee, which is committed to developing and following the leadership of those most affected by Katrina, helped provide support for the residents’ move. At the direction of the residents, they cleaned apartments, obtained generators to provide light and heat, canvassed the surrounding neighborhood to explain the move and build support, and sent out a press release for the residents’ press conference. At this writing, two dozen volunteers from a high school in New Jersey are working for the residents, cleaning out more apartments in the complex.

The move and the press conference were managed and led entirely by the residents themselves. Six residents spoke before the cameras about their determination to come home. “The government wanted us to get out and stay out,” said one resident. “I voted for Nagin, but he did nothing for us. They want black people out of New Orleans, and they figured this was one group they could get rid of. But nothing is going to stop us from coming home. C.J. Pete is back!”

This event was a change from earlier public housing reoccupations. Some of them were mainly symbolic, and in most cases, people who were not residents took a major hand in leading them. A few weeks ago, when residents attempted to move back into a different development, the rally and speeches were mainly led by white activists, not by the residents. This displayed a lack of respect for the black residents, who are not only capable of leading their own movement, but on principle should be leading it. Racism in America has created a situation where poor, black working class people are so marginalized and disrespected that even many politically progressive groups and individuals don’t trust them to organize and lead their own fight. POC is dedicated to bottom-up leadership, so its role was to provide every possible support and encouragement to the residents to lead themselves.

About 60 people, residents and supporters, came to the press conference and support rally. Balloons decorated the front porch of the newly opened units. A big sign announced the reoccupation. Residents took turns speaking on a bullhorn to the assembled crowd and passers by, repeating for all to hear that C.J. Pete is back to stay. The Community Kitchen donated food for the event. Residents also thanked organizations that donated generators, including Hope House, the Workers’ Center and Moving Forward Gulf Coast. And The Hot 8, a second line band played at the end, while residents danced and sang along in a happy celebration of their victory. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but the projects is livable!” went the words to the last song. This chant echoed as supporters drifted away and residents went back to the work of settling into their new apartments.

Residents dance to the music of the Hot 8 after their press conference

Residents and POC staff provided a security watch through the night, aware that HANO could descend on them at any moment and try to evict them. The residents will remain vigilant to defend their homes.

Meanwhile, on the wave of this victory, Residents of Public Housing is making plans for reoccupying the next development, the Lafitte projects. Their intention is to open all the projects now slated for demolition and bring their communities back.