Public Housing Takes Center Stage in Post-Katrina Struggle. New Documentary Tells the Story of Those Fighting to Return Home

More than a year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, displaced residents of New Orleans are embroiled in a heated dispute with the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). Although most of the city’s public housing actually withstood the hurricanes with little or no damage, residents are fighting for the basic right to return to the public housing developments they call home. This ongoing struggle to return to public housing in New Orleans will undoubtedly remain a hot-button issue on the racial justice agenda this year.

In 2006, the issue of affordable housing and re-opening public housing reached a boiling point, as Katrina survivors organized, protested, pitched tents, and testified against the refusal of HUD and HANO to allow public housing residents to return to New Orleans. All of the residents involved are African-American. Unable to afford housing elsewhere, many languish in strange cities, moving around from week to week, unsure as to when they will ever have a steady place of residence.

To raise public awareness about the issue, Advancement Project and Washington Koen Productions collaborated to produce a documentary titled, “This is My Home: The Fight for Public Housing in New Orleans.” This 23-minute film is about the plight of thousands of families who remain displaced throughout the country and shut out of New Orleans. It is a tribute to the perseverance of the displaced residents of New Orleans and a call to action to all justice-minded people to support the residents’ right to return home.

Public housing residents were among those ordered to evacuate New Orleans in August 2005 in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina. These displaced residents are scattered throughout the country, struggling to make ends meet, far away their jobs, and without their social networks. When they were ordered to leave New Orleans, they took only what they could carry. They expected to return when the mandatory evacuation order was lifted six weeks later. It has been almost a year and a half. A majority of these families, approximately 4,000, are still waiting to come home.

Meanwhile, HANO and HUD are using the misery of displaced residents to redesign public housing in the city, in willful disregard of the severe housing crisis in New Orleans. This is a crisis, not an opportunity. These housing agencies are acting unjustly and inhumanely. They are also wasting taxpayers’ dollars. Documents from HANO show that it will cost $400 million more to demolish and rebuild (and rebuild fewer units) than it would to repair and re-open these public housing developments. Displaced residents are using government-issued vouchers for more than $1,000 each to help pay rent in foreign cities, when they could be moved back into their own homes if the government just let them return. Furthermore, the plan advanced by HANO and HUD seeks to drastically reduce the affordable housing stock despite its need now more than ever.

Advancement Project Staff Attorney Anita Sinha is part of the litigation and advocacy team that has been involved in efforts to assist displaced New Orleans public housing residents. She said, “Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a laboratory for government officials and private individuals who are concerned more about profit than people.” She notes that the situation in post-Katrina New Orleans has been about the increased privatization of the public sector, primarily in three areas: public housing, public schools, and health care. Public schools are being replaced by charter schools. Public hospitals that used to provide low- or no-cost health care to those in need remain unopened. Similarly, government and private institutions are using Katrina as an excuse to decimate public housing and turn it into so-called “mixed-income” developments that leave poor residents out in the cold.

Last year, Advancement Project spearheaded a public housing lawsuit on behalf of displaced residents desiring to return home. There is a possibility the case will go to trial in 2007. According to Sinha, the “This is My Home” DVD is part of a larger communications advocacy strategy designed to reach out to Congress, the media, and residents to “make them feel more connected to the lawsuit,” says Sinha, especially those displaced residents who have been very active in the lawsuit but live several states away from New Orleans since the storm.

Members of Congress have helped to give momentum to the public housing struggle.Lawmakers who chair committees such as the Housing Oversight, Financial Services, and Ways and Means Committees, are calling for investigations of the public housing situation in New Orleans, requesting hearings, and posing questions to HUD. Working to inform elected officials about the lawsuit and other efforts to assist displaced New Orleans residents is a large part of the work that is to be done in 2007.

In addition to the fight for public housing in New Orleans, Advancement Project will continue its effort to build legal resources for the indigent throughout the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the minimal legal infrastructure that existed in the Gulf Coast, while at the same time drastically increased the need for legal services. This created a call for a national network of lawyers to fill the vast gaps in resources for post-Katrina victims. Advancement Project formed the Grassroots Legal Network in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes to connect Gulf Coast grassroots organizations with desperately-needed legal resources. The Grassroots Legal Network’s co-convener Sinha reports that the need for the network continues to be critical, and will be a significant part of Advancement Project’s post-Katrina work in 2007.

The other priority for Advancement Project’s 2007 post-Katrina work is addressing the rampant labor violations that plague the city. Sinha characterized Advancement Project’s New Orleans’ workers’ rights project as “building a multiracial understanding and coalition” between immigrant workers who are being exploited and African-American workers who continue to be shut out of their homes and, consequently, jobs in New Orleans. Advancement Project worked with the National Immigration Law Center and organizers from New Orleans in 2006 to develop the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne-Dianis serves on the center’s advisory board. This collaboration led to the release of And Injustice for All: Workers’ Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans, a compilation of personal narratives based on interviews with more than 700 workers.

As this year moves forward, Advancement Project will keep its hand on the pulse of these and other injustices suffered by displaced Gulf Coast residents at the hands of government and private institutions. In particular, as the public housing struggle escalates, Advancement Project and local partners will continue serving as advocates for these residents and support their right to return home.