Survivors Village and the Fight for Public Housing in New Orleans
by Curtis Rumrill

A demonstration for Public Housing on Martin Luther King Day in New Orleans. Photo: Craig Morse, Culture:Subculture Photos

The Housing Agency of New Orleans (HANO) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) plan to demolish over 5000 units of affordable public housing - housing desperately needed for families that want to move back to New Orleans. In a market where rents have increased between 70 and 300 percent since Katrina, inflated rents and the lack of subsidized housing have been major factors in preventing evacuees from returning to their homes. Finding private landlords that accept housing vouchers is extremely difficult, and finding affordable housing without subsidization is nearly impossible for public housing recipients.

Survivors Village has been one of the main organizing forces behind the fight for public housing. Survivor's Village is a tent city erected on June 3, 2006 just outside the presently closed St Bernard's Public Housing Development. Now including residents of New Orleans' public housing, the "survivors village" serves as a base of operations for a grassroots struggle to reopen all local public housing. The federal government has continued to undermine the residents' rights to return to their homes and resume their leases, which is guaranteed by the UN International Policy on Internally Displaced Persons.

As residents attempted to return to their homes, most of which sustained little storm damage, they were met with police harassment, armed guards, and a newly erected barbed wire fence. Rather than release thousands of undamaged and minimally damaged housing units to displaced residents, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson had the homes boarded up and purposefully failed to repair the units or take steps to mitigate further mold contamination. In June 2006, Jackson released plans to demolish 5,000 units of public housing, many of which were not damaged by storms.

Our homes are livable," says Sharon Seans Jasper, a St. Bernard resident and Survivors Village organizer. "We will not let the city destroy them."

Racial Implications
HUD's own cost analysis reveals that their plan to demolish and rebuild will waste taxpayers' money. A recent motion for summary judgment filed in a current suit to reopen the development (www.justiceforneworleans.org) cites HUD documents that show the demolition and redevelopment of public housing "will end up costing over $175 million more than extensively modernizing the developments, and upwards of $450 million more than simply repairing them would cost."

The motion also argues that the demolitions have racial implications. "Prior to Katrina over 5,100 African-American families lived in New Orleans' public housing. Nearly 14 months later, only approximately 1,000 have been allowed to return. HANO's actions clearly have disproportionately harmed African-Americans and have led to the overall decline in the city's African- American population since Katrina."

However, in the post-Katrina land grab economy, the destruction of public housing means millions of dollars in contracts for wealthy developers, such as Enterprise, and some less likely partners including Catholic Charities and the AFL-CIO.

Despite overwhelming support for the re-opening of public housing, HANO and HUD have consistently ignored public opinion and advocated for its demolition. HANO has received a resounding and unquestionable "NO!" to their plans from public housing residents at their recent court-mandated 'resident consultation meeting'. Angry residents accused HANO of "ethnic cleansing," and told them "being poor is not a crime."

Protests Are Part of a Strategy
Several hundred protesters marched to the New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's house on December 16 to demand that he halt the demolition of more than 5,100 units of public housing, and instead repair and re-open them. The march left the parking lot of Bynum's Drug Store, across the street from the St. Bernard housing project, and arrived at the Mayor's house chanting "No Justice! No Peace!"

"Family members who once lived together in pubic housing are now scattered across the country, unable to return, and forced to spend the holidays alone," says rally organizer Endesha Juakali of Survivor's Village. "We went to his home so that when he was with his loved ones for the holidays, he wouldn't forget those who couldn't be due to his inaction."

Displaced residents of the Lafitte, CJ Peete, BW Cooper and St. Bernard public housing complexes in New Orleans were joined in protest by supporters from organizations that include Survivor's Village, the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, Common Ground Relief, SEIU, United Front for Affordable Housing and C3 Hands Off Iberville. The protest was part of a strategy of escalation by public housing residents to raise awareness and increase pressure on key decision-makers.

On the Friday before the protest, in a move that many believe was brought on by the threat of protest, Nagin sent a letter to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson. The letter requested that HUD immediately make available one thousand units, open one thousand more units within 90 days, and set up an additional 750 scattered sites.

"HANO and the Mayor are talking about phased redevelopment only because we forced them to," says Juakali. "Phased redevelopment is not enough, and we will continue to turn up the heat on them until every resident who wants to come home is guaranteed the right to return to the apartment they left before Katrina."


Curtis, a Central New York native, works with Common Ground Relief in New Orleans.