NEW ORLEANS: TWO YEARS LATER

August 28, 2007 marked the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina - and the disaster continues. While the government has devoted itself and our country's finances to the war in Iraq, what has happened to New Orleans? We check in with two individuals who spent time in post-Katrina New Orleans and have seen how far we've come (or haven't come) since 2005. Jaime Hazard and Stanislav Kupferschmidt worked with Common Ground, an organization founded by New Orleans residents after Katrina in anticipation of the long struggle to rebuild their homes (see commongroundrelief.org).

One of the many faces at the Common Ground Family Shelter. Photo: Stanislav Kupferschmidt

Right to Return: The Plight of Public Housing in Post-Katrina New Orleans
Jaime Hazard

In my short time in New Orleans, I have participated in protests and rallies directly addressing the one injustice I feel truly captures the social climate of New Orleans - the failure to reopen public housing. Before Katrina, New Orleans was home to 5,100 families in traditional public housing and 9,000 families paying rent through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Voucher Program. In the media, HUD and New Orleans Mayor Nagin boast about the huge strides being made in returning low-income residents to New Orleans, but to date, only 1,505 families are back in traditional public housing and 5,500 families are in homes paid for through federal vouchers. That leaves 7,095 families unaccounted for.

These families would have a place to stay if New Orleans' public housing units were reopened. But the units remain closed although they suffered only minor hurricane and flood damage. More damage was caused when the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HUD's local branch) forcefully removed residents and locked them out of the units. HUD's statement on the right to return after a residentially declared disaster basically says that once the property is repaired residents can return. Until that time, they will be given a place to stay. In this case, if the buildings aren't repaired, tenants are not permitted to move back in. HUD claims that it is too expensive to fix these structures, so instead it is building new ones, and not as many of them.

So, as you have probably gathered, thousands of public housing residents have been homeless for the past two years - living under the interstate, in their cars or in tent cities. On July 4 many public housing advocacy organizations staged an occupation of Duncan Plaza, a park across from City Hall. For one night they created their own tent city and anyone was welcome to join in. Many homeless people showed up and I was lucky enough to meet them and hear their stories. These people are not living off the government; they are the working-class poor. They take the jobs no one else wants and get paid next to nothing. There is no way they can afford to rent an apartment. In fact, many people are becoming homeless because of the high rent costs in post-Katrina New Orleans. At this point all of my subconscious stereotypes were completely thrown out the window, and I began to realize just how desperate the situation really is. To add insult to injury, the homeless are often verbally and physically abused by menacing police officers or arrested on no legitimate grounds. One man was even arrested and charged with impersonating a human being. Another man had 30 days to pay the court $200 or he would be put back in jail. How is a homeless person supposed to come up with that amount of money without resorting to crime?

And don't breathe a sigh of relief for those who do move into their fancy new public housing units; please realize that their problems are by no means over. These newly built structures are so poorly and cheaply made that they will never survive a strong hurricane. Either officials haven't observed what building materials withstand hurricanes and floods, or perhaps something more evil is at work here. The only buildings that survived Katrina relatively unscathed are the large, brick public housing units that HUD refuses to open - and unfortunately, 4,000 of these units have a date with the wrecking ball so HUD can turn a profit selling the land to developers. In their place, HUD has decided to build new "stick-built" or timber framed homes in undesirable areas of town where the property values are too low to profit from. Mark my words, with the next Category 3 hurricane there will be more heartbreak for public housing residents when they realize the government has duped them once again.

The message taken home from Katrina is that when disaster happens, those with the most power will seek to rebuild in their own image - usually this means white, upper class and highly educated. Anyone or anything that doesn't fit within their ideal prototype will be removed from the picture. They may have to bend or break the law to do it, but they will find a way. These people view disaster not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to push their agenda and get rid of anything "unworthy." In the words of Richard Baker, a congressman from Baton Rouge, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." In the case of Katrina, this meant leaving public housing residents on the streets.


Jaime is a student at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Syracuse University researching grassroots organizing and activism in post-Katrina New Orleans (see Jaime's blog at jaimehazard.blogspot.com).