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In New Orleans, public housing crunch forces thousands into limbo

Almost a decade after Katrina, the city is still falling short on helping thousands of low-income residents find housing

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — When Stephanie Mingo talks about the St. Bernard Projects, the area in New Orleans’ 7th Ward where she was born and raised, her voice gets tight. Her frustration is audible as she struggles to hold back tears and contain the anger that has been bubbling for nearly a decade.

Before Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans in 2005, life was simpler for her. Every Christmas, she would put up a 6-foot Santa Claus outside her door. On weekends, friends would gather for parties that lasted well into the night. And during the day, neighbors would watch her children at a community day care while she worked at the Orleans Parish School Board.

“I miss the community we had in St. Bernard, which was a family,” Mingo said, recalling her apartment and garden, where neighborhood boys would gather to eat. “Everybody knew everybody. We knew how to do community things.”

Now her life is splintered. Not only did she lose family in the storm, but also she has moved five times in nine years since the organization that ran St. Bernard shuttered the housing project, tore it down and leased the land to a private developer.

Mingo was offered a place in the mixed-income development that replaced St. Bernard, but she refused on principle. She then took an apartment in the housing project Iberville but had to leave when developers began renovations to turn it into another mixed-income complex. She was supposed to return several months ago, but as of mid-July, housing officials hadn’t yet allowed her to come back.

If it hadn’t been for her daughter, who has taken her in, Mingo said, she would be homeless. This is a fate she says has befallen other residents who once lived in public housing in New Orleans.

“I hate to talk about it because I get disgusted,” she said. “It’s hard out there. It’s really hard.”

Mingo’s story isn’t an isolated one. Before Katrina, New Orleans had 7,300 public housing units and seven traditional public housing projects. When the storm hit, it damaged 134,0000 housing units. Now, with the 10th anniversary of the storm approaching, not one of the old projects remains, and the majority of the 5,148 public housing residents displaced by the storm have been unable to return to the neighborhoods where they once lived. Five thousand families are still waiting for subsidized housing to open up.

This state of affairs is partly due to Katrina and partly due to decisions made years before the storm. In 1992 a national welfare reform bill, Hope VI, aimed to tear down public housing across the country and replace the units with mixed-income developments.

New Orleans got its first taste of the effects of this bill 10 years later, when the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) signed a contract to turn the St. Thomas Projects into the River Gardens development, anchored by the city’s first Walmart. After that, HANO routinely leased land to private developers, and after the storm hit, plans to convert the city’s remaining projects were catapulted into overdrive.

“We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,” U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., became famous for saying just days after Katrina. “We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

The expected results have not materialized. Despite the ambitious timeline laid out in 2006, redevelopment has happened at a glacial pace. As of early 2015, only a small fraction of lost public housing units — 1,925, to be exact — have been incorporated into new developments. As of July 2015, more than 700 public housing units are still in the pipeline.

Shuttering the Big Four

Harmony Oaks, a development on the former site of the C.J. Peete project.
John McCusker / Times-Picayune / Landov

In Central City, where post-Katrina blight remains, there is a $172 million housing development bordering the neighborhood’s edge on Louisiana Avenue. From the outside, the complex appears to be thriving. A bright bouquet of garden apartments and townhouses stand where rundown brick buildings once did. Grandiose columns, deep two-story porches and iron lanterns grace the façade. On the inside, a shiny clubhouse boasts flat-screen televisions. Rows of white beach chairs are lined up by the complex’s winding courtyard pool.

Residents who lived in the building’s previous incarnation report that they no longer deal with broken plumbing, abandoned apartments or rodent infestations. More important, their children don’t have to worry about dodging bullets at night. Instead, the narrow streets of the faux-historic development are eerily quiet.

Called Harmony Oaks, the housing development was built in 2010 to replace what once was the city’s largest housing project, C.J. Peete, or the Magnolia Projects.

“It’s a positive transformation,” said Jocquelynn Marshall, who was a president of C.J. Peete’s resident council and now works for Urban Strategies, an organization that oversees the complex’s social service programs. “When you’re in a different surrounding like Harmony Oaks, you get a different perspective … A large number of our kids even go to college.”

Sitting in one of the building’s meeting rooms, she recalled the projects that were there before. They were “deplorable,” she said, with shootings “every other day.”

Harmony Oaks is a good case study in the complications surrounding mixed-income housing.  At one point, C.J. Peete had more than 1,400 units, but by the time Katrina hit, the buildings were in such bad shape that only 144 units were occupied, according to Marshall and a HANO representative. Now the complex has 193 occupied public housing units.

Prior to Katrina, thousands waited to get into public housing while apartment units stood crumbling and vacant. While a HANO official was unable to confirm how many applicants were on the housing waiting list list, one 2006 article put the number at about 8,000, while another housing activist said the number was more than twice that.

Before the storm, the so-called Big Four projects — C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, Lafitte and B.W. Cooper — accounted for about 60 percent of public housing in the city. In the months after Katrina, HANO demolished the Big Four in order to make way for new housing. There used to be 2,987 low-income units in the four main projects; now there are only 1,829. In the new complexes, fewer than half the units have rents comparable to those in public housing.

Overall housing inequity

To offset the losses caused by razing the majority of the city’s public housing units, in 2007 officials promised that displaced families would be taken care of with tenant protection vouchers sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“HUD has given us 2,987 tenant protection vouchers that will be issued to every family who occupied the Big Four,” said Dwayne Muhammad, a HANO administrator at the time who ran the voucher program. That number was added to the 8,900 vouchers that the housing authority issued in 2005, just before Katrina hit. Since then, the number of vouchers granted has climbed to 17,800. From 2000 to 2010, the number of vouchers issued tripled, and 13,000 people are still on the waiting list.

At the same time, the program has created other challenges.

Voucher recipients are responsible for finding housing in the private sector, but since more than half the New Orleans region’s rental housing was estimated to have been destroyed during Katrina, options have become much more limited.

According to a recent report by the Data Center, voucher holders in the New Orleans metro area now have less access to low-poverty neighborhoods than their national counterparts. A 2009 report by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center found that voucher recipients were highly discriminated against, with landlords refusing to rent to them about 82 percent of the time.

“Unfortunately,” the report reads, “the voucher program has fallen short of its potential for creating wider housing choice and access by low-income families to neighborhoods of opportunity.”

Source: Housing Authority of New Orleans

To make matters more complicated, housing in general has become less affordable since Katrina. In 2013, 37 percent of renters in the city paid more than 50 percent of their pretax income on rent and utilities. This is up from 24 percent in 2004. Over the same period, the median gross monthly rent in the New Orleans metro area rose from $760 to $908. In order to afford an average two-bedroom apartment at market value now, a resident would have to work 85 hours per week at minimum wage.

Critics say the current situation reflects not just a nationwide housing crisis but also officials’ failures in the critical months after the storm.

“The city had no comprehensive plan to rebuild. We tore down public housing after the storm and gave everyone a voucher. That was the plan,” said Cashauna Hill, the Housing Center’s executive director. “But what we see 10 years after Katrina is there’s still a lot of work to be done. We have a long way to go.”

According to Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, overcoming the inequity that has plagued lower-income, largely African-American communities will take more creative thinking. “There needs to be a forward-thinking plan about what a neighborhood can look like five years from now, 20 years from now,” he said. “You’ve got to bring everyone together.”

Looking to Iberville

A sign depicts plans for the former Iberville Housing Development.
Dinah Rogers / Times-Picayune / Landov

If there’s one silver lining to this crisis of public housing in New Orleans, it might be the transformation scheduled to take place in the Iberville housing project in the Tremé, just a stone’s throw from the French Quarter.

Dubbed HANO’s largest development project, Iberville plans to replace every one of the 821 public housing units in a mixed-income development. To implement the plan, the housing authority and the city of New Orleans were given a $30.5 million grant as part of HUD’s new Choice Neighborhoods initiative.

The grant includes plans to revitalize the Iberville-Tremé neighborhood by introducing improved services and public recreation spaces. The initiative, which has been hailed a major component of President Barack Obama’s urban agenda, is supposed to incorporate the area’s history into its design and to provide residents with employment opportunities, skills training, transportation and health services.

On a recent Monday in July, workers were plowing away dirt as residents watched. Most seemed excited about their new houses, even though they were still living in a construction zone.

As Mingo complained, the development is far from done, and many say it’s too early to tell how it will play out. The plan called for 2,314 apartments to be completed in 54 months, but at the current rate, the project won’t wrap up until 2026.

Yet many seem hopeful that once Iberville is finished, it could be the kind of development New Orleans should have had all along — community focused, with neighborhood input and opportunities for upward mobility.

To that end, in 2012 and 2013 housing authorities held a series of neighborhood meetings to tell future residents about jobs in the area and to gather feedback about the development’s proposed social services.

According to Catherine Albisi, the executive director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, the importance of community involvement should be the ultimate takeaway from the whole saga of public housing in New Orleans over the last 10 years. “Between the year Katrina hit and today, there has been so much growth, with different organizations and different kind of organizers,” she said. “We are in a better place. Thank God, because we wouldn’t want to see people go through that again.”

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