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.
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.”
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.”