HUD to New Orleans' Poor: "Go
F(ind) Yourself (Housing)!"
by Bill Quigley
June 19, 2006
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development has announced they plan to demolish over five thousand
public housing apartments in New Orleans. In August 2005, HUD
reported they had 7,381 public apartments in New Orleans.
Now HUD says they now have 1000 apartments
open and promise to repair and open another 1000 in a couple of
months. After months of rumors, HUD confirmed their intention
to demolish all the remaining apartments.
HUD's demolition plans leave thousands
of families with no hope of returning to New Orleans where rental
housing is scarce and costly. In New Orleans, public housing was
occupied by women, mostly working, their children as well as the
elderly and disabled.
To these mothers and children, HUD Secretary
Alphonso Jackson said: "Any New Orleans voucher recipient
or public housing resident will be welcomed home."
Exactly how people will be welcomed home,
HUD did not say. _How can thousands of low-income working families
come home if HUD has fenced off their apartments, put metal shutters
over their windows and doors and are now plans to demolish their
Jackson, who is likely sleeping in his
own bed, urged patience for the thousands who have been displaced
since August of 2005: "Rebuilding and revitalizing public
housing isn't something that will be done overnight."
Patience is in short supply in New Orleans
as over 200,000 people remain displaced. "I just need somewhere
to stay," Patricia Thomas told the Times-Picayune. Ms. Thomas
has lived in public housing for years. "We're losing our
older people. They're dropping like flies when they hear they
can't come home."
Demolition of public housing in New Orleans
is not a new idea.
When Katrina displaced New Orleans public
housing residents, the Wall Street Journal reported U.S. Congressman
Richard Baker, a 10 term Republican from Baton Rouge, telling
lobbyists: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans.
We couldn't do it, but God did."
This demolition plan continues HUD's efforts
to get out of the housing business. In 1996, New Orleans had 13,694
units of conventional public housing. Before Katrina, New Orleans
was down to half that, 7,379 units of conventional public housing.
If they are allowed to accelerate the demolition, public housing
in New Orleans will have been reduced by 85% in the past decade.
The federal demolition of housing in New
Orleans continues a nation-wide trend that has led some critics
to suggest changing HUD's official name to the Department of Demolition
of Public Housing.
Much of the public housing demolition
nationally comes through of a federal program titled "Hope
VI" - a cruelly misnamed program that destroys low income
housing in the name of creating "mixed income housing."
Who can be against tearing down old public
housing and replacing it with mixed income housing? Sounds like
everyone should benefit doesn't it? Unfortunately that is not
the case at all. Almost all the poor people involved are not in
New Orleans has already experienced the
tragic effects of HOPE VI.
The St. Thomas Housing Development in
the Irish Channel area of New Orleans was home to 1600 apartments
of public housing. After St. Thomas was demolished under Hope
VI, the area was called River Gardens. River Gardens is a mixed
income community - home now to 60 low income families, some middle
income apartments, a planned high income tower, and a tax-subsidized
Wal-Mart! Our tax dollars at work - destroying not only low-income
housing but neighborhood small businesses as well.
Worse yet, after Katrina, the 60 low-income
families in River Gardens were not even allowed back into their
apartments. They were told their apartments were needed for employees
of the housing authority. It took the filing of a federal complaint
by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center to get the families
back into their apartments.
As James Perry, Director of the Greater
New Orleans Fair Housing Center says about the planned demolition
of public housing, "If the model is River Gardens, it has
failed miserably." Despite HUD's promise to demolish homes,
the right of people to return to New Orleans is slowly being recognized
as a human rights issue.
According to international law, the victims
of Katrina are "internally displaced persons" because
they were displaced within their own country as a result of natural
disaster. Principle 28 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement
requires that the U.S. government recognize the human right of
displaced people to return home. The US must
"allow internally displaced persons
to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes
or places of habitual residence
Such authorities shall facilitate the
reintegration of returned or resettled internally displaced persons.
Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation
of internally displaced persons in the planning and management
of their return or resettlement and reintegration."
The US Human Rights Network and other
human rights advocates are educating people of the Gulf Coast
and the nation about how to advocate for human rights. HUD has
effectively told the people of New Orleans to go find housing
for themselves. New Orleans already has many, many people, including
families, living in abandoned houses - houses without electricity
or running water. New Orleans has recently been plagued with an
increase in the number of fires. HUD's actions will put more families
into these abandoned houses. Families in houses with no electricity
or water should be a national disgrace in the richest nation in
the history of the world. But for HUD and others with political
and economic power this is apparently not the case.
As in the face of any injustice, there
NAACP civil rights attorney Tracie Washington
promised a legal challenge and told HUD, "You cannot go forward
and we will not allow you to go forward."
Most importantly, displaced residents
of public housing and their allies have set up a tent city survivors
village outside the fenced off 1300 empty apartments on St. Bernard
Avenue in New Orleans.
If the authorities do not open up the
apartments by July 4, they pledge to go through the fences and
liberate their homes directly. The group, the United Front for
Affordable Housing, is committed to resisting HUD's efforts to
bulldoze their apartments "by any means necessary."
If the government told you that they were
going to bulldoze where you live, and deny you the right to return
to your home, would you join them?
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer
and professor at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law.
You can reach him at Quigley@loyno.edu
For more information about the July 4
protest by the United Front for Affordable Housing, call Endesha
Juakali at 504.239.2907, Elizabeth Cook 504.319.3564, or Ishmael
Muhammad at 504.872.9521. If you know someone who is a displaced
New Orleans public housing resident and they want to join in a
challenge to HUD's actions, they can get more information at www.justiceforneworleans.org.
For more information on the human rights
campaigns for Katrina victims, see the US Human Rights Network
at www.ushrnetwork.org or the National Economic and Social Rights