U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has announced they plan
to demolish over 5,000 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 1,000 apartments open and promise to
repair and open another 1,000 in a couple of months. After months of
rumors, HUD confirmed their intention to demolish all the remaining
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
To these mothers and children, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said: "Any
New Orleans voucher recipient or public housing resident will be
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 homes?
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
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 nationwide
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
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 the mix.
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
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 is resistance.
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
Most importantly, displaced residents of public housing and their allies
have set up a tent city survivors village outside the fenced off 1,300
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
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
or the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative,
Dissident Voice archive of articles on Hurricane Katrina and its
Other Articles by Bill
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