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Public housing residents return to clean out their apartments, and wonder when they can come home
Sunday, June 04, 2006
By Gwen Filosa Staff writer

Nine months after Hurricane Katrina forced them from New Orleans, scores of public housing residents returned to New Orleans on Saturday, ready to clean out their storm-damaged apartments despite continuing uncertainty over when the Housing Authority of New Orleans will decide the future of the complexes where they formerly lived.

Several frustrated residents and outraged activists had threatened this week to cut through the chain-link fence around the sprawling St. Bernard complex in the 7th Ward to reclaim their homes Saturday. But that didn't happen.

Instead, the day offered a peaceful demonstration of the residents' desire to return home, as dozens of them gathered to protest outside the sealed-off complex.

The scene resembled a block party as residents, student volunteers and other supporters created a "survivors village" on the St. Bernard Avenue neutral ground, complete with tents, music and food.

The "tent city" will stay up for a month, organizers said, with some vowing to sleep in the tents to protest HANO's lack of action. Police showed up but said they would only monitor the protest for now.

At the C.J. Peete complex in Central City, at least a dozen residents cleaned apartments and did yard work, while at the Florida complex in the 9th Ward, several residents suited up in protective clothing to haul out their muck-stained belongings.

Officially, the three complexes are among six in New Orleans that remain off-limits to residents in a city with a housing crisis and no definite plans on what will happen to public housing.

"We are not going to sit on the sidelines and allow people to take these communities," said Cynthia Wiggins, leader of the Resident Council at the Guste complex.

Ready to return

The St. Bernard protest drew U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, who said HANO and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development need to reopen the shuttered public housing complexes so that working poor people can return to the city.

"There are places that aren't damaged at all," Jefferson told a crowd of about 30 residents and dozens of supporters. "Everyone who had to leave this town because of a natural disaster, because of a man-made disaster, ought to be allowed to return."

Even the flooded St. Bernard complex can be repaired, Jefferson said. "The first floors can be gutted out and straightened out. The second floors? People could live there today," he said.

HANO and HUD officials maintain that environmental studies must be completed before anyone can be allowed back into St. Bernard. Safety concerns and the lack of basic services make the neighborhood uninhabitable, they have said.

Meanwhile, thousands of families who lived in New Orleans public housing before Katrina remain scattered around the South.

Dianne Allen, 47, with two grandchildren in tow, returned to C.J. Peete on Saturday to clean her apartment. She has been in Houston since the storm but wants to be back in her home.

"I just feel so good today," Allen said while two men raked the grounds. "I know we're coming back home."

Unlike several other complexes, C.J. Peete was not flooded, but HANO has said wind damage to roofs was bad enough to compromise the units' safety. Federal officials said in January they intend to demolish the complex to make way for a new mixed-income development that is likely to house far fewer low-income residents.

Sylvia James said she just wants her $67-a-month apartment at C.J. Peete back. She is staying with family members in Marrero, but she returned Saturday to clean her apartment in the complex where she lived for 17 years. She found the unit burglarized and ransacked, as did several other residents.

"I just want to get back home," said James, the mother of boys ages 11, 16 and 18. "I've never lived with anybody. Living with someone else, you live by their schedule."

Dianne Conerly made a nearly three-hour drive to New Orleans on Saturday, as she has several times since floodwaters engulfed her three-bedroom duplex at the Florida complex. Conerly's work crew had to pry plywood boards off the front door to enter, but the complex itself was relatively open, and the returning residents -- clad in white protective suits, masks and other safety gear -- had the place to themselves.

Conerly, 36, the Resident Council president at Florida, hauled out wheelbarrow loads of ruined belongings beneath a relentless sun, shaking her head at the tall grass growing around the vacant buildings.

She said she is ready to gut her place herself, if HANO allows her. "I've been asking since October to do it, asking for the supplies," said Conerly, who is living in public housing in Jennings. "They should be happy. They don't have to hire men to do it and pay them overtime."

Safety is a concern

The top local official of HUD, which has run the city's long-troubled housing agency for several years, promised this week to return families to public housing. Yet nine months after Katrina, no definitive plan has been announced, and thousands of residents don't know what the future holds for their former neighborhoods.

HANO's housing stock was deeply wounded by the post-Katrina flooding, with six of the 10 traditional complexes suffering damage that ranged from roofs and windows at C.J. Peete to the outright drowning of the recently renovated Desire complex in the 9th Ward.

HANO helped house 49,000 people before Katrina, mostly via the federal Section 8 voucher program that lets tenants rent units in private apartment buildings. But the 10 mostly aging complexes and publicly owned "scattered sites" across Orleans Parish held 5,100 families.

Fewer than 1,000 have returned, HANO said this week.

While Conerly and her crew, which included her 16-year-old son, Brandon Conerly, braved the muck at Florida, residents at C.J. Peete arrived at their homes off Washington Avenue with a stockpile of brooms, mops and bleach. Unlike St. Bernard, which is surrounded by a razor-wire-topped fence, C.J. Peete hasn't been sealed off. But it remains abandoned.

A city ordinance forbids parking on the neutral ground, let alone living there, as the demonstrators at St. Bernard said they planned to do. But NOPD spokesman Capt. John Bryson said: "We respect their right to demonstrate. Safety is the issue. We're very concerned about safety."

The St. Bernard neutral ground is narrower than that along St. Charles Avenue, he noted, and St. Bernard Avenue remains, even post-Katrina, a busy road.

One officer said it made him nervous to watch children and an elderly wheelchair-bound woman moving about the neutral ground as cars whizzed by. Police said they were consulting the city attorney's office about the "live-in" demonstration.

The political debate over public housing has at times turned nasty, with allegations that many of the residents were an unemployed drain on the city. But Jefferson said the people who lived in St. Bernard, Iberville and other complexes were the workers who kept the city's vital tourism industry running.

"They have children and families just like everyone else," Jefferson said. "We want our folks back home."

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Gwen Filosa can be reached at or (504) 826-3304.