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HUD plans to reopen 1,000 public housing units

By Michelle Roberts Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Wednesday that it will reopen 1,000 additional New Orleans public housing units this summer and increase the amount it pays for rental assistance to help bring the city's poor people back.

The plan - the first announced since Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the available public housing 10 months ago - calls for demolition of the city's largest public housing development, St. Bernard, and three others.

Those developments will be rebuilt into a combination of public housing, rental housing and single-family homes, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said in a statement.

Units in the least-damaged and newest developments will be repaired.

Residents of St. Bernard and other housing projects have been increasingly vocal in their effort to return to public housing, saying they are homesick and are being left out of the economic opportunities available in a city where wages for construction and other jobs have increased dramatically.

About 1,000 families of the 5,100 living in public housing pre-Katrina have been able to return, but units where utility service is still unavailable or water and mold damage was too severe have remained shuttered.

Jackson said 1,000 more units should be open by August.

HUD also has agreed to raise by 35 percent the amount it pays in vouchers to landlords, helping to offset the dramatic increase in rents since the city was flooded. Because of rising rents, most private apartments are beyond the reach of many poor people.

Jackson said that voucher recipients and public housing residents will be welcomed home to New Orleans, but that rebuilding public housing will take time.

''We want to ensure the public housing of the future is a source of pride for all residents of the city,'' he said.

Public housing in New Orleans is run by the federal government, which took over the job in 2002 after years of mismanagement and waste by local officials.

Mayor Ray Nagin has urged the federal government to move cautiously in restoring public housing, saying he does not want the projects - many of them crime-ridden and in poor condition - restored merely to pre-Katrina conditions.
HUD to change landscape of public housing in N.O.

By Gwen Filosa Staff writer

Promising a renaissance for public housing in New Orleans, federal housing officials said Wednesday they will reopen 1,000 units by summer’s end and within three years demolish four decades-old complexes, changing sections of the city’s landscape by replacing the sprawling brick buildings with a mix of single family homes and apartments.

“We want to redevelop these old, obsolete and just dangerous properties,” said Scott Keller, deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We also want to return folks home.”

Barracks-style brick buildings with deep concentrations of poverty are not in New Orleans’ future, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson repeated Wednesday.

“Katrina put a spotlight on the condition of public housing in New Orleans,” Jackson said. “I’m here to tell you we can do better.” The St. Bernard, which had some 1,300 units bounded by St. Bernard avenue and Gibson, Senate and St. Denis streets, is among the properties HANO plans to eventually demolish and redevelop as modern-day public housing, said Jackson. The others are C.J. Peete in Central City, the B.W. Cooper off Earhart Boulevard, and Lafitte in Mid-City.

St. Bernard is not on HUD’s list of complexes that will reopen. Instead, units at C.J. Peete and Cooper will reopen in the coming months, with demolition and rebuilding happening around residents, just as it had pre-Katrina.

Wednesday’s announcement by HUD is the first plan the agency has released since public housing was devastated by the deadly flooding after Katrina.

Within the next 60 days, the Housing Authority of New Orleans will repair and reopen 1,000 units to families who lived in the city before Hurricane Katrina made landfall Aug. 29, HUD said.

Half of the reopened units will be in the Iberville development, which was built in 1941 directly behind Canal Street and near the French Quarter.

The additional 1,000 units would restore New Orleans public housing to half of its capacity pre-Katrina.

The rest of the recovery plan includes raising Section 8 housing subsidy vouchers from $670 to about $900, and long-term redevelopment that will dramatically change the city’s public housing landscape.

“We want to make sure there is a one-for-one replacement of affordable units,” Keller said. “We’re raising the value of Section 8 vouchers. No one in a public housing unit prior to Katrina won’t have either a unit or a voucher.”

The government’s commitment to restoring public housing is part of the promise President Bush made to the region in his Sept. 15 televised speech at Jackson Square.

“We’re making the president’s vision a reality with an innovative plan which will reopen nearly half of the city’s public housing but also bring about a renaissance in public housing neighborhoods,” Jackson said. “Rebuilding and revitalizing public housing isn’t something that will be done overnight. Our redevelopment represents a major step forward. Sadly, not all residents will be able to return home in the near future.”

Jackson and other HUD officials spoke to reporters by telephone Wednesday, through their Washington, D.C. offices.

HUD has run the city’s public housing authority since 2002, after years of rampant mismanagement and corruption took its toll on the complexes and their residents.

By late 2005, HANO, directed by a one-person board of commissioners who is appointed by HUD, was making headway in its far reaching renovation of public housing complexes. Desire and Florida in the Ninth Ward were pastel-colored rows of townhouses and shotgun-type homes.

“Katrina made a bad situation worse,” Jackson said. “A massive redevelopment effort was underway when the hurricane hit.”

Today, Desire — renamed Abundance Square — and Florida are vacant, muck stained neighborhoods. Desire was a Hope VI project, paid for by federal grants.

“The developer of Desire has indicated a strong desire to bring it back online as a development,” said Keller. “They are working with the insurer right now to get funds available.”

HANO helped house more than 14,000 families pre-Katrina, including 9,000 families in private market homes mostly paid for with federal Section 8 vouchers. The city’s housing crisis has squeezed out Section 8 renters, prompting HUD to increase its vouchers.

The HUD voucher increase announced Wednesday is 35 percent over the pre-Katrina level of $670.

After Katrina, HUD created “disaster” vouchers, a program that unlike FEMA rental assistance, does not expire.

As for the 1,000 units that will reopen by August, the families living in them pre-Katrina will have first dibs, Jackson said. “We have ways of contacting all the residents,” Jackson said. “It would be unfair if we didn’t give persons who lived in those units the right to return.”

Jackson reiterated his wish that all able-bodied public housing tenants secure employment upon return, a statement that offended residents who said their community already works for a living, just at low wages. But he conceded that HUD can’t stop anyone from returning.

“We don’t have the authority to refuse people’s return,” Jackson said. “Clearly we’re going to ask that those who are physically able to go to work go to work. There are so many jobs open in New Orleans that we can’t come close to filling them.”

U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, said public housing residents remain locked out of New Orleans.

“The thing right now is to find people temporary housing that is secure and safe for them,” Jefferson said. “The short-term remedy has to be, fix first, before we start dreaming about what can happen three years from now.”

Jefferson said at least HUD is saying that everyone is invited back.

“You have a lot of poor folks whose only sin is that they don’t make a lot of money,” Jefferson said. “For the most part, they work hard. For the most part, they aren’t involved in any activity related to crime. They became victims of those who terrorized the neighborhood.”

Residents and activists have complained that HANO has shut the poor out of New Orleans for the past nine months. This weekend, activists with “United Affordable Housing Front,” a group headed by perennial housing advocate Elizabeth Cook, plan to march down St. Charles Avenue with residents to demand fair, affordable housing for all returning New Orleanians. The group said it will start at Napoleon Avenue and march down to the private gated community of Audubon Place.

Resident leaders recently protested outside the vacant, fenced-off St. Bernard complex, even putting up tents on the neutral ground as a pledge to return home.

Residents have returned over the past months to attend meetings and work on their damaged properties. At least two tenants of the flooded out Florida complex have returned this month to gut their homes.

But HUD officials said that no one on the city’s public housing roster has been left out in the cold. There are “tenant protection vouchers” that cover residents’ rent no matter where they have relocated, Jackson said.

Some residents of St. Bernard have moved into Iberville. Others have found public housing outside of New Orleans but still in Louisiana.

HANO has applied to the Louisiana Housing Finance Authority for millions of dollars worth of low-income tax credits to redevelop a series of 24-unit properties in New Orleans, including two sites on Imperial Drive and two sites at the former Florida complex — one renamed “Mazant Royal” and the other “General Ogden.”

The 11 applications would produce about 300 new units of public housing.

The housing authority has reopened 1,100 units over the past months at complexes that didn’t flood during the levee failures nine months ago. But on Wednesday, six of the city’s ten traditional complexes, including the sprawling St. Bernard in the 7th Ward, remained shuttered and vacant.

The Guste complex in Central City reopened not long after Katrina hit. Like its counterparts, Guste is undergoing construction of new units.

River Garden, located in the Lower Garden District, also made it through Katrina unscathed. The private development, which includes some public housing units, replaced the former St. Thomas complex.

But fair housing advocates say River Garden falls short of serving low-income families, with fewer than 60 families from the St. Thomas complex living there today. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin and other leaders refer to River Garden as the “model” for “mixed income” housing in New Orleans.

HUD officials said Wednesday that the redeveloped properties, St. Bernard, Lafitte, C.J. Peete, and B.W. Cooper will be comprised of public housing only and managed by HANO.

The historic St. Bernard complex, built as part of the 1937 Wagner Bill, welcomed its first residents in the 1940s. Then, the complex held 744 units in 74 buildings across about 31 acres.

Locals once called the complexes “the bricks” or “the projects,” and the two and three-story brick apartment buildings were built around playgrounds and parking lots.

The St. Bernard complex had recently been crisscrossed by street crime and murders, as drug dealers turned the grounds into turf. When HANO relocated St. Thomas residents into St. Bernard a few years ago, violence among rival groups erupted.

Still, St. Bernard remains home to its lease holders, who are overwhelmingly women with children, along with retirees. Many residents insist that if you weren’t participating in the city’s illegal drug trade, you were safe to live at St. Bernard.

In recent years, like other complexes in New Orleans, the number of occupied units had been reduced at St. Bernard.

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