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New Orleans Housing Unwelcoming to Some

Published: July 6, 2006
Filed at 9:27 p.m. ET

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Even before Hurricane Katrina hit, the city's public housing projects were sinkholes of crime and despair.

Federal housing officials now plan to tear down four flooded-out projects but some residents are suing and staging marches, saying the plan to demolish their homes is discriminatory.

It will take up to three years before the housing is rebuilt as mixed-income units, and those being displaced will have to look for private property rentals with housing vouchers. For some, it evokes the feelings of abandonment that they had after Katrina hit.

''Basically, you're telling low-income families, 'You cannot come back here. You have nowhere to come home to,''' said Cherlynn Gaynor, 42, who lived in a housing project now slated for demolition and is now staying in Texas. ''Where are we going to go? We're citizens of New Orleans.''

Before Katrina, New Orleans had 5,100 families living in public housing. Roughly 88 percent were headed by women, and almost all were black. Some worked, but many were paying no rent, earning too little to be required to do so under the public housing formula.

Only about 1,100 public housing apartments have been reopened since the hurricane hit last August. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which took over the city's public housing in 2002 after a local board was accused of mismanagement, has announced that another 1,000 will be open by summer's end.

''This is never a painless thing,'' HUD Assistant Secretary Orlando Cabrera said. ''We understand there are people who are going to disagree with us and that's OK. We're committed to the idea of restoring New Orleans to the city it was. That's what we're determined to do. It's going to take time and effort.''

Katrina -- which emptied the projects, crippled bus service and shuttered health care and other services for the poor -- offers a chance to accelerate redevelopment into mixed-income developments, Cabrera said.

But Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley said the problem with redeveloping public housing is it rarely serves the poor, instead aiding developers who get prime pieces of real estate and tax breaks while the poor are shut out.

'''Mixed-income housing' is a euphemism for 'We're going to destroy low-income housing,''' said Quigley, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents seeking to block the demolition. ''The residents feel that what is objectionable about public housing isn't the housing. It's the people who live there.''

He and other local activists note that redevelopment of the St. Thomas housing project, which already was undergoing development before Katrina, mostly benefits wealthier residents. Public housing residents were given vouchers or moved to other housing projects before demolition.

Before redevelopment, there were more than 1,500 public housing apartments there. But of the less than 1,200 units eventually expected on the site, only about 180 are currently set aside for public housing residents.

Critics of the plan to demolish the four public housing projects have staged marches and set up a tent city to protest the decision to demolish the complexes.

Under United Nations laws, the plaintiffs say, the United States must ''recognize the human right of displaced people to return home.'' The law also says ''internally displaced people'' must be given a say in the planning of their return, the suit contends.

James A.R. Nafziger, chairman of the executive committee of the International Law Association's American Branch, said the law concerning ''internally displaced people'' is a new area of international law.

''It's not law that is binding on any nation,'' said Nafziger, who said it will be up to a trial judge, and appellate judges, to determine whether the U.N. law applies.

Still, some neighbors say they're glad to see the old complexes go. Coma Lewis, a 68-year-old retired social worker, has lived in a home facing the now-shuttered St. Bernard housing project for 32 years.

Lewis said the redevelopment will give public housing residents a chance to restart their lives away from a place that exposed children to violence and became home to generations of poor New Orleanians.

''Unless they do something, it's not going to change,'' Lewis said. ''You can pour all the money you want into this type of situation. It's like pouring water into a pail with no bottom.''

Pamela Mahogany, who was a lifelong resident of St. Bernard, said the cost of living has jumped dramatically since Katrina. Charity Hospital, the city's main health care provider for the poor, is still closed too, she said.

''They don't open public housing. They don't open up Charity Hospital. They don't open up things for poor people, so what does that say?'' Mahogany said.

Lewis, the neighbor across the street, isn't buying that argument.

''This has just gone on too long,'' she said, gesturing toward the decaying brick St. Bernard complex. ''I'm African-American. I'm back here. No one has told me not to come back here because I own that home.''


On the Net:

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development:

Housing Authority of New Orleans: