On a rainy Thursday in New Orleans, Americans witnessed their political system at its worst and its best.
They saw angry protests trying to stop the redevelopment of public housing for New Orleanians. They saw the news media, hungry for conflict, covering the protesters instead of the poor.
But they also saw the New Orleans City Council courageously voting 7-0 to demolish dilapidated and damaged buildings and give thousands of families a fresh start in new homes.
In the end, the protesters’ chants were no match for the residents’ pain. For years, residents of New Orleans public housing had pleaded for relief from their dismal, crumbling slums, weakened by disrepair and battered by Hurricane Katrina.
The prevailing attitude of government was to warehouse poor people in massive, stacked housing projects with little access to economic resources — “out of sight, out of mind.” As the Brookings Institution noted, this policy “creat[ed] large, highly segregated enclaves of poverty in the City of New Orleans where they had not existed before.” Criminals and drug dealers rode into the vacuum, turning the developments into virtual shooting ranges. “You’d hear the gunshots every night,” Archie Lambert, a 40-year resident of the Desire complex, told the Associated Press. “We’d get out of bed and lay on the floor so one wouldn’t come through the wall and hit us.” Meanwhile, mismanagement and corruption at the local level wasted millions of federal dollars that could have been used for repairs and maintenance. Even before Hurricane Katrina struck the city, 30 percent of units — more than 2,000 — were unoccupied and/or uninhabitable.
In 2002, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development took the rare step of taking over the Housing Authority of New Orleans. We then embarked on a redevelopment plan. Families would no longer be isolated in concentrations of poverty. Instead, a “mixed-use” strategy would promote healthy, vibrant communities that could attract families with a broad spectrum of income levels.
This policy has bipartisan roots going back to the administrations of President Clinton and the first President Bush. It also has a proven record of success in cities as diverse as Atlanta, Chicago and Washington.
In New Orleans, mixed-use redevelopment has improved conditions dramatically at the Desire (now Abundance Square) and River Garden (formerly St. Thomas) complexes. And every resident affected by redevelopment has been provided with a roof over their heads, either through a housing voucher or a home in a repaired unit.
Still, our plan attracted opposition from out-of-state advocates for the status quo, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (from California) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (from Nevada). Through lawsuits, letters and protests, opponents sought to stop redevelopment of the four remaining complexes — B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard — in its tracks.
All that changed on Thursday. City Council members took turns knocking down myths as they took back their city. They noted that aged, dense concentrations of public housing — “filled with asbestos from the ‘40s, lead-based paint and mold,” in the words of Council member Cynthia Hedge-Morrell — would be replaced with a new and varied community of housing and homeownership units.
With tenant protection vouchers added, more than 8,000 families will be helped under our plan, a 3,000-plus increase over pre-Katrina levels. Our plan will also make at least 1,800 market-rate rental and homeownership units available to the public. We want more families to take the small but critical steps that lead toward ownership and independence.
Residents who left New Orleans because of the hurricane will have first priority in reclaiming their original or similar units. Today, up to 300 units are open and “key-ready,” awaiting displaced families. To win those residents back, the city will have to compete by offering good schools, safe streets and economic opportunities.
Finally, council members noted that redevelopment is less expensive than renovation. Continued delay will put hundreds of millions of dollars in tax equity and federal taxpayer funds at risk.
The protesters’ flimsy, one-note message did not win the day. “As far as I know, no plan has been articulated by the advocates of stopping the demolition,” said Council member Shelley Midura.
“Very few people in that crowd are actually public housing residents,” Mayor Ray Nagin said earlier. “They seem to be activists who have descended upon our city to make some point.”