New Orleans, and its residents, face a conundrum:
Low income people want to come home, but there’s nowhere to go. Rents have sky-rocketed due to the lack of rental housing stock, and nearly 90% of the city’s public housing apartments are still closed and unavailable (NY Times).
In bone-baking heat under a cloudless sky, evacuees traveling from Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Houston and elsewhere fumed at the city and federal housing officials who have opened fewer than 1,000 of more than 8,000 public housing units in a city suffering from a housing crisis and a shortage of workers.
The residents promised on Sunday to gut and rebuild their own units, and they said they planned to be back permanently — with or without the city’s permission — as soon as their work was done.
“They’re not giving us any help, and we’re tired of waiting,” a resident, Nickole Banks, said of the Housing Authority. “People want to come home.”
Unfortunately, those same public housing megaplexes were problematic in the extreme; concentrated pockets of crime, drug, and gang activity…. and they were very big pockets. The city cannot let the pre-Katrina situation recreate.
Local officials have been clear that they do not want to return to the way things were before the storm, when 10 traditional public housing developments concentrated low-income residents in some of the worst conditions in the city, leading to intense crime and drug use.
“We don’t need to recreate pockets of poverty,” the president of the City Council, Oliver M. Thomas Jr., said. “They don’t work. We want more mixed-income, working communities. I think that’s really the only way.”
So what to do?
The public housing projects are (duh) not private. More to the point, they’re part of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) under the auspices of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and thus more amenable to targeted and focused out-of-the-box solutions… if the city can see them.
New Orleans has an terrible shortage of both housing and workers — a classic Catch-22. They also have, evidently, folks standing at the gates (so to speak) who are able and willing to work.
Even though she wants to help remake Iberville into something it never was, Ms. Paul complained about how slowly housing officials were letting residents return to the development, the least damaged in the city. She is in the unusual position of standing up for tenants and developers at the same time.
The projects must be remade, but they are a deplorable waste of resources at this critical juncture. The answer lies between “let everybody come in” and “don’t open the projects at all”.
The city should get off the fence and start up its “mixed-income, working communities” solution now. If people have come back, and are clearing / cleaning the housing stock, clearly they’re motivated. Let them in – but not without organization and a plan.
A spokesman for the Housing Authority, Adonis Exposé, said the authority was encouraging private and public partnerships to redevelop the projects, a move that began in limited form before the hurricane.
“We find it has worked out, and we’re looking into doing it at a lot of other sites,” Mr. Exposé said.
The view of “mixed income, working communities” is one Polimom supports, but it cannot wait for somebody to come through with an Architectural Digest blueprint and a bulldozer. The need is now.
Designate a percentage of the existing public housing to folks who are standing at the gates (so to speak), another percentage to folks who are working as contractors or re-builders, and a further percentage to those who are elderly or disabled. Put security in there, whether private, state, or federal.
Will there be objections? Of course — but that’s true regardless. Difficult problems call for creative solutions. They also require initiative.
NOLA’s leadership, HANO, and HUD should get the train back on the tracks, rather than dithering and procrastinating. Rebuilding will, and should, incorporate plans to decentralize and reduce the poverty, but waiting until the vision springs fully-grown from the scarred earth smacks of an inability to plan and lead.
The City of New Orleans cannot wait indefinitely for tomorrow to manifest itself. It has problems with housing and worker shortages, and it evidently has housing and workers.
Pull this together.
Some prior Polimom posts about crime, poverty, and New Orleans’ public housing here, here, here, and here.