Behind the Dirty Cleansing of New Orleans

— Chloe Tribich

COMMENTARIES ON THE viciousness of Congressman Richard Baker’s (R-LA) oft-cited comment that “we couldn’t get rid of public housing, but God did” often miss the fact that it is, in many ways, an accurate assessment of the intentions of U.S. public housing policy.

Since the creation of a public housing program in 1937, policies that might have truly benefited poor and working people as a class were derailed by institutional racism. This was manifested by racial segregation of public housing projects, neglect of Black projects, and, more recently, demolition of the projects themselves.

Hurricane Katrina has allowed for the most blatant attacks on public housing residents in recent history. This includes padlocking tenants — nearly all of whom are Black and very low income — out of their intact apartments. For those concerned about the future of low-cost housing, then, the history and current struggles of New of Orleans’ public housing residents are particularly instructive.

This article will point to a few ways in which the U.S. government has historically sought to deny public housing residents their fair share, and then discuss an effort to stop the pre-Katrina demolition of one New Orleans public housing project. My goal is not to give a comprehensive account, but to suggest ways in which Hurricane Katrina allowed existing housing policies to be pushed towards their logical conclusion.

The Housing Act in Practice

In 1937 the federal government passed the U.S. Housing Act, authorizing the public housing program now administered by HUD. This New Deal reform was a victory for the workers and unemployed people who had waged militant struggles for jobs, housing and equality. Along with minimum wage requirements, a 40-hour work week and jobs programs, creation of public housing improved the lives of working and poor people. But the reforms left the cause of these inequalities in place.(1)

The government’s relationship to public housing was shaped from the beginning by racism. Along with World War II-era entitlements such as the GI Bill and low-cost veteran’s housing, public housing and other New Deal reforms at first benefited primarily white citizens, integrating only under pressure from the civil rights and Black power movements. Eventually these benefits withered altogether with the neoliberal expansion of the 1980s and ‘90s.

From the beginning, Black-occupied public housing developments suffered from poor maintenance compared to white developments, and Black residents lacked even minimal input in decisions of local authorities. This precipitated demands for resident control in the 1960s in New Orleans and other cities. In 1966, Al Turead became the first Black person allowed on the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) board. Attempts at integration — in public housing, schools and in public life generally — caused the flight of 200,000 white New Orleanians to the suburbs.(2)

As activist Malik Rahim remembers, “by the time we started the Black Panther party in 1970, there were very few whites left [in public housing] because — and like I said everything was based on racism — whites had the opportunity to transition out, not only of public housing; they were able to make that upward step from poor or working poor to working middle class; they were given opportunities, for example, to buy homes and get jobs.”(3)

The City of New Orleans provided extra job and home-buying assistance for white public housing residents so they would not have to share their buildings with Black neighbors. It worked: today New Orleans public housing residents are nearly all Black.(4)

Dispersed Public Housing

In the late 1960s, faced with the new reality of all-Black projects and the declining property values that would likely entail, HANO began implementation of a scattered site program to place smaller public housing developments in middle- and working-class neighborhoods. The stated goal — to disperse public housing — seemed to contradict public housing’s original mission: to provide efficient and self-contained communities — including playgrounds, child care, and services — for poor people.

But both the original justification for large developments and the later justification for scatter sites were the bad conditions in which poor people lived —- either poorly maintained tenements or public housing projects struggling with crime and violence. These conditions were connected to the residents’ supposed immorality; the new form of housing would promote their personal transformation.

A contemporary version of this perspective is exemplified in a quotation by John Wardlaw, the executive director of the Hartford Housing Authority, who commented to the New York Times in 1989 that  ‘’[Scatter site housing] offers the future for low-income housing … these people need others to associate with who don’t have the same types of problems. In those situations they tend to do one thing: draw on each others weaknesses.’’(5)

Compare this quotation with an account of the tenant selection process for Harlem River Houses in 1937: “The housing authority investigator assigned the candidate points on the basis of ‘good character’ and ‘cleanliness’…it was taken for granted that applicants should live in what was then regarded as an optimal family unit.”(6)

Violence, drugs and poverty are real problems in many public housing projects. But what the above analyses lack is an understanding of the way in which racism and state neglect incites these problems and allows them to flourish. In New Orleans, for example, the “war on drugs” attempted to push the city’s illegal drugs into the projects and contain them there. The New Orleans Black Panthers’ resident-supported effort to enforce a drug-free zone in the Desire project in the 1970s is just one example of how tenants attempted to secure their homes despite state efforts to the contrary.(7)

“Cleaning Up” and St. Thomas

While job creation, improved maintenance and services do not feature prominently in the practice of public housing policy, “cleaning up” public housing by weeding out individual tenants does. One housing organizer reported that a Bronx community leader was denied public housing because her baby’s father — with whom she did not live and to whom she was not married — had a criminal conviction.(8) Similarly, Malik Rahim refers to this eviction policy as a tactic to remove legitimate residents without addressing the real problems of jobs, drugs, violence and injustice.

Hurricane Katrina intensified the drive to eliminate individual public housing tenants rather than implement systemic reforms to address major problems. For example, HUD Secretary Alfonse Jackson recently asserted that “only the best [public housing] residents should return,”(9) and a former New Orleans City Council president announced that “we don’t need soap opera watchers [in public housing].”(10)

An MSNBC report on Thomas’s comment reflects the extent to which Katrina made such statements acceptable: “Before Hurricane Katrina, Thomas might have been slammed for talking so bluntly…[But] many of New Orleans’ 7,000 public housing units were flooded in Katrina [and] some council members want preference given to returning residents who verify they want to work.” While the fundamentals of this thinking have not changed, Katrina has greatly increased the ease with which the harmful policies are enacted.

The demolition of St. Thomas and its replacement with the higher-income River Gardens project shows how the tactics described above were used to “get rid of public housing” even before Katrina.

Built for whites only, St.Thomas was well maintained until white flight left it almost entirely Black. Malik Rahim recalls that in the 1960s, “St. Thomas was in better shape even than Fischer, which was a new project, even though it was 20-30 years older.” By the ‘70s, after integration and white flight, disinvestment and neglect had taken its toll: broken windows and garbage pile-up were a fact of life, and as with most other developments, residents did their own repairs.

Here and in other projects, the Black Panther Party filled the gap: they organized a system for maintenance, for garbage disposal and pick up, and policing.(11) However, by the time the project was demolished in 2002 the conditions were some of the worst in any public housing project in the United States.(12)

Under the HOPE VI program — a 1980s federal program which ostensibly sought “to lessen concentrations of poverty by placing public housing in non-poverty neighborhoods and promoting mixed-income communities”(13) — St. Thomas was marked for demolition. River Gardens, a “mixed income community” and a Wal-Mart were slated for construction in its place. HANO and Historic Restoration Inc., the private River Gardens developer led by Pres Kabacoff, claimed HOPE VI and other public funds for higher income housing — the opposite of what these funds were intended for.

Adding insult to injury, HANO proposed selling part of the land to HRI, which would then sell to Wal-Mart, allowing the private developer to reap a $2+ million profit.

Attempting Resistance

Initially this outrageous plan mobilized conservationists, progressive urban planners and white activists who opposed big box development in the historic Garden District. Some St.Thomas residents took action; others had been driven to desperation by the extremely poor conditions of their homes. But the understanding that the developer’s plans would both displace St. Thomas residents and waste public money forced a temporary and uneasy alliance between these two constituencies.

Days before the City Council vote, a diverse crowd of hundreds mobilized at City Hall. The feeling, according to Jason Neville, an activist who participated, was one of “a real social movement event.”(14)

But neither the grassroots mobilizations nor the exposure of HRI and HANO manipulations stopped the plan. Had the coalition articulated a clearer alternative vision — such as well-maintained public housing and community-controlled development — perhaps the campaign would’ve gone farther. As it stood, the conditions of St. Thomas were so poor that demolition seemed reasonable to some outsiders.

Today the River Gardens development houses fewer than 100 of the 1,500 families who populated St.Thomas, and the demolition seems to stand as a portent of the post-Katrina world.

The Erupting Housing Crisis

That New Orleans is now suffering one of the worst housing crises in its history is beyond debate. The lead article in the Times-Picayune on November 9, 2007 discussed how a growing homeless encampment has become so established that it’s developing its own “loose political structure.”

Meanwhile, the demolition threat continues. On November 16, tenants’ suit to stop the razing of four developments was thrown out. The plaintiffs will appeal and The People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, Survivior’s Village and others called for mass action in defense of public housing. Although demolition was to begin December 16, so far daily protests have successfully interrupted the early-stage efforts.

There’s much at stake: if HUD’s plans are carried out, 4,600 public housing units will be razed and replaced with “mixed income” developments; yet only 744 units in the new projects will be affordable to current public housing residents.

Challenges of a post-Katrina city have exhausted veteran activists and depleted the resources of grassroots organizations. The fierce spirit of resistance that fueled campaigns for racial integration and community self-defense in the ‘60s and ‘70s will be hard to recreate among a dispersed and devastated population, and HANO, HUD and corrupt developers will stop at little to squeeze the last drop of blood from public housing.

The stakes, however, are higher than ever, and solidarity actions in Washington, D.C., New York and other cities suggest that New Orleanians are not the only ones who understand this. Activists across the country have fixed their eyes on New Orleans.

For more information: http://www.defendneworleanspublichousing.org/; http://www.justiceforneworleans.org/; People’s Hurricane Relief Fund http://www.peopleshurricane.org/; Powerpoint presentation narrated by Loyola Professor Bill Quigley, How to Destroy an African American City in 33 Steps: http://law.loyno.edu/~quigley/how_to_destroy_an_african_american_city_in _33_steps/.

Notes

  1. As Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History, “When the New Deal was over capitalism remained intact. The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth, as well as its laws, courts, police…the system of waste, inequality of concern for profit over human needs — remained,” 403.
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  2. Campanella, Richard. New Orleans Then and Now. Pelican, Pelican: 1999.
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  3. Rahim, Malik. Interview with Christian Roselund.
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  4. Rahim, Malik. Interview with Christian Roselund.
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  5. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE1D61F3DF936A35751C0A96F948260&sec=&spo=&pagewanted=print.
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  6. Gail Radford,Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era. Chicago: U of C Press, 1996. 166.
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  7. Rahim, Malik. Interview with Christian Roselund.
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  8. McGough, John. Personal Communication, 11/20/07.
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  9. Tram Nguyen, “A Game of Monopoly.” Colorlines, May/June 2007.
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  10. MSNBC online Feb. 21,2006 with Martine Savdige.
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  11. Rahim, Malik. Interview with Christian Roselund.
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  12. Neville, Jason. Personal Communication. 11/18/07.
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  13. http://www.hud.gov/offices/pih/programs/ph/hope6/about/.
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  14. Neville, Jason. Personal Communication, 11/18/07.
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from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)

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