The Advocate's Aug. 22 editorial, which speaks in praiseworthy terms of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson's recent visit to New Orleans, was an unfortunate rewrite of history. After Katrina, thousands of our city's most vulnerable residents were locked out of their homes in public housing developments and prevented from returning, even though many of the buildings came through the storm relatively unscathed. The Advocate's statement that even these undamaged buildings "needed to go," particularly without citing any evidence that the new model has benefitted New Orleans, is as much a statement about the people who lived in them as the buildings themselves.
Instead of being welcomed back to the city, displaced public housing residents were issued vouchers and expected to find an apartment in a city where half the rental housing stock was destroyed and rents had doubled overnight. The housing market they re-entered after Katrina was also one where voucher holders seeking apartments faced an 82 percent rate of discrimination.
For years, public-private developments for affordable housing in New Orleans were resisted a…
Under these conditions, the demolishing and redevelopment of the Big Four public housing developments did not tackle the problem of concentrated poverty. Instead, it pushed concentrated poverty farther away from the city center into still poor and segregated neighborhoods. The Big Four developments — St. Bernard, Lafitte, B.W. Cooper, and Magnolia — provided over 5,000 units of public housing before Katrina. Now, over 5,000 Housing Choice Voucher ("Section 8") families live in New Orleans East, while nearly 3,000 voucher families reside across the river in Algiers. In some neighborhoods, as many as 700 voucher families live within the space of a few blocks.
While Columbia Parc — the redeveloped St. Bernard — features a host of new amenities and Bienville Basin — the new Iberville — is near jobs in the French Quarter, most voucher holders are forced to live in farther-flung, heavily segregated neighborhoods with little access to jobs, public transit, high-performing schools, grocery stores, or other amenities. It is sadly ironic that the HUD secretary praised the new developments as examples of what we should be striving for because they are "healthy communities that are walkable, that are looking out for education, for health care, that ensure that they’re not food deserts." This is certainly true, but also true is that the overwhelming majority of housing authority residents now have less access to those resources because of the redevelopments.
The current housing authority leadership, to their credit, is working to restore affordable units to scattered sites in neighborhoods that already have these resources, like the Bywater and Uptown. The units are desperately needed in these areas, which have become some of the most expensive in the city. They will provide residents with easy access to jobs, and the walkability, educational opportunities and health care access that Secretary Carson lauded.
The editorial closes with a call for more funding to address our affordable housing crisis and we agree: we are still a long way from fulfilling our promise to the vast majority of HANO residents who have yet to benefit from the "fruits" of the new developments.
Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center