Built to help move people out of poverty, over the years, New Orleans’ housing projects ended up warehousing the poor.
Today, even the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which manages public housing, says the history of such housing in the city is “complex, marked by economic and social challenges.”
The city’s housing projects were spurred by the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, which led the way for the construction in 1941 of the St. Thomas and Iberville projects for whites, and the Magnolia, Calliope, Lafitte and St. Bernard for blacks.
Over time, white residents moved out of the whites-only projects and the projects became predominantly African-American. Additional complexes were built, including Florida, Desire and Melpomene.
The city’s first project, the Magnolia, expanded and became one of the most dangerous, known for criminal gang activity.
Most of the projects were not well maintained. Even before Desire was opened, the tenants’ association reported that the housing, built over a landfill, was “undesirable” and “unsafe for human habitation.” But by 1970, more than 10,000 residents lived there.
The Black Panthers moved in to the Desire to help manage problems there but were later forced out following violent confrontations with police.
In the 1990s, HANO began a controversial redevelopment of the sites, with the St. Thomas the first to be torn down to become a mixed-use, mixed-income community. Pushed along by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, all of the projects have since been similarly redeveloped.