We had a nice apartment here at Cooper and it was okay," Sam Jackson says one afternoon after getting off work, standing outside the B.W. Cooper public-housing development. "Then it was looted three times, and now I can't even tell it used to be my house."
Jackson, a native of Tylertown, Miss., lived in New Orleans for 40 years before Hurricane Katrina. A 10-year employee of a company that manufactures electrical cables for shipbuilders, he lived at B.W. Cooper for 24 years before driving his family out of the city in his work truck the day the floodwalls broke. After spending eight weeks at emergency shelters in Baton Rouge, Jackson and his wife and two teenage sons moved into a Motel 6 in Port Allen, where he started getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to catch a free bus to work in New Orleans.
Jackson checked on their second-story apartment in mid-September and it was fine -- the building didn't flood and had only minor wind damage. When he came back a couple of weeks later, the rear door to his unit had been pried open and the apartment looted. It's been looted at least twice since. As the weeks add up to months, Jackson and his family are desperate to come home.
"We were in Port Allen and a lot of people from New Orleans were there with us, all of us pleading to come back home, but couldn't because we had no place to live," says Jackson, who started taking anti-depressants months ago after seeing a doctor for stress.
"It was impossible to find my own place in Baton Rouge. I kept getting letters from FEMA saying they were going to stop paying my motel bill, then the deadline would be extended. I was basically homeless."
After four months of staying at Motel 6, the Jacksons are back in New Orleans, living in a FEMA trailer off Franklin Avenue in the 8th Ward. His new neighbors include polices officers, firefighters and other city workers who also lost their homes -- all living in 100 trailers placed on city-owned parkland. Heavily flooded by Katrina, the neighborhood's only lights at night are from the trailer park. A few corner stores have reopened nearby, but the closest supermarket is four or five miles away. "A trailer is kind of cramped, but it's better than living in a motel," Jackson says. "We prefer to be back in Cooper."
But it will be months before the Jacksons can go home.
Jackson wonders why it is taking so long to reopen Cooper, where only about half of the 65-acre complex had flooding, and he wants to know who should be held responsible for the looting of his apartment. Dozens of displaced Cooper residents reported thefts of furniture, jewelry, clothing, computers and other valuables that began late last fall, months after the hurricane. About the same time, HANO tacked notices on doors at the complex, notifying tenants that they had to move out their possessions by Dec. 31 or their property would be thrown away. Shortly afterward, "No Trespassing" signs warned that anyone found on the property would be arrested. Tenants were later told they had until Jan. 15 to move. HANO's plans apparently changed, as no move has been made to clear out apartments. But, to many displaced tenants, the message was clear: don't plan on coming home.
For the first time in his life, Jackson has become something of an activist, attending rallies for public housing, serving as a spokesman at community meetings, and with his wife Shirley writing letters to The Times-Picayune. "Right now, poor people can't return to New Orleans," he says. "We need to get the housing projects back open so people can come back and start living their lives again."
With the severe housing shortage facing the city, housing advocates and displaced tenants like Jackson want to know why HANO has not acted more quickly to reopen undamaged apartments, repair units that received moderate damage, or placed some of the thousands of FEMA trailers sitting in storage on the grounds of public-housing developments. Six months after Katrina, not a single trailer has been placed on public-housing property in the city, though The Times-Picayune reported on Dec. 21 that Congressman William Jefferson was assured by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonso Jackson that the city would be able to do so.
Before the storm, HANO was already in the process of dismantling traditional public housing through Hope VI, a federal program from the Clinton era that favors "mixed use/mixed income" redevelopments and voucher programs. Troubled for years by local mismanagement, HANO went into federal receivership in 2002 and was taken over by the Bush Administration's HUD. Nadine Jarmon serves as HANO's administrative receiver. She is a consultant with the Griffon Group, which was hired by HUD to run HANO. Mirza Negron Morales, a 29-year employee of HUD, serves as HANO's one-person board.
Since Katrina, tenants and housing advocates have criticized HANO and HUD for not being forthcoming about the status of public housing and plans for its future. At the board's monthly meeting held on March 9, Jarmon outlined the agency's estimate of the current status of its public-housing stock, but offered no timetable for repairs or re-occupancy, or plans for temporary housing. In each case, rebuilding at heavily damaged developments depended upon "federal and local land-use decisions and funding."
Jarmon, Morales, and general counsel Cynthia Burch refer all questions from reporters to HUD's public-affairs office in Washington.
"What you call slow, we call well planned and deliberate," says HUD spokesman Jerry Brown, adding that soil tests must be completed before any trailers are placed on public-housing property. Brown says soil tests are "about 50 percent complete," but could offer no time frame for placing trailers in public-housing developments.
Activists who have tracked public housing issues in New Orleans for years say that the hurricane is accelerating Hope VI plans already underway to replace traditional public housing with privatized redevelopments along the lines of River Garden. That development replaced the 1,500 housing units of St. Thomas with more than 1,600 new apartments. Only 120 units, however, were designated for public housing (with plans for another 100 offsite units yet to be built). The rest were developed as market-rate apartments. Years after the project started, about 40 former St. Thomas residents have moved into River Garden.
In speeches last fall, both Nagin and HUD Secretary Jackson praised River Garden as a model of how public housing in New Orleans should be rebuilt. HANO officials have said their plans for public housing are focused on mixed-income developments along with Section 8 subsidized housing and home ownership programs. Some critics see the 364-day lease HANO recently signed with Home Depot for six acres at the C.J. Peete development in Central City -- the agency avoided public input on the deal by making the lease one day short of a year -- as the first step of a new development along the lines of River Garden. Wal-Mart served as the retail anchor for River Garden.
Often lost among other issues facing post-Katrina New Orleans, public housing came to the fore in recent weeks with City Council President Oliver Thomas' comment that public housing should be for people who work instead of "soap opera watchers." Thomas later apologized for the remark, but stuck by his idea of screening tenants for employment history and intention to work. Laura Tuggle, a housing lawyer with the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, notes that HANO for years has used a "work preference" to screen new applicants. In fact, data from the 2000 census show that the majority of public-housing residents worked. Tenants earning a wage or salary ranged from 37.9 percent in Iberville to 69 percent in the Florida development. Employment in St. Bernard and Cooper were both 60 percent. Overall in the city, 73.3 percent of residents had a wage or salary income.
Of greater concern to activists and tenants than a new screening policy has been the recent fencing off of the St. Bernard and B.W. Cooper developments, along with the installation of steel security plates over doors and windows at other developments. The agency has said that the fences and steel plates are for safety and security, yet they came months after many apartments were looted and were installed without first gutting and cleaning out flooded first-floor units.
"What's going on with the fencing off of public housing is symbolic of other things that are going on in this city -- the closing of Charity Hospital, the failure to reopen many public schools, the treatment that so many poor black people received during the hurricane," says Jay Arena, a housing activist with C3/Hands Off Iberville. "What we're seeing is a push to privatize low-income housing in New Orleans using Katrina as a screen. HANO is being completely unclear with people in Houston and Baton Rouge and everywhere else about what is going on with public housing. We think the fences and steel plates are a clear signal they have no plans to reopen those developments."
Arena and others point to the slow pace of restoring city services to mostly black neighborhoods, protests over the placement of FEMA trailers in middle-income neighborhoods, and opposition to reopening high-density apartment complexes in eastern New Orleans as evidence that lower-income black residents are being discouraged from returning to the city. "They are making no effort to bring them home," says Arena. "The hurricane has dropped the faade of powerful interests, and what they want is to change the racial and class demographics of this city."
HANO officials deny they are trying to keep public-housing residents from coming home and insist they want to ensure that units are safe when displaced residents return. Yet re-occupancy at developments with little hurricane damage has been slow. Tenants began returning in December to Iberville, a block from the French Quarter and an area where power had been restored for months. The development continues to reopen one building at a time. Jarmon noted at the March 9 board meeting that 164 families have returned to Iberville and another 274 units have been repaired, adding that HANO had been in contact with 85 percent of Iberville's tenants.
HANO has offered no timetable for rehabbing larger developments -- St. Bernard, Lafitte, and B.W. Cooper -- that once comprised over 3,400 units. Storm damage to individual buildings at those developments ranges from minor to severe. Housing advocates and former residents recently met HANO director Jarmon and her staff in front of the St. Bernard development for what she intended as a meeting with a few tenants. It turned into a protest forum against the installation of a security fence and the slow pace of the authority's recovery.
At the meeting with Jarmon and her staff, tenants asked why, six months after the storm, no work has been done to reopen St. Bernard. Modernization director Adonis Woods said that inspections had found serious problems with roofs and mold inside most buildings. "You would be breathing that mold whether you were on the second or third floors," he said. "That's the kind of thing that we're really concerned about. This stuff has to be repaired."
ENDESHA JUAKALI RAN THE NEW DAY community and day-care center at the St. Bernard development before Katrina. "I've been back in and there was no damage at all on the second and third floors of my building," said Juakali, who lived in St. Bernard for eight years. "I think they could get them back on line if there was a will to do so."
Since Katrina, Juakali has spent time in 13 cities from Houston to Atlanta, often living with evacuees. He recently moved into a FEMA trailer placed at his house on Alford Street across from St. Bernard and plans to help returning residents move back into the development. "Everyone wants to come home, they just need a place to live," he said. "There's no great amount of people saying 'I'm doing better here and I want to stay where I am.' Most people are living on the good will of FEMA right now. We have a year before a real crisis comes up with people who can't survive without help. If they don't plan to let people back in St. Bernard, what's the plan otherwise for people coming back?"
HANO has categorized the damage to St. Bernard as severe. Spokesman Brown says safety and liability concerns prevent the use of flooded buildings where mold is present. "Those are always issues and we also have to make sure that a support system is in place in the area -- schools and grocery stores and other amenities," he said. According to St. Bernard tenants, Jarmon has told them that it may be a year before the agency has a plan for the development. "This is what it is," Jarmon said at the meeting with tenants, at times trading shouts with activists. "This development took in four to six feet of water. You see the waterline. We're not making stuff up to be convenient."
Speakers and former residents drew their own conclusions from the chain link fence topped with barbed wire. "That is a slap in the people's face," said Rev. Bruce Davenport, a neighborhood activist. "This wasn't to keep thieves out -- they can get in if they want to. Crime prevention is what this is all about -- close the projects and get rid of drugs and crime. We've got to get the politics out of this and get people home. There are thousands of people who want to come back, and they can't understand why they're being left out."
Walter Smith, a furloughed HANO worker, drove from Fort Polk, to attend the meeting with HANO officials. "I think they're stalling to buy time," said Smith. "They're putting up a fence and these properties are going to sit and deteriorate. That means you would have to go out and bid and redo all of these apartments and that will take another year, so we're talking two years. People on fixed incomes need relief now."
For decades, critics in New Orleans and other cities across the country have called traditional public housing a failure, a poorly designed experiment that, in combination with bad schools, a poor job market, drugs and crime, has kept many tenants stuck in poverty.
Prior to Katrina, HANO's receivership team received good marks from many for reviving a housing authority considered one of the worst in the nation, and for its redevelopment of blighted public-housing properties such as Desire, Florida, and Guste. Yet for 60 years before Katrina, such developments became part of the fabric of their neighborhoods.
"This is our home," said Paula Taylor, who grew up in St. Bernard and lived in public housing in the Ninth Ward before the storm. "This is our neighborhood. This is a development -- I have an issue when you call it a project. Do I want to see it better? Yes. Safe? Yes. Clean and decent? Yes. But this is home."
Taylor, a member of the city-wide tenants' council that represents public-housing residents to HANO, is currently living in Houston in a $1,200-a-month apartment paid for with FEMA housing vouchers. "I can't afford that on my own," says Taylor. "When my one-year lease is up I'll be homeless again." By the Numbers By Bill Sasser According to HANO, 49,000 people lived in public housing in New Orleans before Katrina. Twenty thousand lived in developments, nearly 5 percent of the city's population. The development system had 7,500 units, with more than 5,000 occupied before the storm. Many of the unoccupied homes were already flagged for demolition.
Another 29,000 people used subsidized Section 8 housing vouchers to rent apartments in the private marketplace. HANO favors the Section 8 voucher program as less expensive than maintaining traditional public housing, but the waiting list for the program routinely topped 15,000 applicants before Katrina.
According to the housing authority, tenants have returned to 840 public housing units at the Iberville, Guste, Fischer and River Garden developments. Section 8 voucher tenants have signed 1,270 market leases since the storm. A lot of Section 8 homes were severely damaged by the hurricane, and HANO inspectors are looking for new units.
Outside New Orleans, HANO reports that its staff has completed 3,582 client assessments in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. The agency predicts that 60 percent of its pre-storm public-housing population plans to return to New Orleans.
Three large public-housing developments that were well occupied before Katrina remain closed: B.W. Cooper, Lafitte and St. Bernard. Figures from 2004 show that more than 7,400 tenants lived in these developments. According to HANO, 300 units at B.W. Cooper did not flood and the agency will reopen a quadrant of buildings after mold removal and other repairs are completed. Lafitte will reopen, but there is no schedule for doing so at this time. St. Bernard has no schedule for reopening.
Three complexes in redevelopment before Katrina have not reopened. C.J. Peete in Central City, where many buildings have been demolished for redevelopment, received little damage and the few buildings occupied before the storm are expected to reopen. Florida and Desire, both in the Ninth Ward, were severely damaged and may be torn down.