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A New Desire 

Amid shreds of former lives, piles of TVs, vacuum cleaners and a little girl's pink bike, a crane swoops down and takes the face off a shotgun-style house. Meanwhile, four houses down the street, workers rebuild the frames of similar homes torn down only weeks ago. In the flood-ravaged Upper Ninth Ward, this juxtaposition of houses coming down while their neighbors go back up signals a long-awaited -- and desperately needed -- reconstruction.

After 15 months of inertia following Hurricane Katrina, the cheerful, pastel-colored, suburban-looking homes that replaced the Desire public housing development shortly before the storm are being razed to the slab, with care taken not to damage the foundation, developers say, so they can reconstruct an "almost exact replica" of the mixed-income New Desire development over the coming year.

"What you see coming down right now is going to be rebuilt," says Gionne Jourdan, a development officer with Michaels Development Company, which is rebuilding the complex. "In a year from now, you'll be able to see affordable housing that's decent and safe and that somebody can make into a home again. So that's exciting to be a part of that rebuilding process."

The Houston-based construction company Parkcrest Builders Inc. recently began demolishing the houses, which were swamped under more than 5 feet of water after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. All 107 of the rental units, designed with columns, wrought-iron porches and gingerbread molding, will be torn down by the first of the year, Jourdan says.

Developers say demolishing the complex is more "efficient" than renovating it because mold and structural issues could have posed future problems and additional cost had they decided to gut and renovate the complex rather than start anew.

The company began rebuilding the homes last week. And although company officials say the first couple homes will take the longest to construct, once they work out the initial rebuilding kinks, they expect to construct two to three frames per day.

"It's kind of like a learning curve right now," says Steve Yeary, construction manager with Michaels Development. "Once we get over that curve, it will go a lot faster."

In order for the developer to qualify for Low Income Housing Tax Credits from the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, the rental units must be rebuilt by December 2007, Adonis Expose, a spokesman for the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), wrote in an email response to questions.

Currently, there is no timeline for the demolition and reconstruction of Savoy Place, the largest section of New Desire, because the developer is attempting to secure funding from state, federal and insurance sources, HANO officials and developers say. Only 40 percent of the 318 single-family and owner-occupied homes slated for Savoy had been constructed when Katrina hit in August 2005. "Right now, we are at a standstill with Savoy," Jourdan says.

Residents are expected to be able to begin moving back into the rental units by early fall 2007.

HANO will give former residents first priority as the units become available -- although they may not be able to rent the same unit they lived in prior to the storm -- as long as they pass credit and background checks the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires of all tenants.

"Everybody who was in a unit (prior to Katrina) will be allowed to come back," Jourdan says. "They have the right to return."

The Interstate Realty Management Company, the on-site manager, began contacting residents at their last known addresses immediately after the storm. To date, 13 of the 107 families who once resided at New Desire have been contacted. If the remaining families have not been located by the time the units are ready, new residents will be selected from HANO's public housing database, Expose says.

Of the approximately 500 residents who had moved into the development, many only a few months before the hurricanes, about 90 percent want to return, says Deborah Davis president of the Desire Area Resident Council. Residents have requested to meet regularly with HANO officials and the developer during the reconstruction, she says, to ensure that former residents will have first dibs on the new homes.

"I feel kind of good (about the reconstruction plans)," Davis says, "as long as they keep their word that residents will have the first right to return."

Michaels Development Company received insurance settlements in August on the two rental sections currently slated for reconstruction but held off on demolitions until after eviction notices were posted. Residents had until Nov. 13 to salvage any remaining belongings.

The evictions were a legal necessity, the only way the developer could take procession of the property in order to demolish and rebuild it. The court agreed to seal the eviction hearing records, however, so residents' credit would not be marred, HANO officials and developers say.

While the new, New Desire development will be an "almost exact replica" of the pre-Katrina complex, it will include a few notable structural changes. The roofs, for example, will be capable of withstanding 130 mph gusts, an improvement over the previous 90 mph resistant roofs, and impact-resistant windows will be installed, both meeting post-Katrina building codes for new construction, Yeary says. The buildings will not be elevated because the developer filed for building permits with the city before the elevation deadline last summer, he says.

Davis, a resident who stayed on her roof for four days after Katrina before being rescued by boat and eventually taken to Texas, says in addition to reconstruction, she would like to see the medical facilities and community outreach programs once offered at the development reinstated.

"We're going to need (medical facilities) even more now because there's a lot of mental and physical anguish among residents right now, not just among (public housing) residents but across the city," she says.

HANO has no plans to provide medical facilities at the New Desire development; however, Expose says residents may continue to visit a consortium of doctors at their office or hospital as long as funding for the medical service program is available.

Residents also would like to see some of the Hope VI grant money slated for the redevelopment used to provide many of the same training sessions once offered such as home ownership, computer literacy and economic development classes, Davis says.

Before Katrina, community service programs were held in two double-wide trailers provided by HANO, but the trailers were provided on an interim basis while an on-site community center facility was being constructed, HANO says.

"With housing being a top priority and the plans for the community center not yet finalized, it has not been determined if new trailers will be provided during redevelopment," according to Expose.

While Davis says the various medical and social services residents enjoyed at the development prior to the storm are even more important as people try to rebuild their lives after Katrina, the most pressing issue is for residents to be able to return.

"We don't want special treatment," she says. "We just want to be treated with humanity."

click to enlarge New units are being framed at the New Desire complex - even as bulldozers demolish units damaged and flooded by - Hurricane Katrina. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • New units are being framed at the New Desire complex even as bulldozers demolish units damaged and flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
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