I don't want to see those buildings come down," says 70-year-old Shirley Simmons, who grew up near the Lafitte public housing development. At a recent planning meeting, she explains that she supports recently announced plans to build homes and apartments in the Sixth Ward neighborhood that surrounds the Lafitte. But Simmons also is protective of Lafitte itself.
As a child, Simmons remembers her relatives, legendary Seventh Ward craftsmen, coming home and talking about their work on the bricks that day. "So I know that Lafitte was built by the very best roofers, cement finishers, and carpenters," she says.
All her life, she has compared the handiwork. "Sometimes I'll pass by the Iberville and other projects that were built for the white families," she says. "Lafitte was built for us -- black families like us -- but those buildings always were the prettiest of all the projects. I was envious of our friends who lived there; we lived in a wood house; they lived in a brick house."
In August, former Lafitte residents seemed optimistic after HUD hired a pair of redevelopers for the Lafitte -- Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable-housing nonprofit, and Providence Community Housing, a local post-Katrina housing initiative launched by Catholic Charities. At a recent planning meeting, former Lafitte residents liked that the partners seem devoted to helping all of them return to New Orleans and to providing them with a wide range of social services. They also are interested in the "in-fill" housing that Providence-Enterprise is constructing. The nonprofits have acquired approximately 200 lots from the city in the Sixth Ward area, where they will build new shotguns, cottages, and small-scale apartments.
In general, however, neighbors did not like HUD's instructions to the partners: they must begin with a demolished site. "Why is HUD so focused on putting a wrecking ball to those bricks?" asks one man, who has lived for decades across Orleans Avenue from the Lafitte. On a recent walk through the project, he and other neighbors point out Katrina water lines that are clearly below the top of the buildings' foundations, supporting Providence's recent finding that most of the Lafitte's buildings did not flood.
Providence's conclusions do not change the agency's decision to demolish the Lafitte, says HUD spokeswoman Donna White. "[It is] old and it would take millions to repair buildings that basically warehoused poor people," she says, restating HUD's commitment to giving residents newly built housing.
Sounds good, responds Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group. But redevelopment will take years, she says, and evacuees can't wait that long. "I started getting calls from residents in December asking me, 'Why can't I come home? My building wasn't damaged,'" she says. "And they're right. Residents should be able to return to perfectly suitable housing. Units that can be reopened should be reopened tomorrow."
Lafitte resident Jeffrey Hills already was his own handyman. During the 12 years that he and his family lived in the project, he laid linoleum and carpet, caulked the windows, and painted the walls when they needed it. "Lots of people did that -- it was home," he says. Hills has been inside his apartment since the storm and is well aware of the mold on its concrete walls. Still, he says, there's no sheetrock to gut, and thus the cleanup won't take much. "A good scrub-down and paint is all it needs."
For Hills, a Preservation Hall tuba player, one benefit of the Lafitte's sturdy bricks was that its walls were soundproof. "I could practice my horn inside and no one could hear me on the other side," he says. "Those walls are thick, made of concrete, bricks and metal beams." Any new construction will be positively flimsy by comparison, he says.
Some local preservationists agree. Longtime local urban planner Bob Tannen says that the Lafitte is worth saving for several reasons: the buildings were nicely designed, modeled after the much-prized Pontalba apartments that line Jackson Square, and they were built using excellent materials -- good bricks and tile roofs. Tannen also believes the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) is overstating the amount of damage sustained by the project. "Lafitte had a minimum of water damage," he says. Even the official HANO report estimates that first-floor apartments in the Lafitte took only 2 to 12 inches of floodwater, a trickle compared to many already-rehabbed buildings in town. "I don't believe that HUD should be demolishing these buildings," says Tannen.
Neighbors consider these buildings attractive, which is a good enough reason to preserve at least some of them, says Bernard Zyscovich, the Lafitte neighborhood planner for City Council consultant Lambert Advisory. "The Treme neighborhood was the one neighborhood where we heard 'preserve public housing buildings,'" says Lambert Advisory head Paul Lambert. Zyscovich believes that a combination of renovation and new construction would solve some existing design problems. "Too many buildings are crammed into one site," he says. "And the project was conceived as an island. We've since learned that things work better when streets connect." As a result, Zyscovich submitted plans that retain some original buildings but demolish others to make way for green open space and intersecting city streets. The plans also include oft-requested retail space, such as supermarkets and drugstores, on the first floors of some buildings.
Tannen says that HUD's plans to demolish public housing projects across New Orleans are in sync with its HOPE VI redevelopments, most of which involved demolition followed by rebuilding. (A local example of this concept is the former St. Thomas project, which was torn down to make way for the all-new River Garden community.)
But even housing experts who generally support the HOPE VI model question HUD's demolition plans in New Orleans. "These public housing buildings are some of the most sturdy housing in New Orleans, and I'm hesitant to see them torn down," says Urban Institute principal research associate Susan Popkin, who has tracked relocated public housing residents for the past five years through the institute's Hope VI Panel Study. The goal of HOPE VI is to build mixed-income neighborhoods by eliminating developments with "high concentrations of poverty," a term that easily describes the Lafitte, where the average annual household income was $11,900. Popkin thinks that eventually converting the Lafitte to a mixed-income community makes sense, but that might take a decade. "So why not clean up those buildings and use them as worker housing for people helping to rebuild New Orleans?" she asks.
Popkin's suggestion seemed even more practical last week, when newly released documents made it clear that renovation is more cost-effective than demolition. HUD's and HANO's own internal email and memos, recently obtained by the plaintiffs' attorneys (and posted on www.justiceforneworleans.org), reveal that the price tag for extensive modernization of the Lafitte would run $84,354,252, significantly less than complete demolition and rebuilding costs, estimated to be $100,180,650. "I'm reluctant to say this," says Bill Quigley, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, "but it's clear that HUD and HANO have been routinely and regularly lying to the public. The discussions that they've had internally and with each other are completely different from what they've been saying publicly."
At press time, it seemed clear that HANO would submit an application on Friday, Oct. 20, for federal affordable-housing tax credits that could foot
the bill for the Lafitte redevelopment. If that application contains any of the same sort of "deliberately skewed information," Quigley says, it should be resoundingly denied.
Over the past few months, an unlikely mix of preservationists, housing experts, residents, and protestors have begun speaking out in support of the Lafitte -- specifically, that renovation is a better solution than demolition. Only renovation, they say, acknowledges New Orleans' historic architecture and the work of its gifted craftsmen in the Lafitte. Only renovation can immediately begin to address the current rental-housing shortage and the shortage of able-bodied workers. Without a focus on renovation, they add, HUD and HANO will never release accurate damage information or acknowledge every evacuee's right to prompt return.
The last two factors most concern the Advancement Project's Browne-Dianis. "Lafitte is the symbol of what the fight is about," she says. "It's not about damaged units, it's about whether low-income African Americans are welcome in New Orleans."
The choruses rang clear, from girls with bright ribbons in their hair. "Hey, Ms. D., abibblybop you sure look sweet, abibblybop-abibblybop." Nearly every afternoon, groups of little girls would chant favorite rhymes like these as they skipped rope beneath big live-oak trees in Lafitte courtyards. For 65 years, their Double Dutch rhymes echoed off light-brown bricks that were a source of pride for Lafitte residents. Lafitte's 79 buildings, brown-brick with burgundy trim and lacy-iron balconies, were finished in 1941 and have since stood strong through countless tropical storms and at least two devastating hurricanes. "You see, Katrina did not even rumple a brick on them," says chef Leah Chase, gazing admiringly at the project's buildings from her soon-to-be-reopened restaurant across the street.
Often, neighbors speak almost lovingly about the bricks, as if they were a friend. Jerome Smith, who heads up the nearby Treme Community Center, remembers the first time he saw the Lafitte empty, its windows and doors sealed shut by heavy steel panels. His mind just froze, he says. "I couldn't think. It was like attending a wake for someone who had died and you had just seen them the day before in perfect health."
Now those bricks are scheduled to fall. In June, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson visited New Orleans to announce that the Lafitte would be demolished, along with three other projects -- C.J. Peete (formerly the Magnolia), B.W. Cooper (formerly the Calliope), and St. Bernard. There is no set demolition date, but those close to the process seem to agree that the demolitions will happen within the next year.
Former residents feel that the Lafitte deserves better. "Isn't it a shame to knock down those bricks after they saved so many lives during Katrina?" says Patricia Ann Hills, who grew up nearby and lived in the project for more than a decade before the storm. After HUD's announcement, Hills called other evacuated neighbors and cried, on 504 area-code cell phones now linked to towers in Houston, San Antonio, and towns across the Gulf Coast. "It is a shame," says her husband, jazz tuba player Jeffrey Hills. "What about the families that lived in there -- what are we going to do, where are we going to go? I hate to think this way, but it feels like if you lived in the projects, New Orleans doesn't want you back."
Those instincts are right on the mark, according to a lawsuit filed this summer in New Orleans' federal district court. The suit argues that by prohibiting the return of New Orleans' predominately African-American public housing residents, HUD and HANO are violating the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race. In June, the Advancement Project, along with the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block and local attorneys Bill Quigley, Judson Mitchell and Tracie Washington, filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of the 5,146 displaced families that were living in public housing when Katrina struck. Ultimately, lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking the court to block any demolition and "to permit residents to return to their public housing units and rebuild their lives."
The decision to demolish may be more about people than architecture, warns Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute. Tangled in this process, she says, are long-held stereotypes about this city's public housing, which an Associated Press reporter described as "cesspools of despair" in an article published earlier this year. "People perceive public-housing residents as the problem; the stigma is pretty strong," says Popkin. "And it's easy to say, 'We don't want them back.' But a lot of people have come back already and are squatting with relatives. And more will be coming back as housing vouchers expire."
Popkin's prediction is already holding true. Initially, Lafitte's redevelopers estimated about half of former residents would return. That number has now ballooned. Jim Kelly, head of Catholic Charities, says that All Congregations Together has surveyed nearly 400 Lafitte residents for them. Their findings? Nearly all residents want to return. Of evacuees living in southeast Louisiana, fully 98 percent would like to return. Of those currently living out of state, 90 percent want to come home.
Lafitte's redevelopers should seize the chance to match those returning residents with a worker-hungry job market, says Popkin. "It's an opportunity to get more of these residents into jobs," she says.
Hiring employees from housing projects would be nothing new for personnel directors at this city's hotels and restaurants. "Almost everyone we hired before Katrina came from the projects," says one human resources director, who asked not to be identified because she didn't want her employer associated with public housing.
Before Katrina struck, any casual observer could see the Lafitte's relationship with French Quarter employers. In the mornings and afternoons, a steady stream of people in cooks' pants and maids' uniforms walked between the Quarter and the Lafitte. Officially, HUD reports that 1 in 3 adult residents in the Lafitte was employed. Residents believe that the numbers were higher and cite a direct relationship between their displacement and the fact that most hotels are still running short of staff.
Hotel executives don't disagree. "We're at about 50 percent, which is consistent with other places in the area," says Monique Louque, HR director for the Hotel Monteleone. Housekeeping was hit especially hard, going from 80 people pre-storm to 10 currently. The Monteleone has been tracking its openings carefully, so Louque knows where her worker shortage is most acute -- at the lowest wage levels.
"It's been phenomenally easier to find management candidates than entry-level employees," she says. Recently, she advertised for managers and filled those positions quickly. "But we're not getting entry-level employees through our doors," she says, so she's hurting for stewards, cooks and housekeepers. The reason is no secret, she adds. "It's housing. People in entry-level positions, they can't afford places here anymore."
For Lafitte residents like jazz musician Jeffrey Hills, this isn't a new problem. Low-income workers in this low-income town would have been priced out of New Orleans long ago if it weren't for housing projects such as Lafitte, he says. "Everybody on our porch worked," says Hills. "In fact, by the time the storm hit, having a job was mandatory." Still, incomes were low enough that workers still qualified for housing assistance. "We were all basically working-class citizens making working-class wages," he says.
Next week: Razing a Community. Lafitte residents talk about their close-knit neighborhood, its history, its problems, and -- they hope -- its future.