Ms. Harris was one of a handful of former New Orleans public-housing residents who spoke on Nov. 30 at St Augustine Church in Treme. "I am home," declared Patricia McDonald. "Where am I supposed to live? We're from here and we need a place to live." Leona Brown said she was a resident of the Iberville Housing Project beginning in the 1960s; she is staying in Hammond now. "I cannot get into my home. The mayor and everybody else is saying, 'come back.' Well, I'm here, and I need a place to live."
The occasion was the inaugural meeting of New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team (N.O.H.E.A.T.), an umbrella group that organized protests in both Jackson, Miss., and New Orleans last weekend.
Mike Howells, of the public housing rights group C3/Hands Off Iberville! and a member of the N.O.H.E.A.T. coalition, estimates that 3,750, or about half of the city's previous number of public housing units, are either habitable or easily made so (this does not include Lafitte, which sustained serious flooding). And yet only a few dozen units, at a senior citizens' development, have been officially reopened. This at a time when the Gulf Coast director of FEMA, Thad Allen, is telling The New York Times, "Our No.1 priority is housing, our No.2 priority is housing, and after that, at No.3, we'd put housing."
"The government is dragging its feet on public housing, which is more open to working-class African Americans," says Howells. "Who are the people having the hardest time getting back to New Orleans? Working-class African Americans."
So why are the houses still locked? "HANO is not reopening at this time due to security and safety concerns," reads the Housing Authority of New Orleans Web site. "HANO has secured your unit with security doors and/or windows." Housing Authority spokespeople in New Orleans and Houston did not return calls for this article. According to Alphonso Jackson, the secretary of HUD, the safety and security concerns alluded to are mold and flood damage--the same problem that homeowners are attacking all over the city with respirators and Tyvek suits. "I understand there are a great many public housing residents who are desperate to begin rebuilding their lives, but HUD is responsible for their safety when they return to their units," he said at a Nov. 2 press conference. "While many units may seem to be safe, mold is a serious health hazard."
At the moment, public housing residents or those with Section 8 housing vouchers who wish to return to the city are being asked to register with FEMA and wait for rental assistance, just as though they were still evacuated.
Comments by both Jackson and Congressman Richard Baker of Baton Rouge suggest a different motivation besides safety for changing the locks on New Orleans' ten public housing projects. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did," Baker was overheard telling lobbyists, as originally reported in The Wall Street Journal.
What has housing activists in the city really upset is that national and local officials are publicly planning to repeat the River Garden model across the city. In 2002, after a long public fight, the St. Thomas Project was demolished. The new development, built using a federal HOPE IV grant and brokered by local businessman Pres Kabacoff, had 25 percent affordable units versus 75 percent market-rate, and was anchored by the first Wal-Mart in the inner city. Of 800 families who previously lived there, only about 70 were able to come back.
"We're not going to build traditional public housing anymore," Jackson said at a Nov. 2 press conference flanked by local leaders, calling St. Thomas "the model." He was announcing a new $1.8 billion HUD assistance program to "revitalize" public housing in New Orleans, beginning with the C.J. Peete complex, which they plan to redevelop as another mixed-income, mixed-use development.
But that model doesn't sit well with Howells. "The St. Thomas model equals radical downsizing of public housing," he says. "That's the last thing we want."
It's hard to say where the River Garden plan leaves Ms. Harris, who is currently staying with her godmother. She has 13 grandchildren and one on the way. They evacuated to Houston and Garland, Texas.
"Of course, we want to come back home. This is home," she says.
(Reprinted with permission from The Viaage Voice.)