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The Case for Affordable Housing 

A few weeks ago, many former public housing residents were so eager to speak at a Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) meeting that they arrived at John McDonogh High School straight from work, wearing hospital smocks and maintenance uniforms and holding hands with freshly retrieved kids in school uniforms. Most speakers recalled fond memories of their project apartments while noting the difficulties they've endured since Hurricane Katrina, which triggered a decision by HANO to shutter nearly all of the city's public housing units. That night's long line of speakers was a stark reminder that thousands of New Orleanians cannot return home without affordable housing -- and that New Orleans itself cannot rebuild without the return of its working-class citizens.

Without affordable housing and the working people who depend on it, New Orleans' hospitality industry will continue to be woefully understaffed. Without affordable housing, extended families will continue to crowd together in cramped apartments while the city faces growing numbers of homeless people, many of them families with young children.

Looking at the immediate need, it's difficult to understand HANO's refusal to spend minimal amounts of money to repair at least some relatively undamaged properties. For example, HANO inspectors have estimated that more than a third of the 79 buildings in the Lafitte development could be cleaned up and repaired quickly and relatively cheaply ("Like a Ton of Bricks," Oct. 24). Instead, HANO administrators have exaggerated the case for demolition by overstating the cost of repairs. As recently as August, HANO Executive Administrator William Thorson was instructing a colleague by email to take photos of "the worst of the worst" and to "be careful on the numbers."

Meanwhile, HANO has spent several million dollars on one-time handouts. For several months now, the agency has used a HUD disaster grant to hand out checks ranging from $500 to $1,300 to any of its 5,100 former public housing households. The money was generic disaster relief given for no specific purpose. The cost for that program: probably $4 million or more. For all that money, displaced public housing families are no closer to New Orleans -- and New Orleans is no closer to figuring out how to manage affordable housing.

This strikes us as an opportune time for all parties to work together on both a short- and long-range approach to affordable housing in New Orleans. That hasn't happened yet, which no doubt frustrates U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who is presiding over a class-action lawsuit against HUD and HANO brought on behalf of public housing residents. "I'm dealing with a fundamental necessity of life -- housing, shelter," Lemelle said during a recent hearing on the suit. "It's one that, perhaps, requires much quicker action than what's going on here."

It's time for some practical steps, too. More than 90 percent of former Lafitte residents want to come home, according to a recent All Congregations Together telephone survey. Since much of Lafitte was damaged only slightly, HANO should repair and reopen some of its apartments as quickly as possible. As Urban Institute housing expert Susan Popkin told Gambit Weekly, "These public housing buildings are some of the most sturdy housing in New Orleans." Popkin believes that HANO should clean up at least some of the buildings and use them to house recovery workers. If nothing else, that would ease New Orleans' current labor shortage, which is especially severe for entry-level jobs. Workers who take those jobs, moreover, generally cannot afford private-market rents.

The Lafitte also would be a good place to start because HUD and HANO already have chosen highly regarded redevelopers for that project -- Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable-housing nonprofit, and Providence Community Housing, the local post-Katrina housing initiative launched by Catholic Charities. Enterprise and Providence have budgeted at least $5 million for providing social services for Lafitte residents. With case managers connecting residents to grief counseling, childcare, after-school tutoring and job training, residents are much more likely to get back on their feet quickly.

Equally important, this suggestion doesn't mean that HANO and HUD must abandon plans to redevelop Lafitte. Rather, they should work in phases, which would allow residents to live in one section while work goes on in another.

New Orleans prides itself on its rich history. The Lafitte, built by some of the city's finest craftsmen, should be considered for preservation -- at least in part. Its two- and three-story buildings were modeled after the Pontalba Apartments that line Jackson Square and were built with high-quality bricks and tile. We recognize that not all of the city's public housing developments were as well built, and certainly not all have redevelopment partners like Enterprise and Providence. Lafitte thus poses an opportunity for HANO and HUD to strike a bargain with the city's working poor, to give them a seat at the table and to let them know that at least part of their history will be recognized and preserved. Above all, it would give them hope that they might someday return home.

Seventy years ago, HANO was awarded the first contract for public housing under the Wagner Act. For that application, HANO researched construction statistics for the previous two decades and concluded that private industry had "done nothing to relieve the plight of our low-income families." Until HANO and public-housing residents and advocates can agree on phases of demolition, renovation and redevelopment, that plight is likely to continue, unrelieved.

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