The rally -- a day before the Nov. 22 City Council vote that ultimately approved financing the proposed St. Thomas/HOPE VI redevelopment plan with its Wal-Mart Supercenter -- has drawn about 200. Barbara Jackson, president of the St. Thomas Resident Council, tells the crowd to pipe down. "I want Brod to come up here and explain this." She hands the microphone to 26-year-old Brod Bagert Jr.
Loud applause greets him. Most people here have heard of Bagert, whose master's thesis in economics focused on the St. Thomas project. His study proclaimed what everyone here believes -- that the original proposal for the St. Thomas housing plan should be followed, and the retooled plan by developer Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) would do more to enrich HRI than it would to benefit the poor people for whom HOPE VI grants are intended.
"This project was created to start mixed-income communities, to create healthy, vibrant communities," Bagert tells the audience. "What's happened at St. Thomas since then has been one of the biggest tragedies in public housing that I have seen and studied!"
The crowd, galvanized, punctuates Bagert's speech with cheers and claps or boos and hisses. Bagert continues: "It's a scam! It's deceit!" Wild applause, and a woman in the crowd yells, "Bagert for mayor!"
It's a significant reception for a guy who wasn't even on the radar until a few weeks before the pivotal Council vote on St. Thomas. While New Orleanians raged and debated on HRI's proposal -- which would use tax revenue from the planned Wal-Mart to help finance the development on the former public-housing complex -- Bagert was in England studying comparative literature at Oxford University and, later, social policy at the London School of Economics.
He began his master's thesis last fall, saying he wanted to study the federal HOPE VI program, which aims to find better alternatives for public housing than the traditional concentrated housing project. He figured the HOPE VI project happening in his hometown would be a good subject. Bagert spent a year researching his report, "HOPE VI and St. Thomas: Smoke, Mirrors and Urban Mercantilism," which he released to the public in September.
The report targets HRI as a developer out to make a lot of money off public funds, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), the City Council, and the state as public entities letting it happen. He earned a "Distinction" on it, the highest grade the London School of Economics bestows.
"My focus was not HRI," Bagert says. "HRI is a private developer. If we relied on the goodwill of developers to develop public housing in this country, we wouldn't have any public housing. With a valuable, prime piece of land like St. Thomas, everyone who looked at this should have seen that the first thing that developers were going to try to do, without appropriate regulation, is make a lot of money off of it. So the failure is of the public agencies that have supported this project."
Bagert and HRI president Pres Kabacoff don't disagree on everything. Both, for instance, say the other's numbers for the St. Thomas plan simply don't add up. Both also say they believe fervently in seeing the best solution for New Orleans, and its poorest residents, established on the former site of the lower Garden District housing development.
Bagert is "a pain in the ass," Kabacoff says. "I'm taking on the difficulties of public housing ... and it's a tough thing to take on. It really wasn't that tough until Bagert threw his missile in here. And what he's promising, he can't deliver."
One of the main points dividing Bagert and Kabacoff is the hundreds of high-end condos, apartments and upscale seniors' housing that HRI envisions for the St. Thomas site. "These are clearly people who are at the top end of the luxury market," Bagert says. "The problem is that those kind of units are planned at all for the site. To have those kind of luxury units for a HOPE VI is crazy ... the mixed-income communities that actually work are working-class and moderate-income people, with public-housing residents."
HRI, says Bagert, plans to waste lavish amounts of money on building costs, because subsidized homes will have to be on the same scale as the planned upscale units. "The materials used are the highest-end materials involved, so the overall development costs are high," he says. "The reason they are so high is the other phases of the development include real luxury units. These units can't be next to housing that's anything but upscale."
If HRI pared down or eliminated upscale housing and subsequently spent less on each unit, Bagert maintains, it could build about 350 less-expensive public-housing units at St. Thomas. That's the figure named in the original 1996 HOPE VI grant, which also called for about 200 median-income homes and about 200 upscale, or market rate, developments.
Kabacoff agrees wholeheartedly that he is spending more than the average at St. Thomas. He says it's warranted, since New Orleans needs to attract wealthy people to the city.
"Bagert thinks what the cities ought to be doing is putting all their money into affordable housing. I think he's wrong," Kabacoff says. "I'm suggesting that if this city doesn't get some market rate back in here, it's not going to have any money to take care of the poor. ...
"I think that there's a national concern of gentrification," he says. "In New Orleans, we've got 25,000 vacant, abandoned sites. We could use a little gentrification. We could use a return of income to our city. That's what we desperately need. Bagert is skewing reality by arguing that rich people are going to live there. And you know that pisses off poor people. But that's what we need. You see what he's doing? 'It's the fat cats, it's Kabacoff trying to get his snoot in the public trough and trying to steal from the public,' and it's all kinds of hyperbole."
Kabacoff also refutes Bagert's claim that a mere fraction of the people who want to move back to St. Thomas will be able to do so: only about 200 former residents have expressed interest in returning, says Kabacoff, who insists there's enough housing on and off the St. Thomas site to accommodate them. Where he and Bagert differ is the notion that the off-site housing will accomplish HOPE VI's goals of diluting the concentration of poverty. Bagert believes the practice merely shuffles the poor back into impoverished areas.
Kabacoff maintains the original HOPE VI proposal has been altered for good reason. "The original grant called for 563 affordable units and 200 market rate. You could not do it, and I would not do it," he says. "Mr. Bagert says $142,000 per house is the standard for Hope VI housing. I would do nicer houses that would attract market-rate people, but let's say you spend (only) that much. If you multiply 563 by 142,000, that's about $80 million. We got a HOPE VI grant of $25 million ... I knew damn well it couldn't work. So I do what I do, which is find sources of money to make it work."
Making it work meant retooling the residential income ratio to attract more market-rate residents and adding the Wal-Mart Supercenter, says Kabacoff. "I have to create a project that puts off taxes, right? Extraordinary sales. What produces extraordinary sales? Wal-Mart."
Bagert couldn't disagree more. "Very frequently the interests of businesses are not in line with the interests of citizens," he argues. "The effect of a retailer is totally different from the effect of an export industry; an export industry has multiplier effects ... but the sort of monolithic logic that has been governing New Orleans politics since as long as I can remember puts [an export] industry in the same category as a gambling casino and a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The wages paid by Wal-Mart are the lowest, zero percent of Wal-Mart's workforce is unionized, and the profits go elsewhere."
The day after the rally, dozens of opponents have packed the City Council chambers and are filing one by one up to the podium to ask council members to reject the plan to use funding from Wal-Mart to help finance the St. Thomas redevelopment. One of the speakers who commands the most time, attention and support is Bagert.
He has brought some notes to the podium, but doesn't seem to need them as he stands under the banks of bright lights, pleading with the council to listen. "What this vote today is about is whether the city of New Orleans is going to take a stand for the rational and sound use of funding for which it was intended."
In the middle of Bagert's fervent presentation, his voice trails off. "Take your time, Brod," supporters call out. "Break it down, son." His face drains of color, and he falters. His sister, photographer Jenny Bagert, puts her video camera down and rushes to him. "Do you want to take a break?" Council President Eddie Sapir asks Bagert, who sinks into his front-row chair and drains two bottles of water as supporters fan him with placards. Much of the crowd gives him a long, loud standing ovation.
Ten minutes later, after Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman has addressed the council in support of HRI, Bagert returns to the podium. "I'm sorry about the disturbance," he tells the council. "A lot of us have been working extremely hard on this project, working day and night."
He finishes with a veiled threat to councilmembers that a vote for Wal-Mart could spell their political downfall. "Do you represent our interests?" he asks them. "Do you represent the interests of our poorest residents, for whom this project is intended?" He sits down again, staring at the council as the crowd rises in a second ovation.
Kabacoff later remarks on Bagert's council appearance: "He's either the greatest actor that ever happened, or he's terribly impassioned about the problems of poverty. He isn't a bad guy. When I was younger I was impassioned, too ... but you've got to earn your stripes. You've got to have a little bit of a track record to be taken as gospel."
Bagert says he never intended to get as deeply involved in the St. Thomas opposition as he found himself in late November. "After I started seeing what the development was actually about, it really took me by surprise," he recalls. "As I started really to understand how egregious a use of public funds it was, I started being concerned that maybe there was a chance to do something about it."
Before the council meeting, Bagert had worked for hours, "stapling up posters until the wee hours of the morning," he says. "We worked really hard to try to organize for the rally and for this meeting, and this is a difficult community to organize because it's so scattered around the city."
The experience left him with a sense of purpose. "We didn't win," Bagert says, "but if we want to win in the future, we've got to get people together who are going to be real organized and real disciplined and make sure that any elected official knows that they have to do what's in the interests of the residents they represent. If they don't, they'll cease to be elected officials."
In recent weeks, Bagert has received job offers from "every nonprofit in the city," he laughs -- and urging by community members to run for office: "I can't think of a worse fate, and I question how much they really like me when they tell me I should run!"
Instead, Bagert chose a path that, at least temporarily, leads him out of New Orleans. He's accepted a job with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national nonprofit aimed at broad-based community organizing. "The people who spoke (at the meeting) ... a number of them would be an excellent leader and an excellent elected official," he says. "But what it's going to take for those people to have a shot is a lot of very successful and dedicated long-term organizers. So that's where I want to spend my time, and I don't see myself running for elected office."
The IAF job is going to take him out of New Orleans for about a year, Bagert says. The organization follows a philosophy that new employees should start off in an environment where they must learn how to make connections, instead of relying on existing contacts. The son of former Councilmember-turned-children's book author Broderick Bagert Sr., nephew of attorney and ex-state senator Ben Bagert, and grandson of the late Criminal District Judge Bernard Bagert, the 26-year-old says that IAF "won't hire you in your own hometown, especially when you've got a name like Bagert. But I do plan to come back as soon as I can."
Until his job starts in January, Bagert plans to help with a class-action suit on behalf of St. Thomas residents against agencies involved in the redevelopment. "It's an extremely strong case," he says, "so I'm going to stay involved at least in that regard for the next couple of months or so."
It's this type of action, Kabacoff replies, that will only mean potential delays for the St. Thomas redevelopment, and will drive up its costs even more. "I've got a hard-working group against me. They get up at 7 o'clock in the morning and work all day trying to figure out how they can confuse this thing," Kabacoff says. "It's getting worse now; it's an aggravated street fight because of this Bagert guy, but the Council understood it, thank God. And I think anybody else who takes the time to analyze it will understand that this is a benefit for the community."
Bagert definitely had an impact on the citizens, Kabacoff says. "He whipped the poor -- who are getting more than they bargained for -- into a frenzy, because they're so desperate. It's a terrible thing; it's wrong and it's misleading and it's dangerous, actually. When I was in the City Council meeting, somebody came up to me and said, 'If I had an incendiary device I'd throw it on you.'"
One point that Bagert and Kabacoff do appear to agree on is that low-income citizens don't have a very strong voice in New Orleans. "The real power behind this was the anti-Wal-Mart crowd," Kabacoff says. "Because the poor, at the end of the day, don't have the lobbying strength to make a difference."
Says Bagert: "A lot of people became informed and have taken a very strong position on this. And it didn't do a damn thing. And I think the reason is there's not a strong enough tradition of powerful community organizing in this city."
And of the St. Thomas plan itself, Kabacoff makes a statement that could have come from either of the two men. "This is the most important project we've ever done in the city of New Orleans," he says, "and it will have a more dramatic impact than anything that we can conceive of."