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2006-06-20

Thousands of New Orleans Public Housing Units to be Destroyed as 200,000+ Low-Income Residents Remain Displaced

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Federal housing officials announced last week that more than 5,000 public housing units for the poor were to be demolished even though tens of thousands of low-income residents remain displaced. We speak with New Orleans law professor Bill Quigley. [includes rush transcript]

We take a look at the situation with public housing in New Orleans. Last week, Federal housing officials announced that more than 5,000 public housing units for the poor were to be demolished even though tens of thousands of low-income residents remain displaced. On Saturday, public housing residents and advocates protested the decision by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and vowed to use any means necessary to stop the bulldozing of their apartments. The HUD decision means that at least 3,000 families who lived in the units before the storm will have to find someplace else to go. If the federal government’s plan goes forward, New Orleans will have lost 85 percent of its public housing over the past decade.

Last week, the Deputy Chief of Staff of HUD, Scott Keller, attended a meeting of the New Orleans City Council. After the meeting Free Speech Radio News correspondent Christian Roseland asked him if now was the right time to be tearing down public housing since there are still over 200,000 people displaced from the hurricane. This was Scott Keller’s response.

  • Scott Keller, Deputy Chief of Staff of HUD interviewed by Free Speech Radio News correspondent Christian Roseland.

To talk more about this, we are joined now by New Orleans law professor Bill Quigley.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at the situation with public housing in New Orleans. Last week, federal housing officials announced that more than 5,000 public housing units for the poor were to be demolished, even though tens of thousands of low-income residents remain displaced. On Saturday, public housing residents and advocates protested the decision by the Department of Housing and Urban Department and vowed to use any means necessary to stop the bulldozing of their homes. The HUD decision means that at least 3,000 families who lived in the units before the storm will have to find someplace else to go. If the federal government’s plan goes forward, New Orleans will have lost 85% of its public housing over the last decade.

Last week, the Deputy Chief of Staff of HUD, Scott Keller, attended a meeting of the New Orleans City Council. After the meeting, Free Speech Radio News correspondent Christian Roseland asked him if now is the right time to be tearing down public housing since there are still over 200,000 people displaced from the hurricane. This was Scott Keller’s response.

SCOTT KELLER: The most important thing is that you’re able to come home to a safe and hazard-free environment. These buildings are not that way. These buildings are mold-infested. These building are falling down. These buildings are not the type of buildings that you would even warehouse your furniture in if you had to move out. These buildings are terrible. They are nothing to be proud of. They are something that is an icon of failed federal policy. We need to make sure that what we build, that what we invest in this community, the taxpayers of this country who are putting billions of dollars down here, that what we’re putting back is something that is building families and building communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Keller, at a meeting last week of New Orleans City Council of HUD, the Housing and Urban Development Department in Washington, D.C. To talk more about this, we’re joined now by Bill Quigley. He is a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, also the director of the Law Clinic and Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University. His most recent article is on the website Counterpunch. It’s entitled "Bulldozing Hope: HUD to New Orleans’ Poor: ’Go F(ind) Yourself (Housing)!" Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bill.

BILL QUIGLEY: Welcome, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you back and to be with you in the studios of WLAE in New Orleans, where we broadcast from when we were in New Orleans. Talk about the whole plan for public housing.

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, it’s, you know, HUD. "Hypocritical urban demolition" really is what HUD stands for. The federal government in New Orleans has been in the business of demolishing and destroying housing. And what’s happening here in New Orleans right now is such an outrage, at a time of our biggest affordable housing crisis ever, that the federal government has decided that they are going to destroy 5,000 units of public housing is a disgrace. We have people in this town that are living in abandoned housing, that are living in houses without electricity and water, that don’t even have completely fixed-up roofs.

And what HUD is doing here is part of a national policy to destroy public housing and replace it with this euphemism of mixed-income housing, which is translated for the people who live there, means they take conventional public housing, destroy it and then allow about 10% of the people who used to live there to come back, but it is a great bonanza for developers, for real estate people, for banks, for construction groups and the like.

The public housing in New Orleans is actually some of the most structurally sound property that we have in this entire city. And the attack is not really on the buildings. It’s not really about the housing. It is an attack on the people who live in the buildings.

The people who live in the buildings, the poor, as you heard earlier, the people who attend the public schools, the people who need the healthcare and the like, those people who are our sisters and brothers, those people who are the working poor that keep our community together. Those people are being attacked on every front, from public education, public housing, employment, public healthcare and the like. And this just shows that they have — that the federal government has no shame whatsoever, that they would demolish houses under these circumstances.

The important thing I want to say, though, is that the residents are not just taking this. They had a march this past weekend where they marched to an upper income community, said, "Look, if you want to mix, let’s do mixed income. Let’s mix income in your community, you know?" And they held a big banner in front of a $2 million house, said, "Look, if we’re going to start mixed income, let’s start here."

They have set up a survivor’s village, a tent city, outside of a 1,300-unit apartment called the St. Bernard Housing Development, and on July 4, which I think is a really important time, on July 4, they have vowed that if the federal government and local government doesn’t let them back into their houses at this 1,300-unit apartment complex, where they have put up fences and barb-wire net, that on July 4, they are going to liberate their own houses and go back, because that’s what’s going to be necessary in order be able to take back this city and take back opportunities for the people who built this city, whose culture permeates this city, who have kept this city alive. There’s not room for them in the plans that are going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: As you talk about this plan they have to liberate their own housing, maybe you could comment on the National Guard coming back to New Orleans and patrolling the streets.

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. You know, the mayor, the governor, the city council and those folks have asked for and have received a large number of National Guard, large number of state police, and that is their response. We had a tragic murder over the weekend, where five young men under the age of 19 were killed. And it’s a horrifying thing. I think, though, it’s very important to know one of those young men worked at a fast food place, and he was working at a fast food place because he had not been able to get back into school. He had shown back up in the spring, and he was not able to get back into school, because they said they didn’t have room for him, and he should just go ahead and start in the fall.

If you don’t have schools, if you don’t have housing, if you don’t have healthcare, if you don’t have electricity, don’t have water, then, you know, there is a point at which people are not going to respond accordingly. So the response of the community has not been "Let’s reinvest in our public education system." It has not been "Let’s reinvest in our housing system." It has not been "Reinvest in the healthcare." It is "Let’s get some more troops in this town to try to prevent the looting and the bad things that are happening."

Certainly people need protection. Certainly security is part of it, but you just can’t do that. You cannot privatize every public institution that we have and just make it available for people with money and expect the rest of the people just to sit back or not come home or just be — allow themselves to be victimized over and over and over again. It’s not going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote the Republican Congressmember Richard Baker, ten-term Republican from Baton Rouge, telling lobbyists, when Katrina displaced New Orleans’ public housing residents, he said, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it. But God did."

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. You know, and sadly that is the position of an awful lot of our elected officials and a lot of our local power elite, is that they blame the problems of New Orleans on the people who are the number one victims of the problems of New Orleans. They blame the kids with disabilities for having problems in schools when they’re not properly placed. The jails are full. Now they’re blaming the judges for not putting higher bonds on people when we’ve had three jury trials in our criminal law system since last August. Our criminal law system is broken, along with all the rest of these things, and all it’s about is blaming the victims.

And I think there’s a real lesson here for the rest of us in the United States, because what’s happening in the Lower Ninth Ward, what’s happening in New Orleans with Katrina, is graphic and it’s illustrative because it’s so condensed and it’s so easy to see, but these same exact forces of privatization, of imposing stigmas on poor people, of keeping people out of neighborhoods, of destroying our public housing, destroying public healthcare, destroying public education, those things are happening in every community across this country, and there is a real lesson here for people. Not only should they give us solidarity in New Orleans, because we need that, particularly on July 4 for the next thing.

But to understand that what is happening to New Orleans is what we have done to the people of Iraq, what we have done as a country to places outside of our country and what we are doing, maybe slower, a little more subtly, in every major city in this country. The people of New Orleans say, you know, if our government is treating us this way, can you imagine how they are treating the people of Iraq? Can you imagine how they are treating the people of Afghanistan? Can you imagine what’s going on in Central and Latin America? And there is a lesson here. It’s a teaching lesson for us about the priorities of our country, the priorities of the people in power, and the way that they are willing to marginalize and just discard the needs of poor and working folks in this community, but in communities all across this country.

Why do we have a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, you know, in this day and age in the richest country in the history of the world? Why do we have people that are living in abandoned housing, without electricity, without water, and at the same time we are going to destroy 5,000 units of public housing? This is a disgrace! But these people are saying they’re doing it for our good. They’re doing it because they know what’s better. It’s paternalism. It’s so-called tough love. It is an attack on the people who built this country and the people who built our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, law professor at Loyola University. A census was done looking at the four months after the Hurricane Katrina that found New Orleans has become considerably whiter, older, less poor, not because people have more money there, but because those who are poor are no longer there. Do you think that there is a kind of plan here to use New Orleans as a social experiment, to look at a privatized city in this country?

BILL QUIGLEY: I think absolutely that there is. New Orleans has become the national laboratory for charter schools. We have more charter schools than we have anything else, and that’s continuing to grow. We have become the laboratory for destruction of a public healthcare system. We are now at the point where we are the laboratory for the destruction of public housing. Every one of our public institutions that were destroyed have not been rebuilt, and that is done consciously in an attempt to privatize everything.

And privatization makes sense for people who have resources. It makes sense for people who want to own those resources, but it does not make sense for people who have a sense of community, of the common good and a role of government to provide an opportunity for people who are left out of the normal maximization of profit forces that are in the market.

And New Orleans — if people don’t understand it, what is happening to New Orleans is coming to your community. Maybe it’s going to come slower. Maybe it’s going to come a little more subtle, but it is the laboratory to take what the lessons that our country is imposing on the rest of the world and to plant them in the United States and they are calling them success. That’s the thing. They are destroying our community. They are displacing our elderly, our disabled, our poor, and they are saying it’s success and this is what we have to do in order to save ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, the black population in New Orleans has gone from over a third of the population being black to just about 1/5 of the population. What about the right of return? Do you see people returning?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, the numbers aren’t exact — it was about two-thirds, a little over two-thirds black. And it’s a little bit less than 50% at this point. But everybody is asking for the right to return. They’re starting to demand the right to return. The people who are back, as you said, are whiter, more affluent, more old than the way the city was before. They’re perfectly happy with the city that they have now. And they do not want their quality of life diminished or diluted by letting back in those people.

And those people are the people who are in public schools. Those people are the people who are in public housing. Those people are the people who need public healthcare. But those people are also the people who clean our streets, clean our hotels, cook our food, take care of our parents, are the cashiers, are the servers, are the waitresses, the working folks who keep our lives together. So we want their services, but we don’t want to have them live in our community anymore. And so it has racial angle, has a very definite class angle, and it also has a significant corporate privatization angle, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, I want to thank you for being with us. If people want to follow what’s happening in New Orleans, read articles, learn about projects that are there for rebuilding, is there a place you can recommend that they go on the web?

BILL QUIGLEY: There are a couple of places they could go. There’s one called justiceforneworleans.org, which is all one word. Common Ground Collective maintains information on that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, we’ll link to these sites at democracynow.org. And I want to thank you very much for being with us. Law professor at Loyola University, director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola.

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