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2006-08-29

One Year After Katrina, New Orleans Public Housing Projects Remain Closed

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New Orleans activists and residents have condemned the federal government’s refusal to re-open the city’s public housing projects and point out that while tourist areas are being developed, affordable housing is not being built. Many of those who have been unable to return home are poor and African American. We speak with lifelong New Orleans resident and civil rights lawyer, Tracie Washington. [includes rush transcript]

A year after Hurricane Katrina hit, barely half of New Orleans’ population of 450,000 has returned. Many of those unable to come back are poor and African-American. In the ravaged, mostly black neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward–only 1,000 of the 20,000 people who lived there before Katrina have returned. This has drastically altered the demographics of a city that used to be two-thirds black.

Activists and residents have condemned the government’s refusal to re-open the city’s public housing projects and point out that while tourist areas are being developed, affordable housing is not being built.

That all seemed to change yesterday in what appeared to be a surprise announcement form the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Speaking before a thousand construction-industry members at a privately-organized conference in Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin both introduced what appeared to be a HUD official.

  • Rene Oswin, Yes Man posing as HUD official.

That supposed senior HUD official Rene Oswin was actually Andy Bichlbaum–a member of the political pranksters group The Yes Men. Posing as Oswin, Bichlbaum went on to announce grandiose plans for HUD to reverse course in New Orleans such as: scrapping plans to demolish 5,000 housing units, spending $180 million dollars to fund one public health clinic per housing development, having Wal-Mart withdraw its stores from poor neighborhoods and having energy giants Exxon and Shell spend $8.6 billion dollars to finance wetlands rebuilding.

The prank was just the latest in a series pulled off by the Yes Men who have recently masqueraded as representatives of McDonald"s, Halliburton and Dow Chemical.

Soon after Bichlbaum’s announcement, HUD confirmed that he wasn’t part of their agency. HUD spokesperson Donna White called the hoax "sick" and "twisted." But not everyone felt that way. One New Orleans contractor said, "I’m not angry at them for pulling this joke, I’m angry that it is not for real."

For more on the issue of public housing on this Katrina anniversary we turn to New Orleans resident and a civil rights attorney, Tracie Washington.

  • Tracie Washington, lifelong New Orleans resident and civil rights attorney. She is the director of the NAACP Gulf Coast Advocacy Center.

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking before a thousand construction industry members at a privately organized conference in Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin both introduced what appeared to be a HUD official.

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO: Today, all ten Road Home housing centers are open across the state and servicing homeowners. And I want to thank Secretary Jackson; could you please give him our thank you.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: I also want to stop and thank Rene, who’s here from HUD. HUD has been an incredible, incredible partner with us.

RENE OSWIN: Dear friends, it is with the greatest joy that I announce to you today a brand new Department of Housing and Urban Development. Everything is going to change about the way we work, and the change is going to start right here today in New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: That supposed senior HUD official, Rene Oswin, was actually Andy Bichlbaum, a member of the political pranksters group the Yes Men. Posing as Oswin, Bichlbaum went on to announce grandiose plans for HUD to reverse course in New Orleans, such as scrapping plans to demolish 5,000 housing units, spending $180 million to fund one public health clinic per housing development, having Wal-Mart withdraw its stores from poor neighborhoods, and having energy giants Exxon and Shell spend $8.6 billion to finance wetlands rebuilding.

The prank was just the latest in a series pulled off by the Yes Men, who have recently masqueraded as representatives of McDonald’s, of Halliburton and Dow Chemical. They went on BBC, and they apologized for Bhopal, and then Dow Chemical had to say, no, they were not apologizing for Bhopal.

Well, soon after Bichlbaum’s announcement, HUD confirmed he wasn’t part of their agency. HUD spokesperson Donna White called the hoax "sick and twisted." But not everyone felt that way. Here’s one New Orleans contractor’s reaction.

CONTRACTOR: I’m not angry at them for pulling this joke. I’m angry that it’s not for real.

AMY GOODMAN: If you didn’t quite hear that, she said, I’m not angry that it’s a hoax, "I’m angry that it’s not for real."

Well, for more on the issue of public housing on this Katrina anniversary, Tracie Washington joins us from the New Orleans public TV station WLAE. And our shout out to friends at the public television station there. Tracie Washington is a lifelong New Orleans resident and a civil rights attorney. She’s also the director of the NAACP Gulf Coast Advocacy Division. Welcome, Tracie, to Democracy Now!, once again.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Thank you so much for having me on, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to that hoax, to this supposed HUD official saying they’re going to turn things around?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, you know, the public housing residents unfortunately have heard so many rumors, heard so many lies, have heard so many misstatements and have been forced to go through so many missteps. What we’ve tried to do, and unfortunately we’ve had to do through litigation, is get at the truth, so that individuals know what they’re destiny will be and that they have the opportunity to take part in planning that destiny.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, a year later, as we look at these figures, for example, the Lower Ninth Ward. 20,000 people live there. Only 1,000 have returned.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: And that’s really ridiculous at this point. We’ve had public services returned to almost every part of the city — actually every part of the city, except portions of the Lower Ninth Ward. Now, we hear from public officials that, well, you know, the services can’t be restored there, it was just absolutely too devastated. No one’s buying it any longer. You know, after a certain point, you lose credibility as an administration. And they’ve lost credibility with the folks in the Lower Ninth Ward, because in many instances you can’t get lights, you can’t get telephone services, the water is not yet potable. That’s ridiculous. If this administration, from the state government to the local government, wants to retain its credibility and not have its words, "We will rebuild every area of the city," seem empty and shallow, then it’s got to act on those words and promises.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of — yesterday we played a piece by Greg Palast. He goes to a public housing project. It was not submerged. It was not hit by the water. And yet the residents are not allowed to return home. Their homes are boarded up.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: And ultimately, what happens then, and I believe what many folks saw yesterday and will continue to see throughout this week, is residents of public housing taking matters into their own hands. They have already, which has not been really advertised, with individuals now living in their apartments without electricity and without water, but needing a place to stay and living there. And then public actions, beginning yesterday and continuing today, where public residents say, "Enough. We’re taking back the public housing units, for example, like the Lafitte and like units inside the Iberville. And we’re just going to stay."

And I don’t know what the government’s response is going to be to that, but you can only push so far, Amy, with folks, and then they push back. And we’re beginning to see pushback at this point. And I cannot condemn that, because they are simply reacting to the failure of this government to do something positive for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the education system? Is New Orleans being used now as a way to model charter schools, when you had, for example, a number of months ago, all the teachers of New Orleans fired?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: If this is a model for chartering schools in the nation, we are in severe trouble. This state decided in the fall, absurdly, to engage in an experiment, and the statute states that this is an experiment with our children, that it was going to take over all of the schools, show us it could do better by engaging chartering organizations to come in and use new models for education in this community.

Well, that’s not what happened. First of all, most chartering organizations didn’t come in droves to take over schools in New Orleans. That’s number one. Number two, the state, which never wanted to run schools in the city of New Orleans — Cecil Picard said — he’s our state superintendent — he didn’t want to run schools down here. Well, then they were, quote, "stuck" with opening schools. And it has been a haphazard process, with bureaucrats in the State of Louisiana Department of Education trying to figure out, how do you open doors, how do you get books ordered inside of schools, how do we order security, cafeteria, transportation?

What ultimately we’ve seen, Amy, is that there was a promise that 56 schools would be opening this fall. We have, you know, a portion of that number of schools being opened. Many of the schools are still in a state of disrepair. And we have tiered levels of education here, such that if you are in elite charter schools, you get excellent services on the one hand, but you may not get the same quality of services on the other hand. Yet, the elite charter schools may not offer services for all, such that special education children, children with special education needs, may not be serviced.

Children who need transportation to and from school will not be serviced. My son cannot get transportation to and from school. If you’re not a stay-at-home mom, if you can’t get off work at 3:00 in the afternoon, woe are you if you want to get your child into one of the elite schools, because they will not provide transportation. That’s ridiculous. If this is a model for the country, then our poor and, frankly, our African American children will not be educated. They will be underserved.

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