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HUD Poised to Tear Down New Orleans Public Housing Developments

StoryDecember 12, 2007
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The Department of Housing and Urban Development is poised to demolish some of the largest public housing developments in New Orleans on Saturday. The demolition plans have met with strong resistance from local communities. We speak with Bill Quigley, an attorney leading the legal fight for public housing in New Orleans, as well as Alvin Franklin, a former public housing resident in New Orleans who has been homeless since Hurricane Katrina. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The US Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as HUD, is expected to begin demolishing four of the largest public housing projects in New Orleans this Saturday. For more than two years after Hurricane Katrina, some 4,600 apartments in these buildings have been boarded up and closed to former residents.

Only 744 affordable housing units will replace the 4,600 units. That’s an 82% drop in a region where affordable housing remains a key issue.

New Orleans has an estimated 12,000 homeless people since Katrina. Some 50,000 people remain in FEMA trailers. Over 900,000 homeowners from Louisiana are still awaiting federal money to rebuild their homes.

The plans to demolish the four public housing complexes have met with strong resistance from local communities. Dozens of groups have joined together to form a Coalition to Stop the Demolition. On Monday, they cheered as the New Orleans Housing Conservation Committee refused to approve the demolition of the Lafitte development, one of the four developments slated for demolition. But as of Tuesday evening, public housing advocates were dismayed to find workmen contracted by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, known as HANO, dismantling protective screens on the doors and windows at Lafitte.

Alvin Franklin used to live in the Lafitte development before Hurricane Katrina. He is now homeless. Bill Quigley is an attorney leading the legal fight for public housing in New Orleans. He teaches at Loyola University. They both join us from New Orleans. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Bill, let’s start with you. Last week, you were arrested at one of these hearings. Can you talk about what happened?

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes, Amy, and thanks for helping spread the word about this. Last week, we had a large group of residents and supporters that went to the New Orleans City Council to try to persuade the City Council to go on record to oppose these demolitions. And after the City Council heard the residents and some ministers and local historic preservationists and the like, they just refused to vote and said that they were going to go on with the next order of business.

But then, the residents said, “No, you’re not. I mean, our homes, our neighborhoods are in jeopardy.” And so, they started chanting, “No demolition,” and they started a little second line around the council chambers and disrupted the meeting.

And after about an hour of that, the police started dragging people out, pushing people out. And in the course of that, I was standing by a door that they were trying to slam that had a grandmother that I work with and her daughter and baby infant, and they were trying to slam that door on them, and I wouldn’t get out of the way. And so, I got arrested for disturbing the peace in the course of the protest.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, what happened with the Lafitte housing project? Why is it now taken off the list of housing projects to be demolished?

BILL QUIGLEY: Yeah, we have four housing developments that had people in them before Katrina. All four have — people have been prevented from coming home. Lafitte is the most centrally located and really in the very best shape. It’s an architectural wonder. It’s been appreciated by the New York Times architecture critic and others. And the local city Historic Preservation Board voted the other day that this should not be demolished, and it was a rare victory for the residents and for all the allies who are fighting this. But it was a significant one, because it preserves the housing of 865 families.

AMY GOODMAN: Alvin, let me ask, Alvin, you lived at Lafitte?


AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe it to us and how you ended up homeless?

ALVIN FRANKLIN: Well, because of the hurricane that they’ve tried to put most of the blame on — really it was the manmade flood that caused everybody to leave, but the water didn’t do much damage to it. So by me going to California, then I get up there, I get burned out because of the fire and things. And the mayor, you know, they sent memos out for us to come back home to rebuild, but I gets back here, find there is no home to build, because they’re trying to tear down what all we had was home.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Lafitte wasn’t destroyed by the hurricane.

ALVIN FRANKLIN: No. No, it was not.

AMY GOODMAN: So why couldn’t you just move into your apartment, move back in?

ALVIN FRANKLIN: That’s the question everybody’s looking for, because the majority of the residents are sleeping maybe like about a half-a-mile under the bridge from the project, when they could be back in their own apartments.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you sleep, Alvin Franklin?

ALVIN FRANKLIN: Sometimes, you know, thank God for the Salvation Army. But when I’m not able to hustle up money, I sleep in Duncan Plaza right in front of City Hall.

AMY GOODMAN: Each night?

ALVIN FRANKLIN: Each night, yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: What jobs did you have? What were you doing before the hurricane in New Orleans?

ALVIN FRANKLIN: Well, for a drug, I smoked me a little marijuana every now and then, but I was one of those that always liked to work. And, you know, after I seen the situation that I was into, I just, you know, tried to talk other people out of it, you know, and try to get their lives back on track, like I was trying to get mine.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to say, we called the mayor’s office, we called HUD, we called HANO, we called the different agencies that are involved in the demolition, the expected demolition this weekend, but we didn’t get any response.

Bill Quigley, at Lafitte, they took the metal off the windows that were protecting the housing units, as if it was going to be demolished, but then, what, HANO said that — or HUD said it was a mistake, that this is the one housing project that won’t be?

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes, actually, what happened is that they started the work of demolition, and it was only because of residents and allies who showed up and who challenged the workers and called the news media, called the police, called the authorities, that workers figured out that they were doing the wrong thing. The workers didn’t know. They were told to go out there and start this. And then, late at night, the federal government admitted that it had been a mistake, and they promised they were going to put everything back. We haven’t documented that yet. But it’s just an example, I think, of just how messed up the whole thing has been.

And there’s a couple things that I think it’s important for people to know. These are 100% African American-rented apartments, overwhelmingly female-headed households. Most of the people that we work with are grandmothers, usually on disability after a lifetime of working as a nurse’s aide or working as a cafeteria worker or a minimum-wage job in the tourist industry. And so, the African American female renters have been excluded from all of the work to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and this is really just the prime example of that.

And HUD is — continues to put out lies and misstatements, saying that this is really for the benefit of people and this is really to integrate the neighborhoods and this, you know — people are really much better off if we close these things, and yet that’s clearly is not true. It’s very much a racial issue, it’s very much a class issue, very much even a gender issue.

And there’s hundreds of millions of dollars at stake here for developers, who — you know, the business community wants to do it because it’s easy money, tear some good buildings down, put up many fewer little buildings. As one developer told me, you make a lot more money with one million-dollar house than you do with ten $100,000 houses. And so, this is a huge project. There’s four huge projects. There is clear indications of corruption. There’s clear indications of favoritism. But this rush to demolish is in order to be able to get this thing going and get this money out before the new administration —- I mean, before this administration finally loses all credibility and all control.

And the last thing I would say is this, is that this is part of an overall effort to deny African American people, in general, homeowners and renters, the ability to come back to New Orleans, because the state of Louisiana sometimes would vote Republican, sometimes would vote Democrat, but the only time a Democrat ever won a statewide office in Louisiana was with a huge turnout of the African American vote in the city of New Orleans. So the fact that African American renters can’t come back and African American homeowners can’t come back is no big loss to the Republican Party at all. It’s really very much a political plus for them. So you have the -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, didn’t you just recently have an election, the New Orleans City Council, and for the first time in many years it is now majority white.

BILL QUIGLEY: Absolutely. And there is a significant sense that this is the white community’s resurgence. This is the opportunity for white upper-class business interests to take the city back after thirty-plus years of African American political rule and for white people to come back and decide what the rules are going to be for anybody who does come back.

AMY GOODMAN: Alvin Franklin, you say you’ve slept outside of City Hall. Have you gotten a chance to speak with Mayor Nagin?

ALVIN FRANKLIN: No, ma’am, I haven’t. We’ve been — that’s been a question, too: where is the Mayor? The Mayor hasn’t been to no meetings. You know, we haven’t seen him. Really, I haven’t seen him since I’ve been back in the last few months.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do expect to see now, Bill Quigley? When are the houses going to be destroyed?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, I think that the federal government is going to start on two of the housing developments this week. That’s the latest that we have heard. Lafitte, we think, is at least temporarily protected. And the St. Bernard development, there was a federal lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C. yesterday on behalf of the residents and the AFL-CIO Housing Trust to try to stop the demolition of the St. Bernard. So what we have right now is C.J. Peete and B.W. Cooper, that we’re pretty sure that the federal government is going to try and make a move on in the next couple of days.

So, at this point, there are things going on in court. There are things going on in Congress. Representative Maxine Waters, who really has been the representative of the Gulf Coast for all of us, is working very hard to try to stay it. But I think that people in the community and our allies, affordable housing allies from across the country, realize the time — you know, this week started with Human Rights Day. Human rights are enforced by humans. Hopefully they’re enforced by the courts. Hopefully they’re enforced by the legislature and the like. But if they’re not, it’s our responsibility to enforce those human rights. And the human right to housing and the human right to be treated fairly and the human right not to be subjected to racial discrimination and economic injustice is a right that we’re going to have to try to enforce ourselves.

And people are saying that they are going to do that. They’re not going to let bulldozers take these buildings down without as much resistance as is humanly possible. So we have allies in town who are going to try to make sure that if there is no justice, there is no peace. And we have religious figures and family figures and teachers and everybody else, who are planning to do what they can to stop these bulldozers. So this story is far from over. Nobody knows how it’s going to play out, but people are going to resist, and people are resisting now.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the problem of homelessness increased in New Orleans?

BILL QUIGLEY: Absolutely. I mean, we, like every other city, had homelessness before Katrina, but the estimates are that homelessness has doubled since Katrina. And that’s one of the terrible things about this. When we have hundreds of people sleeping in tents right across from the City Hall, we have hundreds other people that are living openly under the interstate, because at least they’re covered under the interstate, we have thousands of families that are getting kicked out of FEMA trailers, we have a bottleneck on the rehab money for people’s homes — this is the worst affordable housing crisis that we’ve had in this area of the country since the Civil War. And for the federal government, right at the time that we are the most vulnerable, to be actually destroying housing that could be made available to people is just, we think, a flagrant message that certain kinds of people don’t count and certain kinds of people are not wanted.

The number of homeless, we estimate at 12,000 people on any given night in New Orleans, and that is increasing as people are pushed out of trailers. It’s increasing as people become homeless in Houston and Memphis and Birmingham and other places, because the word is that, you know, if you’re on hard times and you’re getting evicted and things like that are happening, you’re going to go home. You’re going to go back to where you have family, where you have a church or that sort of stuff, to try to connect with the resources that you had when you were growing up. So there’s actually a lot of people who are being expelled from housing across the country are coming home to New Orleans, and at this time the city and the state and the federal government are destroying, actually, the thing that we need them most, which is housing.

And they’re blaming — as they always do, they’re blaming the victims for that. They’re blaming people, saying, “Look, they don’t really want to come home.” They’re blaming the people who are here, saying, “Look, you know, they would be better off, and these were terrible places, and crime was high.” Well, crime is much higher in New Orleans right now than it was before Katrina. Most of the people who want to come back are mothers, grandmothers, children, in some cases, a couple of generations of people who have gathered together since Katrina, and these are the working poor of New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: When we were down in New Orleans around the anniversary, the second anniversary, of Katrina, we saw these large Trump posters, Donald Trump from New York. Where is he planning to build?

BILL QUIGLEY: Just a couple of blocks from the same places where, you know, they’re saying that people shouldn’t live anymore, so it’s clearly —-

AMY GOODMAN: Are these casinos?

BILL QUIGLEY: No, they are high-rise condos and the like. And that brings up one other point that I think is important. There’s a huge fight going on in New Orleans now, because some people put up a poster saying that if public housing is destroyed, then condos will burn. And it has just provoked the most militant, racist, classist kind of sentiment from people, stigmatizing poor people and the like, and saying, “How could anyone dare destroy somebody’s condominium that they have worked for and paid for and all this other stuff? And that’s such a horrible crime.” And certainly it is a crime to burn down somebody’s home, but wouldn’t you think it’s also a crime to bulldoze somebody’s home? And you’re talking about -— all the outrage about burning down a condominium is understandable, but where is the outrage, where is the sense of injustice in bulldozing 4,500 apartments and replacing them only with 700 similar apartments, similarly subsidized apartments?

AMY GOODMAN: Alvin Franklin, what do you plan to do now? I mean, over the last few days, there have been protests at City Hall, there have been hearings. Where do you go from here?

ALVIN FRANKLIN: Well, at the moment, all I can do is just keep on going forward and keep praying and hope maybe one day all this will be resolved, and, you know, some of these homelessness, you know, will come to an end, because, you know, it’s — there’s people are out there that’s lying on the sidewalk sick, that don’t have no, you know, medical help or nothing. And, you know, it’s heartbreaking to come back to whatever, you know, you call home, and it’s not there. I would like to see something happen, you know. And like I say, I’m going to push forward and pray that the situation gets much better, because it’s really constantly getting worse. So that’s what I can do at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you for being with us, Alvin Franklin, formerly lived at Lafitte Houses; Bill Quigley, law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, who’s been leading the legal fight with Tracey Washington against the demolitions.

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