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The Battle to Save New Orleans Public Housing

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In New Orleans, protests have been taking place for weeks to block the demolition of 4,500 units of public housing. Jacquie Soohen and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films file a report from the streets of New Orleans. [includes rush transcript]


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StoryDec 12, 2007HUD Poised to Tear Down New Orleans Public Housing Developments
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to New Orleans, where protests have been occurring for weeks to block the demolition of 4,500 units of public housing.

Jacquie Soohen and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films are in New Orleans and filed this report. Rick was among those arrested at a march on Saturday.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: Since Hurricane Katrina emptied New Orleans of its residents, a battle has been waged over the future of the city. The struggle over what the new New Orleans will look like and who will return to live here largely depends on the future of the city’s public housing developments. And this week is a crucial showdown in that fight.

    The city began demolitions last Wednesday, which, if completed, will destroy 4,500 units of public housing, making way for mixed-income neighborhoods with only 800 units of public housing, an 82% reduction in size. 41,000 affordable rental units were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the city is facing an acute housing shortage. Rents have almost doubled since before the storm. But HUD, the federal housing authority, is pressing ahead with the demolition.

    50% of families who want to but are unable to return to New Orleans make less than $20,000 a year. Watching the demolition of part of their housing development from across the street, residents of B.W. Cooper believe that the city does not want them back.

    B.W. COOPER RESIDENT 1: They want us out. I think they want the land right out from here. They want this land right here. If you don’t have the money, because the housing’s going up, everything’s going up, so if you’re poor, you’ve got to get out of here, man. There’s no place for you here. None! So that’s going to be the new New Orleans.

    B.W. COOPER RESIDENT 2: They want to get rid of all these poor black people, get them completely out. They don’t want the projects.

    B.W. COOPER RESIDENT 3: They’re going to make —

    B.W. COOPER RESIDENT 2: Condos.

    B.W. COOPER RESIDENT 3: No, they want it to be a rich city. That’s what they want. Forget us.

    B.W. COOPER RESIDENT 2: People we haven’t seen after the hurricane, still haven’t saw, because they can’t come back. They don’t have nowhere to stay.

    B.W. COOPER RESIDENT 3: The people don’t have nowhere to go. People still homeless out of town. Underneath that bridge, they got thousands of people under that bridge, homeless. It brings tears to your eyes when you go on to the food stamp hall.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: The homeless population of New Orleans has doubled since the storm. Every night, over 12,000 New Orleanians sleep under bridges and crowd into the city’s parks. Hundreds pitch their tents and blankets in this plaza in front of City Hall within sight of the mayor’s office. According to UNITY, a charity that is working with the city to relocate the plaza’s homeless, at least a third of the homeless here work steady jobs.

    HOMELESS WORKER 1: I make $8 an hour right now, which is not hitting on nothing. You need a job at least starting you off twenty-one bucks an hour. Then you’re OK. $8 an hour after taxes is nothing; it’s kid wages.

    During the hurricane, I was sitting on my porch. I heard him crying over a little transistor radio he had, ran by batteries. You know, talk to the government, talk about the President. I need to get some help down here. I heard this man crying. I said, “Alright,” you know. But you know what, when all is said and done, he’s just like them. So, Mr. Mayor, why don’t you give us some help down here? That’s all I can say.

    HOMELESS WORKER 2: It’s not because people are vagrants and drunks and bums. Like myself and my husband don’t do drugs. We work every day, but we can’t afford the housing. They want first month’s rent, last month’s rent, damage deposit. What used to be $450 a month is now $950 a month.

    There’s a lot of intelligent people here. I have a college degree. I was turned down three jobs last week, because I have no address. I had no idea. And I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. My family worked hard. We were middle class. But I never expected this. I didn’t realize how hard this is. And along with the homelessness comes hopelessness. It’s hard to look at this every day and to live this. You don’t know until you live it.

    And I don’t want people to judge us, because we’re not vagrants and drunks and drug addicts. We’re a victim of circumstance. And we’re trying. We need some help. Blankets are fine, food’s fine. God bless them for it. But it’s a temporary solution to a big, big long-term problem.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: The city announced that this Friday it will fence off Duncan Plaza and evict those camped out on the site. After Friday, they will no longer be visible from the mayor’s office window, but the homeless population may surge again as FEMA begins closing their trailer parks, which house more than 50,000 families across the region. In the next six months, all of FEMA’s trailer parks will be emptied.

    PROTESTERS: Stop the bulldozers now! Stop the bulldozers now! Stop the bulldozers now! Stop the bulldozers now!

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: Activists from across the country came to New Orleans this week to join local residents in actions to save New Orleans public housing.

    PROTESTERS: Stop the demolition now! Stop the demolition now! Stop the demolition now! Stop the demolition now!

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: Demolitions in the four largest housing developments were slated to begin on December 15th, but a combination of political pressure and legal action won a temporary reprieve.

    Now, the fate of New Orleans public housing lies in the hands of the city council. They’re scheduled to make their decision this Thursday.

    PROTESTERS: Stop demolition! Stop demolition! Stop demolition! Stop demolition!

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: The coalition to defend New Orleans public housing is celebrating their temporary victory and mobilizing for the next phase of their fight. They say that more is at stake than the future of their city. They warn that the new New Orleans is a testing ground for national policies and are calling for support from across the country.

    PROTESTERS: No demolitions! No demolitions! No demolitions! No demolitions!

AMY GOODMAN: That piece, produced by Jacquie Soohen and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films in New Orleans. That New Orleans City Council vote will take place today. We’ll report back to you tomorrow.

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