A fury in New Orleans as housing demolition OKd

Times Staff Writer

After protesters skirmished with police inside and outside New Orleans City Hall on Thursday, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a federal plan to demolish a vast swath of public housing.

The fate of the 4,500 public housing units has become a flash point as this city struggles to piece itself back together after Hurricane Katrina damaged more than 134,000 homes, many of them in poor, mostly black neighborhoods.

Tents line the Interstate 10 underpass and a homeless camp has settled outside City Hall.


Even before New Orleans’ seven City Council members took their seats for the public meeting, protesters were booing and pumping their fists.

“Why y’all standing behind the curtains?” a woman called out to council members who waited at the back of the council chambers for protesters to calm down. “This ain’t no stage show! Get out from behind those curtains and tell us why you want to demolish our homes.”

The hearing was, in many ways, political theater. Protesters, who complained that many residents had been locked out of the packed public meeting, fought with police almost immediately.

City Council members -- some sipping water, others leafing through file folders -- looked on impassively as a man was tasered, handcuffed and dragged from the council chambers.

Outside, dozens of locked-out people tried to force their way through iron gates and clashed with police, who used pepper spray and stun guns on them.

One woman was taken away on a stretcher after being sprayed.

Inside, once it began, the meeting was orderly -- with a SWAT team standing between the City Council and the residents, lawyers, developers, preachers, rappers and sociologists who had come to voice their opinions on the city’s public housing.

The six-hour proceeding was briefly disrupted when what appeared to be rainwater began to drip from the ceiling.

“We’re having problems with water coming in,” said Arnie Fielkow, president of the council, when those in attendance complained that City Council members were paying insufficient attention to residents opposed to the demolition.

“Tear the building down!” shouted one unsympathetic activist. “Yeah, get HUD to fix it,” another chipped in.

Rags were used to sop up the growing puddle of water around clerk Peggy Lewis’ black patent leather shoes.

The razing of public housing projects, part of a broader nationwide move away from public housing and toward mixed-income projects, has been particularly contentious in New Orleans.

Activists and preservationists have sharply criticized the government’s proposal to raze the city’s biggest public housing complexes when low-income housing is in short supply.

With rents up 45% and more than 3,000 former public housing residents scattered across the country, they say officials should quickly renovate and reopen the sturdy, mostly 1940s-era brick buildings, some of which were barely damaged by Katrina. Many talk of a conspiracy to purge the city of its poorest residents, pointing out the government will not replace all of the 4,500 public housing units it plans to demolish.

“The question remains: Who’s in the mix?” said Torin Sanders, pastor of the Sixth Baptist Church, near the old St. Thomas housing project, which was razed before Katrina to make way for a mixed-use project. “I saw church members with bags packed walking around the city for somewhere to live.”

Yet many residents came to the meeting to speak in favor of new mixed-income communities.

“Why can we not go into something that looks good?” asked Donna Johnigan, a resident of B.W. Cooper, her voice trembling. “It’s about being able to walk into a little house and be able to say this is a house, it ain’t a project. What we’ve got to demand is better housing.”

The Housing Authority of New Orleans, which has been under federal control since 2002, had planned to begin demolition last Saturday, but former tenants and activists sued the federal government to delay further demolition, arguing that the authority had acted without City Council permits.

A judge ruled in their favor. The hearing Thursday was in response to that ruling -- and the council issued the permits.

In the last few weeks, the campaign against demolition of the housing projects gained momentum and national attention. Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and John Edwards of North Carolina, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, asked the government to delay demolition.

City Council members, however, said they agreed with the underlying government conclusion that concentrating the poor in mammoth complexes was a failed social experiment that fostered drug abuse, prostitution and other crimes.

The goal is to have mixed-income neighborhoods where former project residents with Section 8 rent subsidies live alongside those who pay market rates.

“We have the opportunity to make our home a place that all New Orleanians can point to with pride,” Fielkow said. “It’s my hope that the word ‘project’ will never again be used in place of what should be ‘transitional homes.’ ”

To activists who pointed out that fewer than 900 of the 3,200 new mixed-use units will be available to former public housing residents, the council offered something of a concession: a unanimous resolution asking the Department of Housing and Urban Development to rebuild every public housing unit it destroys, and to restructure the local Housing Authority’s board of directors to include a public housing resident.

“Let’s be clear: We need affordable housing in this city,” said Councilwoman Shelley Midura, who proposed the resolution.

“But public housing ought not to be a warehouse for the poor,” she said.

In order to thrive, Fielkow added, the new complexes must be rigorously maintained, with clear rules requiring upkeep of property, limits on visitors and criminal background checks.

“Change is hard, and in New Orleans it’s even harder,” he said. “But I’m convinced we could do much better.”