New Orleans project protested

Times Staff Writer

Smiling public officials on Wednesday cut the red ribbons outside a complex of small, brightly colored shotgun houses -- the first affordable housing project built in the Lower 9th Ward since Hurricane Katrina.

But the angry protesters on the other side of the chain-link fence were impossible to ignore, a reminder that plans to rebuild this ravaged city and deal with its chronic housing shortage have left many poor people wondering whether they are welcome back.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin, joined by U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson beneath a big white tent, called the dedication of the New Desire project “another great day in the city of New Orleans.”


The homes, which will be ready for occupancy next month, occupy the site where the Desire public housing project once stood. Before Katrina, the decrepit, crime-festered row houses were in the process of being demolished to make way for a less dense, mixed-income development.

“Public housing residents deserve something better than they left,” Jackson said Wednesday.

“They deserve new homes in an economically integrated environment where their children can thrive -- not in row houses that were meant to keep them away from everyone else.”

But the government’s plans to tear down public housing came under harsh criticism as thousands of poor and working-class New Orleans residents displaced by Katrina found themselves with no homes to return to.

According to varying estimates, New Orleans is missing about 40% to 45% of its pre-storm population of 460,000.

“It seems like they don’t want the people who work at the hotels, who cook the food at the restaurants, to come home,” protester Sharon Sears Jasper, 57, said Wednesday. Before Katrina, Jasper lived in the now-closed St. Bernard housing project, one of four slated for demolition.


Former tenants and activists are suing the federal government to delay further demolition of the projects until alternatives are available; they also are pushing Congress to pass a bill that would keep 3,000 public housing units open.

Nagin struggled to be heard above the protesters’ shouts. “You can’t hide the truth,” they yelled at the dignitaries, calling them criminals. One man banged on a metal pot.

“I don’t care what anybody says today,” Nagin said to those gathered on both sides of the fence. “This is progress.”

Before the storm, about 100 New Desire units already had been built and were occupied. But those homes were destroyed. Plans call for the complex, when finished, to include 425 rental units.

The old Desire projects had housed as many as 6,000 tenants.

“My heart goes out to them,” Michael Williams, who will be moving into one of the new homes, said of his old neighbors.

“God willing, they will find a way back.”