Battle rages in New Orleans

Ex-tenants, officials at odds over plans to raze 4 housing complexes

January 23, 2007|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- To some, the four sprawling three-story brick complexes may not look like real estate worth fighting over.

But at a time when inhabitable housing of any kind is at a premium here, the fate of New Orleans' four largest public housing complexes - St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte - is at the center of another battle in the city's turbulent efforts to reshape its future.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans have approved plans to demolish these complexes, landmarks in their neighborhoods, and replace them with lower-density apartment clusters for mixed-income residents.

Their decision has brought relentless opposition from former tenants who insist they want to restore their lives in their old homes.

Last week, residents ignored "No Trespassing" signs and stormed through unlocked gates and torn barbed-wire fencing into the St. Bernard complex to clean their units.

But yesterday, lawyers for the city's public housing agency filed illegal-entry and property-damaged claims against those trying to halt the demolition, and they are seeking a court order to bar entry into any of the projects without approval.

Housing officials have argued that the apartments were too badly damaged to repair after Hurricane Katrina and they insist that their proposed redevelopment plan would improve tenants' lives by eliminating crime-infested dens of concentrated poverty.

"People deserve better than this," said Jereon "Jerry" Brown, a Washington-based spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as he showed reporters flood-damaged and ransacked units at Lafitte last month. "If they could just be patient. A mixed-income neighborhood can better attract businesses and better schools. It's all tied together."

"It's not just about bricks and mortar," said C. Donald Babers, the New Orleans housing authority's federally appointed administrator, who accompanied Brown. "We're looking at quality of life for our families."

Dressed in a tailored suit and bowler hat, and wearing a diamond-studded gold ring on each hand, Babers did not enter the mold-crusted apartments because of respiratory concerns. But advocates for public housing - where about 5,100 people lived before Katrina, and to where some 1,200 have since returned - insist that the complexes slated for demolition were safe during past hurricanes because they are solidly built of steel, concrete and brick. Many apartments escaped flooding from the storm.

The advocates also argue that tearing them down prevents a key segment of the city's work force from returning and excludes thousands from the city's rebuilding process.

Nearly all the families who lived in New Orleans public housing were African-American on low incomes.

"It's definitely about race and class," said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights and racial justice group that is also representing tenants in a class-action lawsuit seeking to return them to their apartments.. "If you look at what happened after Hurricane Katrina, the people who were residents of public housing were the people who were left behind at the Superdome and Convention Center, and now they are the same people who are being locked out."

For former Lafitte tenant Jeffrey Hills, 31, a tuba and sousaphone player, the desire to return to the projects is simple.

"It's affordable housing," said Hills, who used to pay $400 a month in rent, including utilities, for a two-bedroom apartment that had a balcony and parquet floors. "I'm a young man with three kids. I can't afford to pay $1,500 in rent."

The sense of place, community ties and social networks are also what former tenants said they missed most.

"Every single person still displaced is constantly re-evaluating wishes to come home with the unfolding reality they are not welcome at this point," said William P. Quigley, another attorney for the plaintiffs.

But Babers said tenants were swayed by nostalgia and had been isolated in such communities for so long that they were unable to consider alternative, viable living arrangements.

"It's a 1940s mind-set," said Babers, a reference to when many of the projects were built. "Change is difficult for people. They're afraid of the unknown."

Brown, his colleague, recalled how plans for demolishing and rebuilding public housing in other cities, such as Chicago and Atlanta, had met similar resistance. But once tenants moved into new, modern units in mixed-income neighborhoods with easy access to shops and schools, the opposition quickly waned, Brown said.

Jacquelyn Marshall, 36, a former resident of C.J. Peete, said tenants' reluctance to forsake their old units stemmed from distrust that the authorities would do right by them. And the experience of residents of the city's former St. Thomas housing project has bred further skepticism, advocates said. The complex, originally designed to house around 1,500 families, was demolished in 2002. So far 296 units have been constructed, 122 of them as low-income housing.

"We are not against the redevelopment of public housing," said Marshall. "We are against the process."

Ann M. Simmons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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