Saturday, December 22, 2007

RE: New Orleans city council OKs demolition of public housing

----------------- Bulletin Message -----------------
From: The Man Common
Date: Dec 22, 2007 9:24 AM


New Orleans city council OKs demolition of public housing amid massive protests

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

The fate of the 4,500 units has become a symbolic flashpoint 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 here, and a homeless camp has settled outside City Hall.

Even before the seven council members took their seats for the public meeting, protesters were booing and pumping their fists.

"Why y'all standing behind the curtains?" called out a female protester to council members who waited at the back of the city 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 the police almost immediately.

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

Outside, as dozens of protesters attempted to force their way through iron gates to get into the chambers, they 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 convened, the meeting was conducted in an orderly fashion - with a SWAT team standing between the council and 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 rain water began dripping from the ceiling.

"We're having problems with water coming in," said Arnie Fielkow, president of the council.

"Tear the building down," shouted one activist, unsympathetic about the leak in the chambers. "Yeah, get HUD to fix it," another chipped in.

Rags were carried in to sop up the growing puddle of water that converged around Clerk Peggy Lewis.

The razing of public housing projects, part of a nationwide move away from public housing and toward mixed-income projects, has been particularly contentious in New Orleans. Activists and historic preservationists have criticized the government's proposal to raze the city's biggest complexes at a time when low-income housing is in short supply.

With rent costs up 45 percent and more than 3,000 former public-housing residents scattered across the country, they say officials should act quickly to 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 that the government will not replace all of the 4,500 units it demolishes.

"The question remains: Who's in the mix?" said Torin Sanders, pastor of the Sixth Baptist Church, near the old St. Thomas project, which was razed before Hurricane 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 Dana Johnigan, a resident of B.W. Coopers, 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 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 Dec. 15, but former tenants and activists sued the federal government, arguing that the authority had acted without council permits. A judge ruled in their favor. The hearing Thursday was in response to that ruling - and it issued the permits.

The campaign against demolition of the housing projects has gained momentum and national attention. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, asked the government to delay their demolition plans.

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 crime, drugs, and prostitution. The goal is to place residents of the former projects alongside those on Section 8 rental-subsidy programs and 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 less than 900 of the 3,200 new mixed-use units will be made available to former public-housing residents, the council offered a unanimous resolution asking the Department of Housing and Urban Development to rebuild every public-housing unit it destroys and 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 Shelley Midura, who proposed the resolution. "But public housing ought not to be a warehouse for the poor."

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