What I’m hearing which is sort of scary is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this (chuckle) – this is working very well for them.1
—Former First Lady Barbara Bush, on the hurricane evacuees at the Astrodome in Houston, Sept. 5, 2005.
The comments by then President Bush’s mother to Katrina evacuees in the Houston Astrodome, in retrospect, neatly capture a prevailing attitude held by Americans towards the basic human rights, or lack thereof, of America’s urban poor. They are seen as a liability, as individuals gaming the system, as undeserving of basic public support. Weeks later this bias played out as those New Orleans public housing residents who were able, trickled back to their native city. They were welcomed not only by a ruined city and natural disaster of historic proportions, but by an equally historic redevelopment agenda which would forever dissolve the communities they had inhabited for generations. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had decided to seize the opportunity presented by the complete evacuation of the City of New Orleans and the major public housing projects located there, and put the final nail in the coffin for public housing in the Crescent City. The subsequent story of these developments in a post Katrina New Orleans frames what has become a national devolution in low-income housing policy in the United States. And unfortunately, for underprivileged New Orleanians, it has not been “working very well for them” at all.
Politics of Displacement
Everyone hates public housing, except the low-income people who live there and the people on the long waiting lists to get in.2
In the history of United States, poor people and people of color have disproportionately been subjected to forced relocation. HOPE VI is one more chapter in this sad history. Forced relocation, even with good intent, must be approached with extreme caution. The first principle should always be to do no harm.3
—Sheila Crowley, President of the National Low Income Housing Coalition
After Katrina, public housing residents returned to find their homes in the “Big Four” public housing projects (St. Bernard, C.J. Pete, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte) boarded up, windows and doors sealed with plate steel. In many cases, residents were forced to make appointments with housing officials to even access and retrieve their belongings. Shortly thereafter, HUD made public their intention to demolish these housing projects, encompassing over 4,500 units in total. All were historic structures listed on the National Register, soundly built, and many had little to no flood damage. Yet with Katrina, the politics of disaster had made possible that which would otherwise be politically untenable.
Like the St. Thomas Housing Project before them, they would be replaced with mixed-income communities with only a small percentage of dedicated low-income units and would be funded with HOPE VI grants. Historically, the HOPE VI program (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) represents a fundamental shift in public housing legislation. The program was initially created to address a small percentage of public housing stock, determined by a HUD appointed commission to be “severely distressed.” In New Orleans, this group mainly consisted of inner-city public housing projects built before 1980, which had reached a state of advanced deterioration by the early 90s. The causes for this phenomenon are attributed to reduced funding to HUD, increased proportions of the extremely poor in public housing and persistent waves of drug epidemics during the 80s.4
What differentiates HOPE VI from previous public housing strategies is its ability to embody both liberal and conservative political positions; liberal in its social potential for the future of public housing and conservative in its market potential to create mixed-income communities grounded in self-sufficiency. This new model rejects the previous public housing with its high concentrations of poverty as fundamentally flawed. It seeks to both reintegrate public housing into the mixed-income fabric of the city and redistribute concentrations of low-income families across the city. At the scale of the project, the mixed-income nature of HOPE VI developments allows for the integration of public housing, tax credit housing and market housing. The intent of this integration being to dissolve any visible differentiation between subsidized and unsubsidized housing tenants. Individual units, then, are constructed to satisfy market needs providing a considerable increase in the quality and quantity of amenities to tenants. Here, designation of units is no longer required as public housing tenants can theoretically occupy any of the unit types, thereby eliminating any perceived stigma associated with public housing.
In New Orleans, public housing tenants who “chose” not to return to redeveloped HOPE sites either left subsidized housing all together, relocated to other housing projects or participated in Section 8 voucher programs. Section 8 provides one to two year vouchers for private housing where the tenant pays no more than 30% of their salary towards rent. The government, then, subsidizes the gap between the low-income tenant payments and the market rent. In theory, Section 8 allows for public housing tenants both increased mobility and increased housing choice. It follows that HOPE VI can operate at numerous scales in the city including project specific community building, private market dispersion via Section 8 and relocation of tenants to other housing projects. In this capacity, it has had a greater potential to effect broad changes, both positive and negative, across Metropolitan New Orleans than any past housing legislation.
Since its inception in 1992, the HOPE legislation has evolved through a series of revisions and re-directions via Congress, revisions that largely tended to favor the market aspects of the program over social concerns. The two initial revisions occurred in 1994|1995; first with the repeal of the longstanding requirement that local authorities provide one-for-one replacement housing units (1994 Rescissions Act); and second with the HUD requirement that all applications include provisions for demolition (1996 HOPE NOFA). While the demolition requirement was later repealed the following year, HUD continued to strongly encourage it over rehabilitation as a primary focus of HOPE VI. These changes foreshadowed a more substantial rewriting of the program four years later. The Quality Housing and Works Responsibility Act of 1998 (Housing Act of 1998) reflects the first substantial rewriting of the HOPE VI program. This legislation effectively broadened the scope of the program from the “most distressed” to include all projects with very low-income residents and serious deficiencies in design or physical infrastructure. In addition, provisions were incorporated to lower concentrations of the very poor residents in redeveloped sites, to allow for offsite replacement units for public housing tenants and to give HUD the authority to repeal federal rules “’governing rents, income eligibility, and other areas of public housing management’ and authorizing a system of local preferences.”5
Department of Housing and Demolition
People around here don’t know me. They don’t know my grandchildren. I very seldom sit outside. [There] is nobody to talk to now.6
—Bobbie Jennings, former C.J. Peete resident who now resides in its replacement Harmony Oaks.
From the Great Depression in the 30s to today’s “Great Recession,” New Orleans has had an extended and complicated history with public housing dating back to the Housing Act of 1937. Low-income communities there have continued to experience a steady decline in public support, federal funding and political will dating back well before Nixon’s moratoriums on new public housing in 1973. Despite this fact, despite the high level of crime, the drug problems, the severely distressed conditions, these projects were a sought after housing choice for extremely low-income New Orleanians. Public housing wait lists, for instance, before Katrina totaled a staggering 6,572 people and if re-opened after the storm would likely include thousands more.7 Yet, in spite of this clear demand for units, by 2008, HUD proceeded over legal and public protest with the demolition of over 4,500 units of public housing across the city with only 750 units planned to replace them. It was the final chapter of a larger push towards public housing redevelopment which had already reduced the city’s conventional public housing stock from 13,694 in 1996, to 7,379 before Katrina in 2005.
HUD’s drastic choice to reduce rather than renovate public housing stock was largely enabled by the ill-conceived mechanics of the HOPE VI program. As the first program to abolish one-to-one replacement of units in future redevelopments, it anticipated a planned reduction in the quantity of hard housing stock owned by the federal government. Tenant displacement for redevelopment was then enabled without any real assurance of future accommodation within the system. In addition, its central focus on mixed-income communities did not adequately address the constituency it was meant to serve. Of the roughly third of HOPE VI housing units typically dedicated to low-income residents, only an additional third of that percentage were typically dedicated for extremely low-income residents (i.e. those making less than 30% of the Average Mean Income or AMI of their municipality). With the majority of New Orleans public housing tenants falling into this category, HOPE VI communities were a bad deal indeed for existing residents, by regulation alone potentially allowing only 10% of the existing community with the opportunity to transition to the new development.
The St. Thomas Housing Project, for example, once home to 800 families (a majority of which were extremely low-income) was demolished in 2001 and replaced by River Garden; a HOPE VI funded mixed-income community which only had provisions for a maximum of 47 extremely low-income families (or 5% of the total proposed units) to reside in the new development. Due to these provisions, new redevelopments resulted in displacement of poor families outside the public housing system. For while many of these residents will go into other HUD programs such as Section 8, there is also growing evidence that a considerable number lose touch with housing authorities and may become homeless. Statistics show that since Katrina, New Orleans homeless population has roughly doubled and is now at an estimated 12,000 people.8 This is perhaps why housing officials manipulated the Katrina evacuation to force evictions in the “Big Four.” After St. Thomas, public housing residents knew they would be getting a bad deal in the process and would have presented a more formidable opposition to attempts to redevelop.
Human Rights and Housing
One of the gravest post Katrina and Rita threats to human rights has been government actions violating the human right to housing in New Orleans. Developers – pursuant to federal legislation–have demolished public housing units across New Orleans–the only housing affordable to thousands of families living in the city.9
—Tiffany M. Gardner, Director, Legal Program & Special Project on Hurricane Katrina
HUD’s public housing evictions raised such concern among the international community that in 2009, the UN sent a special rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, to investigate. Her subsequent report confirmed what public housing advocates had been arguing for years. First, the HOPE VI approach to housing had “overly emphasized housing as real estate rather than as a basic social need.”10 Budgetary data reinforces this assertion with rebuilding of the “Big Four” projected to cost $762 million. By contrast, repair of the existing housing, many with minimal damage from Katrina, was estimated to only cost $130 million.11 The UN report found that units were being demolished “without sufficient mechanisms for tenants to find comparable housing in the interim.”12 It noted that “in some instances, housing projects were demolished and land made available to developers, without replacement housing being made available to tenants …” with “… some of this land remaining vacant for years.”13 Most importantly, the report recognized that current public housing residents had been stigmatized and “treated with contempt and disrespect for their basic human dignity.”14 The report concluded with broad recommendations from legislated involvement of community members to one-for-one replacement of public housing units, to allowing demolitions only after replacement units had been made available, to proper maintenance of existing public housing stock. Most importantly, though, it underlined a right to return for existing residents as a fundamental entitlement.
Studies have found in many cases that public housing residents’ social networks primarily consist of other social housing residents.15 As a result, rather than pursuing mobility to other neighborhoods through Section 8 or other mixed-income developments, displaced HOPE VI residents largely stay within their existing neighborhood and the networks and support systems they’re constructed there for generations. In the real world outside the beltway, community trumps de-concentration every time. Also, as the majority of households were not typical nuclear families in New Orleans public housing, currently policy overwhelmingly discriminates against minority women headed households (for instance, African American women-headed households comprised 77% of pre-Katrina residents).16 These factors provide the foundation for an argument that the current experiment of poverty de-concentration being executed by the federal government is at best exceptionally misguided and at worst woefully malicious. Legislating a right of return must play a central role into new policies on the horizon.
A Future for Public Housing Policy?
Because public housing lacks a constituency with any influence, it has been easy for Democrats and Republicans alike to come up with just enough money to keep public housing open, but not enough for it to be sustained. Public policy has allowed the slow starvation of public housing.17
—Sheila Crowley, President of the National Low Income Housing Coalition
There remains some potential to resolve contradictions in current housing regulation to better protect residents. Over the summer accusations flew within ranks of public housing supporters over a new legislation, PETRA being proposed by the Obama Administration.18 It proposed three central measures that could positively address the structural shortcomings of current housing policies while attempting to ensure fiscal health in the future. First, it would make law the commitment to one-for-one replacement of public housing units. This would permanently close the redevelopment loop hole provided be HOPE VI which has allowed so much of our nation’s housing stock to be permanently demolished without replacement. Second, it would strengthen resident’s rights to representation against unfair rent increases and evictions and also ensure the tenants have a right of return if they’re required to vacate their homes for repairs and redevelopment. Finally, it would allow housing authorities to leverage the same types of funding for renovation of existing structures that have been allowed for demolition, i.e. understanding that the lack of renovation funding being a key ingredient to the path to demolition.
The vehicle of this funding, unfortunately, has been troubling to many. PETRA proposes that ownership of federal properties would be no longer through the federal government but instead through private entities acting as agents of HUD. This provision poses a different kind of risk for public housing by exposing projects to the risk of foreclosure, currently a non-issue in conventional public housing. It potentially trades the current displacement, de-concentration regime with displacement via the vagaries of the market and whether private entities could make new laws “work” financially. One wonders if the current systems have thrown out the baby with the bath water in allowing the push toward public | private ventures to dominate so much of federal housing policy. Perhaps some social programs do need big government as a sole proprietorship to serve the people’s needs best and most justly. As another advocate wrote, “mend it, don’t end it.” One thing is clear, though, maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. Under current law, housing stock will continue to be demolished, residents displaced across the country and a new housing crisis soon to arrive.
For New Orleanians, unfortunately, any good that might come from present policy progress would be largely too little too late. Their communities have already been torn asunder, their homes dissolved and reformed into New Urbanist market experiments that have yet to withstand the test of time. Currently, as of October 2010, housing officials have even noted that expiration of the Gulf Opportunity Zone Tax Credits in December may put the completion of over half of the “Big Four” redevelopments in jeopardy of not being constructed at all. The audacity of this type of disaster enabled change being carried in a difficult economic climate with such a degree of cultural insensitivity is truly disturbing. One can only hope that in the future, policy makers will finally create programs that live up to their misleading acronyms and provide real hope and not despair to those citizens that need it the most in the worst of times. The creation and destruction of impoverished communities deserves better consideration than our current system cares to give. In New Orleans, perhaps, the best solution for the creation of future affordable housing could be to adopt inclusionary zoning measures on development in the city (i.e. mandating minimum percentages of all future housing development be affordable, sustainable housing), while this may not result in the immediate change so sorely needed, at a minimum it ensures a constant augmentation of existing affordable housing stock and the potential to replace the critical housing lost in in the wake of Katrina. This would at least ensure that as we continue to rebuild New Orleans, we rebuild for everyone.