St. Bernard Parish (shown Feb. 23, 2006) languished until recently — and now that residents are rebuilding, there's controversy over low-income rentals.
St. Bernard Parish (shown Feb. 23, 2006) languished until recently — and now that residents are rebuilding, there's controversy over low-income rentals. Alex Brandon/AP
Slowly, about half the population of St. Bernard Parish has returned to the area since Hurricane Katrina. But with a twist — it's not as white as it used to be, which has sparked a battle over low-income housing and race.
After Katrina, local attorney David Jarrell decided he could help his native St. Bernard Parish rebuild by buying and renovating damaged houses. In a bound notebook with pictures of the dozen or so properties he has refurbished, he singles out one that was "trashed" by the hurricane before he restored it.
"This was the inside — it was wood floors, 10-foot ceilings," he says. "Everything was meticulously designed. But it was still affordable for people, so if anybody was looking to rent, it was just a great little house."
But there's a problem: Jarrell can't get a permit to rent it. The parish council has limited the number of rental properties allowed in each neighborhood and, for now, has put a moratorium on approving any new permits.
"It's just bad for business," he says. "It's bad for the re-growth of St. Bernard and the recovery of St. Bernard, and I just want to see it go away."
Jarrell is one of three people who have filed fair housing complaints with the Department of Housing and Urban Development against the parish. It's the newest front in an ongoing battle over affordable housing and the changes that have taken place in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.
St. Bernard is a mostly working-class parish southeast of the city. Since the storm, new people have moved in — many of them minorities. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the parish's white population has dropped from 84 to 77 percent.
Now some residents here, like Keith Buras, are adamantly opposed to developers who plan to build four mixed-income housing projects in the parish.
"It's not discrimination," Buras says. "It's called self-preservation."
Buras says he doesn't want the kind of crime problems that have plagued housing projects in New Orleans.
"You see what's going on in those," he says, "not just in the black community. I mean, there's good and bad. Some of them could be Nobel Peace prizewinners. With any low income, you have bad element: You got your prostitution moves in, you got your drug gangs come in."
That kind of talk is what U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan found to be "camouflaged racial expressions." She ruled that the parish must grant permits for the housing projects in a lawsuit brought by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. In 2006, the center sued to stop a parish ordinance that said homeowners could only rent to blood relatives, arguing that the impact was discriminatory in the mostly white parish.
"I'm absolutely sick and tired of being called a racist!" says St. Bernard Parish councilman Wayne Landry.
Landry admits that in the rush to rebuild, mistakes were made, especially with the blood-relative ordinance. But he says the intent was not racist — it was to bring back the people who lived there before the storm.
"We had a bedroom community. Everybody knew everybody. Houses got passed down from generation to generation. They were trying to preserve that. Nothing wrong with that," he says.
Landry says he is frustrated that the local government is hamstrung by the federal courts.
"We should have the God-given and government-given right to govern this parish to protect the property values and the people for their life, and for all of the values of their community," he says. "It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with the economic stability of the people of this parish."
But there is clearly a need for rental property in the parish. A report by the Brookings Institution estimates that rents in the New Orleans metropolitan area are about 46 percent higher than they were before Hurricane Katrina because of the low supply and high demand for rental units.
Rental property developer Sam Hodorov adds that the economic stability of the parish will depend on people from the outside.
"Part of progress and part of changing is diversity," he says. "People will come from many other countries and they will do their business. And this town will prosper because of the diversity. Not because of narrow-minded thinking that whatever was, will be. It will never be, because there was a big chaos here, you know."