New Orleanians Still Fighting To Get Back Home

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans natives are still struggling to move back into their homes. But Damon Hewitt, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says racial inequities have stifled the road back home.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Like the Martins, many families are fighting to get back to their homes in New Orleans, and some feel that the challenge is tougher for those from African-American communities than it is for people from predominantly white neighborhoods. Joining us to explain why is Damon Hewitt. He served as the director of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Funds, Katrina Gulf Coast Project. Welcome, Damon.

Mr. DAMON HEWITT (Director of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Funds, Katrina Gulf Coast Project): Thank you for having me, Allison.

KEYES: So, how common is it for people that are trying to move back to New Orleans to encounter the same kind of thing the Martins are running into?

Mr. HEWITT: Well, there's a fairly common problem. First, most of the federal funds that were appropriated by Congress for housing recovery were dedicated directly for homeowners, funneled through a state program. With most of the residents of New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina being renters, they received no direct assistance to help them relocate. But, in particular, with respect to the homeowners themselves, there's discrimination built into the fabric of the program. You see, this Road Home program that the state created -an $11 billion program - which is the largest-ever housing recovery program in the U.S. - bases it's grants upon either the pre-storm market value of one's home, or the cost to actually repair the home, whichever is lower. And it turns out that most African-American homeowners had their grants base upon the pre-storm market value, which by definition means they had insufficient funds to rebuild.

KEYES: How many people are we talking about being affected here?

Mr. HEWITT: Well, initially, we estimated that about 20,000 African-American households in Orleans Parish - the city of New Orleans - had or would have their grants based upon the pre-storm market value. So it's a huge swath of the city, a very large number of people who were affected.

KEYES: I know that your organization has been pressing this in court, but before we talk about where that litigation stands now, the judge said that the court doesn't take this lightly. He called it regrettable that some black people got less money than they would have gotten if they lived in white neighborhoods. But there's no recourse for people that have already received their grants?

Mr. HEWITT: Well, last week, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. did hold that the program likely violates the Fair Housing Act, by virtue of the lawsuit brought by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, National Fair Housing Alliance and the Legal Defense Fund. Now that holding applies to all future grants. The judge prohibited the State of Louisiana from using this pre-storm market value criterion for any future grants. We are appealing the portion of his prior ruling that holds that he can't address any of the problems with respect to the prior grants. We believe those individuals deserve justice, as well.

KEYES: But right now, there's nothing that they can do - the people that have already received grants. It's only people that haven't yet gotten the money or haven't finished the application process?

Mr. HEWITT: There's nothing they can do themselves, but we are fighting in court on their behalf. And also, we've called upon federal and state officials, in particular, HUD - the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development -which can step in and intervene right now to correct this problem. We know that there's a fairly sizeable surplus for this Road Home Program, millions and millions of dollars, about a $150 million at least. That money could be used to address those who suffer this discrimination.

KEYES: So, really briefly, the court case is over, except for the appeal that you've filed.

Mr. HEWITT: Well, it's still ongoing, not over until it's over. The case is still ongoing, and we hope for a favorable result.

KEYES: This is also pretty personal for you. You are from New Orleans, and your dad had difficulty getting back into his neighborhood. Briefly, really briefly, how's he doing?

Mr. HEWITT: Well, my parent's are doing well. They are part of the lucky few who were able to cobble together the resources to by fighting the Road Home Program, by fighting their insurance company, and by really depleting some of their own resources to get back home and making sure we took care of other family members, as well.

KEYES: How long did it take them to get back?

Mr. HEWITT: Took them just about two years to get back into their home, after bouncing around from a hotel in Houston, to a relative's apartment, sister's apartment in Atlanta, to another apartment outside of New Orleans and a third apartment, then finally back home.

KEYES: Okay. Damon Hewitt led the Katrina Gulf Coast Project for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He's currently the director of the group's Educational Project, and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Damon, thanks for your insight.

Mr. HEWITT: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HEWITT: Thanks. Appreciate it.

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