New Orleans Residents Still Struggling To Get Back Home

In the five years since Hurricane Katrina, many Gulf Coast residents have returned to their old neighborhoods. Certain areas have seen a return rate nearly approaching pre-Katrina levels. But a number of people are suggesting that some rebuilding efforts have favored more affluent residents, specifically white people and middle-class folks. James Perry, Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, discusses concerns about discriminatory rebuilding policies.

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TONY COX, Host:

Let's turn next to housing in New Orleans. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, there are several stories of return and renewal. In his remarks from the Crescent City on Sunday, President Obama praised those residents who have come back to rebuild their neighborhoods.

BARACK OBAMA: I don't have to tell you that there are still too many vacant and overgrown lots. There are still too many students attending classes in trailers. There are still too many people unable to find work. And there are still too many New Orleans folks who haven't been able to come home. So while an incredible amount of progress has been made, on this fifth anniversary I wanted to come here and tell the people of this city directly, my administration is going to stand with you and fight alongside you until the job is done.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Until New Orleans is all the way back, all the way.

COX: But not everyone will have the opportunity to make it back home. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that while seven in 10 New Orleans residents say the rebuilding effort is going in the right direction, African-Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to say that they have not yet recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

To get a better understanding of the remaining challenges to recovery, we are joined now by James Perry. He is the executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, and he joins us from New Orleans.

Welcome.

JAMES PERRY: Hey, how are you?

COX: I'm fine, thank you. Mr. Perry, earlier this month a federal judge ruled that the road the Road Home Program, a federally funded grant program established by the state of Louisiana, had a formula for calculating grants that discriminated against black homeowners. Tell us about that.

PERRY: Sure. For many African-American homeowners, the Road Home Program has ended up as a road to nowhere. The program relied on property values to determine how much money people got to rebuild their homes. But unfortunately, what we found is that property values in African-American neighborhoods were so low that sometimes people did not get enough money to cover the costs of rebuilding.

While if you looked at white neighborhoods in New Orleans, oftentimes - or white census tracks - oftentimes what you found was that the values were high enough to cover the actual cost of rebuilding. And so the end result was that African-American homeowners by and large got some money but not enough money to get back into their homes.

COX: Is this discrepancy in lending about race or is it about the difference in the value of the property?

PERRY: Well, you know, we bought this claim under the Federal Fair Housing Act, and one of the important things to note about that law is that it doesn't require you to prove that any discriminatory effect is intentional. And I don't think that the folks designing this program intended to discriminate against people based on their race. But the fact is that the effect has been discriminatory.

African-American neighborhoods simply have not been able to fully rebuild. And so I would say that the effect is a racialized effect. And so it doesn't matter what the intent was, but I do think the fundamental issue is that we all want to see New Orleans rebuilt in an equitable way, and if that's true, then we have to fix this formula.

COX: So what does that mean for the Ninth Ward then? Is it dead forever?

PERRY: Well, you know, one of the most telling signs of - or the way that the lawsuit and that the judge's opinion revealed itself when you come to city - is that if you drive through the Lower Ninth Ward, you don't see homes, you don't see families; instead what you see are vacant fields, oftentimes overgrown. And occasionally you'll see a set of stairs, stairs that lead to nowhere because a home used to be there.

And the families wanted to rebuild most of the time, wanted to move back to the Lower Ninth Ward, but going through this grant program were not able to get enough money to rebuild their homes. And so the poster child of our recovery, the Lower Ninth Ward, is not back yet. It's very simple.

COX: Now, those homes were in bad shape before Katrina, were they not?

PERRY: Well, some were and some were not. You know, the Lower Ninth Ward was a low and middle income community and, of course, there were homes, just like any community, that were in good shape and homes that weren't. But here's the bottom line: We are trying to rebuild a city and rebuild a community, and what we have so far has not gotten us to that goal.

COX: Here's a two-part question for you. First part: Could the government or the private sector or the two in tandem do something to bring the Lower Ninth Ward back in the way that other parts of New Orleans have been helped? And number two, the second part to that question is: Do you think that will ever happen?

PERRY: Well, that's a great question and I think that this a unique circumstance where government's responsibility comes into direct play. Here's the fundamental thing, is that the way that the Lower Ninth Ward and the rest of the city is destroyed is not because Katrina hits the city, but it's because the federal levies were poorly maintained and weren't properly taken care of. And as a result, this was a man-made, in fact government-made, disaster.

Had the government been on its job, there would've been no disaster, the Lower Ninth Ward likely would've been spared. And so there's an argument that since the government failed and caused the disaster, then perhaps it's government's obligation to right the wrong, to correct the problem.

And it's part of the reason that George Bush came to New Orleans and stood in our city and said that he was going to rebuild New Orleans and make it an even better city than it was before. So now this problem falls squarely on President Obama's shoulders. For instance, the flaw in this Road Home Program, which is a federally funded and created program, is a mistake made by George Bush but that can remedied by President Obama, and he hasn't remedied it yet.

And so when it comes to the second part of your question, that's what's at issue right now, is - is the president seeing this ruling from a federal judge saying this federal program is discriminatory, is he going to take the steps to remedy this program? And that's what we don't know the answer to yet. A lot of us held our breath on Sunday as he spoke to New Orleanians and hoped that he would announce a fix to the Road Home Program. He did not.

COX: James Perry is the executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center. He joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans.

James, thank you very much.

PERRY: Oh, thank you.

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