Fate of New Orleans Housing Project Hangs in Limbo

Sharon Bowlston lived in the St. Bernard project for 30 years i i

hide captionSharon Bowlston lived in the St. Bernard project for 30 years and is now staying with her brother in another part of New Orleans. She stands beside a chain-link fence that is being erected around the buildings.

Martin Kaste, NPR
Sharon Bowlston lived in the St. Bernard project for 30 years

Sharon Bowlston lived in the St. Bernard project for 30 years and is now staying with her brother in another part of New Orleans. She stands beside a chain-link fence that is being erected around the buildings.

Martin Kaste, NPR
The interior of a unit at the St. Bernard project i i

hide captionThe interior of a unit at the St. Bernard project. The abandoned buildings sat in a few feet of water after Hurricane Katrina ...

Martin Kaste, NPR
The interior of a unit at the St. Bernard project

The interior of a unit at the St. Bernard project. The abandoned buildings sat in a few feet of water after Hurricane Katrina ...

Martin Kaste, NPR
But units on the second and third floor suffered far less damage. i i

hide caption... But units on the second and third floor suffered far less damage. Some say with a little cleanup, they would be easily inhabitable again.

But units on the second and third floor suffered far less damage.

... But units on the second and third floor suffered far less damage. Some say with a little cleanup, they would be easily inhabitable again.

This week, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin rolled out an ambitious recovery plan for his storm-ravaged city. But many New Orleanians dismiss the document as an exercise in wishful thinking. They say the key decisions about the city's future are quietly being made in Washington, D.C. And nowhere is this more obvious than on the question of which of the city's vast public-housing projects should reopen.

The St. Bernard housing project, in New Orleans' Gentilly neighborhood, is a ghost town. Toys and bikes are still lying around, but the hundreds of families who lived here before Hurricane Katrina are gone. But they still visit, especially on weekends.

"The main thing that brings me here is just ... to see it in this condition," says Ernest Richardson, one such visitor.

Given the city's housing shortage, Richardson can't understand why these apartments are still empty. Some of the buildings' doors and windows have been sealed with metal shutters, but others are still wide open to the elements. The project sat in a few feet of water after Katrina, but these three-story, brick buildings seem essentially sound.

No official announcement has been made on a decision to close the St. Bernard project, but housing activist Ayisha Smothers says most people have come to assume that most of the city's projects will remain shuttered.

"The city may think it's better off with these people gone," she says. "They just don't want these people to come back."

Many people in New Orleans will say privately that they are glad the storms emptied out New Orleans' projects. But no city official has gone on the record saying so. Besides, they say, that's the federal government's call. The Housing Authority of New Orleans is in federal receivership, and that means the real boss is Orlando Cabrera, the assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. But Cabrera says that local input matters.

"A lot of this has to do with what does the city of New Orleans want," Cabrera says. "The federal voice in this is not the only voice. And so we are working to enable their prerogatives."

But there's no escaping the fact that HUD is in charge. The local housing authority was flooded out of its offices, and a skeleton staff operates out of a sleepy temporary space. They have a few crews deployed, slowly cleaning some of the buildings closer to the French Quarter. But as an institution, the local housing authority barely exists. When NPR tried to interview the executive director, HUD wouldn't allow it.

Still, Cabrera says that Washington has not made a decision to close anything. He says HUD is monitoring the status of nearby schools, medical services and commerce to determine how and when the projects will be reopened.

In New Orleans these days, it seems every decision maker is waiting for — or monitoring — decisions from other decision makers. City planners are waiting for new floodplain maps from FEMA, Congress has been waiting for a rebuilding plan from the city, and the schools are waiting to see how many families come back.

Sharon Bowlston, a 30-year resident of the St. Bernard housing project, was displaced by Katrina. During a visit, she admits that many people see the project as urban blight. But she says they're missing a simple truth.

"They can go to their house and relax and take off their shoes and eat and whatever they want. But we can't do that," she says, adding that St. Bernard is the only place some people know as their home.

A partially erected chain-link fence is now going up around the whole project. It's the newest thing here. Bowlston takes it as a sure sign that a decision about the St. Bernard project has been made — by someone, somewhere.

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