One Resident of New Orleans Public Housing Still Waiting

Former New Orleans resident Gilda Burbank has lived in Houston, Texas since Hurricane Katrina flooded her public housing apartment. Burbank wants to return to New Orleans, but her building has been slated for demolition, and she can't afford prevailing rents in her housing-strapped city. She shares her story.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

It's been more than a year and a half since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Many of the city's low-income residents displaced by the storm still can't afford to come home. Affordable housing in New Orleans is scarce. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, has ordered that thousands of public housing apartments damaged by Katrina will be destroyed. And FEMA has said rental assistance will end soon. That leaves some displaced residents feeling caught between a rock and a hard place.

In a few minutes we'll hear from an attorney who is suing HUD to reopen New Orleans public housing. But first, the story of a former New Orleanian who's been living in Houston since Katrina. She says she wants nothing more than to return home.

Ms. GILDA BURBANK (Former resident, New Orleans): My name is Gilda Burbank. And I'm 50-plus years old, and I've been living in New Orleans all my life. I still consider New Orleans my home even though I'm not currently living in New Orleans. In New Orleans, I lived in St. Bernard development apartment, and I was happy. I was considered, you know, the working poor, I work from paycheck to paycheck, but I was okay. I was doing what I enjoyed doing. You know, I was a commissioner in charge during elections. I was a doorknocker. I was very active in my community. I was very active in my church. I belong to St. Raymond's Catholic Church.

I really considered myself overworked and underpaid. I used to complain that, you know, I have the years, but where is the gold, you know, but I was happy. As far as I was concerned, I was going to just live out my days where I was. Then Katrina came along. It just turned, I mean literally turned my life upside down, and I do mean that in the literal sense. Not only my life, but everything in my apartment. And I know folks say it was just material, you know, but everything that was in that apartment was a part of me. So I left a great big chunk on me back there, you know, in New Orleans, inside that apartment, in that community, in that neighborhood.

So now I live here in the city of Houston. I have an apartment paid for by a corporate (unintelligible) corporation (unintelligible) FEMA. I'm in litigation, as we speak, with HUD/NO, because we did not leave on our own account. We just didn't say, well, okay, well I'm going to leave. We left because we had no choice. And it appears the time we left, now the locks have been changed. There's a big old fence around.

I want an opportunity to go back. We're not afforded that opportunity to come back. Not to come back in our apartment that we once had. And to me it's so unfair to be driven from your home because of reasons beyond your control. And I should be able to have the opportunity if I decide to. It's a personal decision for everyone. But if I decide to come back, I want to come back, I should be afforded that opportunity. And while the anxiety is something that I can't even - I don't even have words to - it's a nightmare. It's something like a nightmare and you can't wake up.

You don't know whether or not you're going to be put outdoors, I mean find yourself homeless. I received a three day notice a few months back. And it was given to me on a Friday evening after five. Now, needless to say I didn't have a good weekend. I would really like to be able to go back home to New Orleans. I would like to be able to go back home and try to pick up the shredded bits and pieces of my life.

CHIDEYA: Again, that was Gilda Burbank. She's been living in Houston, Texas since Hurricane Katrina flooded her apartment in St. Bernard's Parish.

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