Suit to Re-Open New Orleans Public Housing

Much of New Orleans' public housing remains closed almost two years after Hurricane Katrina. Judith Browne-Dianis, Co-Director of Advancement Project, talks to Farai Chideya about her organization's suit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asking that public housing in New Orleans be re-opened.

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Gilda desperately wants to return home to New Orleans, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, has designated her building for demolition. So where does that leave Katrina survivors like Gilda?

Judith Browne-Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project, a democracy injustice action group. She's currently suing HUD to reopen public housing in New Orleans. Judith joins us now by phone from upstate New York. Welcome back.

Ms. JUDITH BROWNE-DIANIS (Co-Director, Advancement Project): Thanks. How are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. Why don't you give us a sense of how common Gilda's story is?

Ms. BROWNE-DIANIS: Her story is very common. I mean, the residents of public housing of New Orleans are scattered throughout the country. They have very high levels of despair. They live in limbo, not knowing from one day to the next whether they're going to be able to return, whether or not their vouchers are going to be extended. Right now, those vouchers end at the end of September. And then that means that there is no safety net for them. They're very depressed. I have clients who are suicidal because people cannot understand why they cannot come back.

CHIDEYA: So give me a sense of exactly what your strategy is, what you're trying to do.

Ms. BROWNE-DIANIS: Sure. We have a class-action lawsuit that has been filed against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans on behalf of all public housing residents that were residents at the time of Hurricane Katrina to reopen public housing.

Right now, the federal government and HANO have said that they're going to demolish 5,000 units of public housing. There were 7,100 units at the time of Katrina. And what we are trying to do is get them to reopen public housing because many of them, thousands of those units actually are habitable and do not have to be demolished right now. So what we're trying to do is get people back home as soon as possible.

CHIDEYA: Let's go back to the suit. If everything goes the way that you would like in terms of, you know, timely hearing of the suit and an outcome, when do you think that survivors could be back into their homes? Conversely, if things get gummed up, what's going to happen in terms of the timeframe?

Ms. BROWNE-DIANIS: Right. Well, we actually expected that we'd have people back home months ago, probably about, you know, six months ago. But that didn't happen. The court system is very slow to move on this case. And so we have a trial that is scheduled in November, and we're hoping that we can settle the case before that and get people home, and especially get a large chunk of those people home by the end of the summer.

But, you know, that depends on the political will, and all of the stars and the moons aligning themselves. Otherwise, if we have to go to trial, people probably won't see themselves home until the beginning of 2008.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned that some of the people who you've been representing are suicidal or just in a lot of emotional pain. Do you think that as time goes on more of them will just give up on this idea of returning back to New Orleans?

Ms. BROWNE-DIANIS: I mean, some of them will. Some of them will get settled in the places that they're in. I mean, they have, you know, there are a lot of women who have children who are moving on because their children are getting settled in the schools that they're in. But there is this real attachment to New Orleans and, you know, it's a culture.

And so while many of these families are really struggling because they're not in the same situation - they've lost their jobs, they've lost family members, so there's more to it than coming back just to an apartment. This is home. This is what you know. This is community. And so I think that there will still be thousands of families that will want to return even if we're looking at 2008.

CHIDEYA: So, from your perspective, what's the problem with housing in New Orleans? I mean, what is the biggest problem, or are there a multitude of problems?

Ms. BROWNE-DIANIS: Well, I think the biggest problem is that right now there's a struggle around the identity and the demographics of what New Orleans will look like in the future. And so that whole struggle is feeding into the calculation of what will be built, where it will be built, what the rent levels will be. And so you have, like, the market has gone whacky, right? And so the prices of housing have gone sky high so the working poor can't get back into the city.

Then you have the federal government steps in and says the affordable housing stock that we control we are closing down. And when we rebuild it, there will be many fewer units. And so the federal government is saying, oh this is an opportunity. But we're saying that this is a crisis, and that there was an affordable housing crisis because most of the affordable housing was wiped out by hurricane Katrina and the breaking up the levees.

So the federal government should be doing something very quickly and is obligated to do something very quickly to get their units back up online and to let people move back in. And so, again, it's about accountability, it's about, you know, government accountability. It's about whether or not there's the will to get these folks home. And then whether or not this city and the state will do something to kind of even out the market to ensure that the people who lived in New Orleans prior to hurricane Katrina can actually live there; instead of having kind of like a Cape Town, South Africa, where you can live outside of the city and work in the city, but you can't live in the city.

CHIDEYA: So who do you consider your allies, and by that I mean you're in the center of the suit against the federal government. What about Nagin, the mayor? What about Blanco, the governor? What about private industry? Are any of those your allies in this fight?

Ms. BROWNE-DIANIS: Well, you know, I think that the local elected officials and state elected officials have been pretty silent on this issue. I think what's happening is that you're pitting their interest against one another. So you have their constituents on the one hand who voted for them, put them in office; and then on the other hand you have the developers and the money. And so trying to keep both camps very happy is a difficult thing to do. So what has happened is that the local elected officials would rather remain silent on this issue and not take sides.

So it's been very difficult to find allies in this. Private industry has remained silent also. I mean, you know, there are a lot of businesses that really do need these folks to come back home. But the biggest ally that we have found, because the federal government's response to hurricane Katrina and especially with regard to the issues around affordable housing has been abysmal, and it's been very disappointing.

But what we have seen is in the past few months there's a new Congress. And the new Congress has been our ally and we've finally seen some movement. It took, you know, 18 months. But then when there was a new Congress, all of a sudden, quickly you started having hearings, there started being movement because somebody finally was in power that cared enough about these folks to want to do something about it.

CHIDEYA: Well, Judith, thanks for the update.

Ms. BROWNE-DIANIS: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Judith Browne-Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project, a democracy in justice action group. She's currently suing the U.S. Department of Housing in Urban Development, or HUD, to reopen public housing in New Orleans.

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CHIDEYA: Just ahead, Congresswoman Maxine Waters on her public housing push in New Orleans, plus those deadly shootings at Virginia Tech. And later, commentator Carol Simpson on blacks in Columbia.

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CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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