LIANE HANSEN, host:
Soon after Katrina hit, the promises started coming in. President Bush said the government would rebuild better than before. The secretary of Housing and Urban Development said replacing flood-damaged public housing would bring a renaissance to poor neighborhoods. But today, only a third of those evacuated from public housing in New Orleans have returned.
Some former residents say the storm gave the city an excuse to get rid of some of its poorest residents. Housing officials say, on the contrary, it was a chance to improve their lives.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: Two years after Katrina, Bobbie Jennings and other former public housing residents from New Orleans travel to Washington, D.C. for a hearing. They were furious. They still had no permanent place to live. So, they confronted a HUD official during the break.
Ms. BOBBIE JENNINGS: So, why can't we go back home?
Unidentified Man: Well, that's what they're having the hearing about. That's what they're having the hearing about.
Ms. JENNINGS: I know it's not to be trusted.
Unidentified Man: I want you to go back home.
Ms. JENNINGS: They've said they're going to do this...
Unidentified Man: We want you to go back...
Ms. JENNINGS: ...and then don't do nothing.
Unidentified Man: ...we want you to go back home to another unit, to a better unit.
FESSLER: Today, three years later, Bobbie Jennings is among the first public housing residents to move back into what the government promised would be a better place, far better than the deteriorating crime-ridden housing project where she'd lived for more than 30 years.
Ms. JENNINGS: In their eyesight, it might be better. But in my eyesight, it's not.
FESSLER: Jennings says don't get her wrong, the new units are lovely. They're built at the site of the former C.J. Peete Housing Project. She now has a two-story townhouse with two-and-a-half baths and a modern kitchen. She shares it with a daughter and two grandchildren. But Jennings, a retired nursing assistant, says she's just not comfortable.
Ms. JENNINGS: People around here don't know me. They don't know my grandchildren. I very seldom sit outside. It's nobody to talk to now.
FESSLER: Many of her former neighbors haven't returned, and couldn't even if they wanted to. The new complex, called Harmony Oaks, will have only a third of its units devoted to public housing. The rest will go to those with higher incomes. The idea is to avoid the old days of warehousing the poor. Jennings also says she now has to pay higher rent and utilities, which she never had to pay before.
Ms. JENNINGS: It's harder for me. I love the unit but I don't like my lifestyle.
FESSLER: But not every former C.J. Peete resident feels the same.
Ms. JOCQUELYN MARSHALL: I love my house. I love my house. I love the landscaping, how it goes up a little on the hill.
FESSLER: Jocquelyn Marshall grew up in the project and says there's no question that Harmony Oaks is a vast improvement.
Ms. MARSHALL: Now, I don't have much in my home at this time. As I said, I want to get everything in here that I want.
FESSLER: She now has a three-bedroom brick house with peach shutters that she shares with her son. Everything is clean and new. There's even a big outdoor pool and exercise room for residents.
But Marshall, who is president of the Harmony Oaks Neighborhood Association, knows that the journey here has left lots of ill feelings and mistrust, that housing officials promised more than they could deliver, that residents were sometimes lied to and left in the dark. But she says at some point people had to decide whether to keep fighting the planned demolition or help to shape what was to follow.
FESSLER: Many individuals, when they were relocated off the site and given vouchers to live in other cities, they start living in better conditions. They didn't want to come back to bad plumbing, they didn't want to come back to the crime.
Mr. DAVID GILMORE (Housing Authority of New Orleans): It was inevitable, let me put it that way.
FESSLER: David Gilmore now runs HANO, the Housing Authority of New Orleans. He says Hurricane Katrina only hastened what was bound to happen sooner or later to the city's aging public housing developments.
Mr. GILMORE: Nobody in his right mind would ever build a C.J. Peete again or any of these developments again in the same manner in which they were built the first time. So, what's the choice, the choice is then to go figure out what makes more sense.
FESSLER: And that, he says, is the mixed-income communities now being built, with less stigma for the poor and more opportunities, like job training and counseling. Gilmore says he understands that people are frustrated -redevelopment takes time - and the housing authority's been hampered by mismanagement and corruption. In fact, Gilmore was brought in this year to turn things around.
Mr. GILMORE: I think folks need to be told the straight scoop right from the outset. Yes, we're going to do this and, no, we're not going to do this. We just can't get it done.
FESSLER: And that starts with telling public housing residents that, no, not every one of them will get to return. That some instead will get vouchers to find housing in New Orleans and elsewhere, which is what many have already done. Gilmore promises that no one who qualifies for aid will be abandoned.
Housing advocates are hopeful, although they do worry about a shortage of affordable units in a city where rents have gone sky high.
For now, Bobbie Jennings says she's going to stick it out at Harmony Oaks.
Ms. JENNINGS: I'm going to try. I'm going to fight until all the fight is gone out of me. But when you can't fight no more, you can't fight no more. You have to give up.
FESSLER: This month, she took a hit when her daughter got a job and her rent went up $160 a month. To help pay for it, Jennings returned the sofa set she was trying to buy on layaway for her new post-Katrina home.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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