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(Soundbite of demonstrators)

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In New Orleans this weekend, public housing residents staged a protest march down one of the city's wealthiest avenues. Many of the participants had returned to New Orleans for the demonstration. They'd been living in other cities since fleeing their homes, following Hurricane Katrina last year.

They waited nine months to find out whether or when they could return home permanently, and their long wait is over. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced this past week that it will demolish four of the city's 10 largest public housing projects and will give thousands of residents rent vouchers, which leaves them scrambling for new places to live.

NPR's Anne Hawke reports.

ANNE HAWKE reporting:

The day after HUD made its announcement, Ndeija Jukali(ph) sat on a folding chair on the sidewalk across from the St. Bernard homes. In a circle, with a dozen other organizers and public housing residents, he talked of rallying the troops against the demolition of projects like this one.

Mr. NDEIJA JUKALI (New Orleans Resident): Yesterday it was, we're going to tear them down. Today, when they were challenged by a few people, it became a proposal. When we get a lot of people, it's gonna just be an idea. And when we get a lot, a lot of people, it's gonna be a bad idea. Oh, we just had a bad idea...

HAWKE: HUD will raze several existing housing projects it says are storm damaged beyond repair. It will replace them over the next few years with mixed income housing and give displaced residents rental vouchers until new homes are built. With public housing tenants scattered around the country, the movement to oppose HUD consists of a small core of people who've made it back to the city to organize.

Ms. ELAINE GIBSON(ph) (Displaced New Orleans Resident): I grew up right in there, in St. Bernard.

HAWKE: Elaine Gibson is in tears. She looks at the old brick, St. Bernard complex across the street. It's her home of 45 years, fenced off and shuttered to the public. As with other housing residents, the news from HUD leaves Gibson skeptical, angry and just plain sad.

Ms. GIBSON: It hurts. That hurts. It's just like you're forcing me to live somewhere else now. If you're gonna tear this down, somewhere I was born and raised in, now you gonna tear it down and you forcing me to live somewhere I don't know nothing about: Houston, Texas.

HAWKE: The only thing that gets Gibson to laugh is the suggestion that she'll have a rental voucher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIBSON: And where I'm a use it at? Where I'm a use it at? You know somewhere?

HAWKE: At least 3,000 former public housing families now face the decision of whether to rent housing in cities where they've resettled or come back to New Orleans to rent. HUD is raising the value of rental vouchers from about 700 to $1,100 a month.

And HUD's Deputy Chief of Staff Scott Keller says that will allow public housing residents to compete in New Orleans' unprecedented, tight housing market.

Mr. SCOTT KELLER (Deputy Chief of Staff, HUD, New Orleans): We're paying their rent. And we're going to continue to pay their rent until they're able to come home. And we want them to be able to compete on the same footing with anybody else who comes in that community. And in the long run, we want them to have participation in the redevelopment that is occurring across New Orleans.

Ms. LAURA TUGGLE (Housing Attorney): Paying more rent may help a little bit, but the fact of the matter is, there's just not enough rental housing. So we need HUD to recognize that the redevelopment policies that they usually use for public housing just don't work here right now.

HAWKE: Even in the best of times, says housing Attorney Laura Tuggle, HUD redevelopment puts the squeeze on public housing residents, reducing the number of public units when properties are converted to mixed income homes. She says HUD is using the Hurricane Katrina evacuation as a chance to clean house, leaving residents to fend for themselves.

HUD's Scott Keller doesn't dispute that the hurricane made New Orleans ripe for change, but he says existing housing projects were crime ridden and in disrepair. And even if HUD reopened them, the neighborhoods are simply not livable now.

Mr. KELLER: When you look around these facilities, you see nothing but devastation. When you go to St. Bernard, you can't even go get lunch because there's nothing around there. You look around, you see the Shell station closed up. All of the areas of commerce, everything that supports a community, is closed.

HAWKE: Public housing opponents will likely challenge HUD's decision in court. And HUD is making plans for a series of town meetings to reach a meeting of the minds with residents and the city on redevelopment.

Anne Hawke, NPR News, New Orleans.

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