Politicians, Protesters Clash Over N.O. Housing Demolition
JACKI LYDEN, host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is off.
Just ahead, more than 4,000 housing projects in New Orleans will be demolished. That's 4,000 housing units. Protesters want to know what the city plans to do about affordable housing. We'll find out how other major cities dealt with this issue, coming up.
But first, last week, protest turned violent in New Orleans after the city council unanimously voted to allow the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development - that's HUD - to tear down four large public housing projects. But police use Mace and Tasers to keep the crowd from forcing its way into the city council building. The viewing room inside the council chambers was packed and several protesters had to be pulled out of the building for disrupting the meeting.
The four projects were heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina. But in the pre-Katrina days, these buildings were in disrepair. The city council and HUD say they're taking the opportunity to get rid of the buildings and put up brand-new mixed-income housing.
Protesters say the problem before the storm was clear; there isn't enough housing in New Orleans in livable condition. And, now, the problem is there isn't housing, period, and tearing down these blocks will only make the situation worse.
We're joined now, from New Orleans, by Malcolm Suber, a longtime activist and organizer in the city. He also ran for an at-large seat on the city council this fall.
Welcome, Malcolm Suber.
Mr. MALCOLM SUBER (Activist): Thank you for inviting me.
LYDEN: We're very pleased to have you with us. We want to point out that we had also planned to have with us New Orleans Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell but she wasn't available this morning at the last minute. So I hope you won't mind if I push you at wee bit more than I would were she here.
Mr. SUBER: There's no problem.
LYDEN: Tell me a little bit about this. I think the news of the protest was widely carried around the nation. Obviously, New Orleans needs more housing. But doesn't it also need much more improved public housing than it had before? And wasn't that the plan with the projects - these four buildings maybe you'd name them for us.
Mr. SUBER: Okay, well, the problem is this: We and the staff of Demolition Coalition have never stated that we were opposed to improving the housing (unintelligible) in New Orleans that's C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, Lafitte and Cooper.
LYDEN: And those are the four buildings each with about 1,000 units.
Mr. SUBER: Four apartment complex. Yes. Each was about 1,000, yeah. It's 4,500 units total. And basically what we - the case that we make is that in a time of extreme housing shortage in New Orleans, it makes no sense to destroy perfectly livable unit when people want to come back home and indeed are prevented from coming back home because of affordable housing. And so if you're taken out 4,500 volumes and this is supposed to be your housing agency, you're not housing people, you're helping with the homeless crisis in the city.
We have 6,000 homeless before, normally, it's more than 12,000 now. We have a situation where the FEMA trailers, people have been put out of the FEMA trailers. The FEMA vouchers are running out and people are going to come back home and they're not going to have any place to stay.
LYDEN: According to the story I've read, Mr. Suber, in the Times-Picayune dated about 10 days ago, there were a number, about several hundred units in these complexes that were ready for use and people weren't moving back into them anyway.
Mr. SUBER: That's the propaganda from HUD. Basically, for them to have 300 units ready does not mean that they are available to the public. Because of HUD regulation, they have to go to the person who last occupied the unit and then the other tenant of that development. So for them to say that 300 units are available as if this is private market and you could just put an ad in the paper and say that these units are ready, is a - is being dishonest to be quite frank with you. They are lying about the availability of an apartment. And we know hundreds of people who would take them readily if they would open them up.
LYDEN: Let's get a little baseline here.
Mr. SUBER: (Unintelligible) Yes, but…
LYDEN: Okay. Let's get a baseline here. How many people were living in these four units - four apartment units before Katrina, these four high-rise complexes?
Mr. SUBER: There were more than 3,700 families so and, you know, we're talking between 12 and 15,000 people and…
LYDEN: Where have they gone?
Mr. SUBER: What did you say?
LYDEN: Where have they gone?
Mr. SUBER: They're scattered all over the country. I mean, you know, they were forced to leave the city of New Orleans (unintelligible) scattered across this country. And, basically, this is part of the gentrification program in New Orleans. The developers in the city have always desired these very centrally located pieces of property for redevelopment as market (unintelligible) household. And the city also rids itself of the black majority so we contend that this whole move is part of the changing of the demographics of the city of New Orleans, trying to restore a white majority city and we still go along with that at all. It's actually (unintelligible) very basic point that we have been arguing before of the recognition of our people as and generally displaced persons with the right to return.
Mr. SUBER: And so, this whole…
LYDEN: Let me just take - argue with your first point there a bit. That charge of the intention of making New Orleans a white majority city or dominated in a different sort of racial configuration that have previously been the case as something that has echoed since Katrina. But I might point out that - and I very, very much wish our councilwoman was with us because she's African-American and voted along with a city council but unanimously voted for the tear down. So how do you explain that if you think this is racially motivated?
Mr. SUBER: I explained this as being that the council people and the mayor are in the pockets of the developers. Developers in the city have always gotten their way. And what city council did to try and have some political color is they instituted some of the things that we were demanding. For instance, they are now demanding that HUD come with the plan and the timeline as to when they're going to redevelop. HUD basically only asked the city for a permit to demolish these apartment and the city administration and city council (unintelligible) even taken a stand.
We have to force them to even consider that they have the responsibility as the legislative body in this city to review this demand. And quite frankly, they had not done that. If we have not forced the issue, it would have never gone before the council. So for them to now claim that they understand the public housing crisis to me is just not right if - a cover for that. And I would say that they are in the hand, all of them, of the developers and they are trying to assist and not allow a lot of the poor black folks who made up the majority of the city come back in New Orleans.
LYDEN: What about mixed-income housing and mixed used housing which has been proposed? There'll be brand-new housing in a couple of years with spots guaranteed for people with low-income backgrounds. What's wrong with that?
Mr. SUBER: Well, first of all, they haven't demonstrated anywhere in the country where (unintelligible) really worked. Basically, what happened is that they get rid of the vast majority of people who were on the public housing loans. We have one here at St. Thomas with only 10 percent of the original resident has returned to their community. And so what we have thought for is one-to-one replacement and a guarantee that people who want to come back home can come back home and it just does not make sense.
Now this does not say that the city should not be concerned about moving people out of public housing, but what we have said over and over again is we live in a city that is based upon a tourist economy. And the public housing is actually a subsidy(ph) to these local capitalist owners because they don't pay people a living wage. They are not able to afford market big housing. And so I don't know where they get the notion that somehow they're going to get people who want to live in community that is being subsidized and does not recognize that difference.
LYDEN: I would just like to point out here for our listeners that in the next segment of our show, we'll be talking about mixed-income housing and where it has and hasn't worked around the country so that we might push back a bit on your contention that mixed-income housing doesn't work. In fact, in New Orleans alone, isn't the River Garden project one that has had some success?
Mr. SUBER: No, that's what I was just telling you. (Unintelligible) at St. Thomas, they got it really bad.
LYDEN: I see, I'm sorry.
Mr. SUBER: But what they did is they promised the people that they were going to allow folks from the St. Thomas to move back into River Garden. And that promise has not come into reality, like I said, only 10 percent of the people. And so what we are talking about is the 82 percent reduction of publicly funded housing that will result in this demolition. And that's…
LYDEN: Okay, and that's what you saying - 82 percent of the total units will be lost. As it is…
Mr. SUBER: Eighty-two percent of the total units that we'll probably get.
LYDEN: Mm-hmm. That's your contention. As it stands now, this vote has been taken by the city council. The federal decision has been made. What will you do as protesters? There have been talk about some people might lie down in front of the bulldozers. Do you think things will go that far?
Mr. SUBER: I think so. I think people are certainly enraged. What we asked for, and the logic of what they did last Thursday would dictate that they, at least, have granted a moratorium so we could have had more discussion in this community about the total impact. And what we had instead was a rush to judgment, and they're going along with the plans of the developers so that we were not able to explain to the people in this city that this is a scheme by (unintelligible) a capitalist to make money off of the suffering of people here in New Orleans.
LYDEN: All right. And we'll have to leave it at that. Thank you very much, Malcolm Suber, for joining us.
Mr. SUBER: Okay. And last thing, I think people can speak…
LYDEN: Malcolm Suber is activist from New Orleans.
Just ahead many of the housing projects are coming down in New Orleans, but it isn't the first city to undergo an urban housing makeover. It's been an ongoing nationwide debate. How do you create mixed-income and affordable housing? We'll have the discussion next on TELL ME MORE.
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