New Orleans to Bulldoze Public Housing The housing authority begins a major demolition of public housing complexes this weekend. Most of the sites are empty, but one still has people living in it. The displaced residents are skeptical of the plan.
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New Orleans to Bulldoze Public Housing

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New Orleans to Bulldoze Public Housing

New Orleans to Bulldoze Public Housing

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Tomorrow in New Orleans the Housing Authority known as HANO begins tearing down its public housing complexes in earnest. The plan is to make way for new mixed-income buildings. Most of the old buildings are unoccupied because they were so badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina. But one still has people living in it and they don't want to move.

Eve Abrams reports from New Orleans.

EVE ABRAMS: From the rocking chair on his front porch, Sam Jackson can see this Superdome. He and his family had lived in New Orleans BW Cooper public housing complex for 15 years.

From the back window of this brick and mortar building, Sam safely watched the hurricane rage through town. The day after the storm, Sam, a self-described workaholic, drove off to his job at an industrial cable company. But when the city started filling up with water, he knew it was time to go.

Mr. SAM JACKSON: I said, look, we have to leave because, actually, what I've seen this morning over at the job and come back and seen back of town, and seen up front of town, I said this place is about to fill up with water. We didn't get nothing. We just left, got our important papers and stuff like that, and we just dropped everything and locked the house up, and we left.

ABRAMS: Sam and his family fled to Baton Rouge, where they lived in shelters and hotels. Every day for four months Sam took a FEMA bus to and from New Orleans so he could work. Then, FEMA gave him and his family a trailer, and they moved back to New Orleans. Sam returned to BW Cooper to clean up his apartment.

Mr. JACKSON: We didn't no flood water, nothing. Walked back here, we didn't get no water. Only certain parts of these houses, they got water. HANO posted letters on the doors: do not return. Then they started putting up violation, if you're trespassing you're going to jail. So I didn't pay it no attention.

ABRAMS: Two weeks later, HANO put up fences around the buildings.

Mr. JACKSON: A matter of fact, some of them still up. See right there?

ABRAMS: Sam points to the tall chain-link fences and says that the city is using Katrina as an excuse to get rid of BW Cooper and three other public housing complexes.

Mr. JERRY BROWN (Department of Housing and Urban Development): Demolishing and renovating the public housing here is about improving it.

ABRAMS: Jerry Brown is with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. He says this demolition plan was in placed prior to Katrina.

Mr. BROWN: The houses here are 60 and 70 years old. What we're doing is we want to rebuild public housing not only for the people that will reside there, but for the people that are going to reside there in the future.

ABRAMS: Several years ago, HUD took over the city's public housing due to mismanagement. So Brown spends quite a bit of time in New Orleans.

Prior to Katrina, the city had 5,000 public housing units.

Mr. BROWN: Of those 5,000 units, none of them were passing the basic HUD inspection standards.

ABRAMS: Brown says the Housing Authority can do a better job. But, he says...

Mr. BROWN: People are resistant to change, and I think the folks that live there have - a lot of them have lived there for extended period of time and they had a lot of good memories there, and it's home.

ABRAMS: Brown admits there's a lack of trust, given the way the government handled Katrina.

(Soundbite of protestors)

Unidentified Group: Stop the demolition now.

ABRAMS: In the build up to the demolition, public housing residents, including Sam Jackson, marched on Mayor Ray Nagin's house.

Unidentified Man: Ray Nagin, we come. Here we come. Here we come, no demolition.

ABRAMS: It's just three blocks from one of the shuttered housing complexes to Mayor Nagin's house. Once there, protestors emptied a box of coal onto Nagin's front sidewalk and made speeches demanding his help to save their homes.

Improving communities is what developer John Davies says his company is doing. He's the CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, one of the developing companies rebuilding public housing.

Mr. JOHN DAVIES (Baton Rouge Area Foundation): (Unintelligible) really is where you get people from across the economic spectrum living in a harmonious way and learning and admiring each other for the gifts that each brings to that community.

ABRAMS: If these new developments are successful, Davies says mixed-income communities could be a model for the future.

On Wednesday of this week, heavy machinery moved into the BW Cooper complex a few blocks from Sam Jackson's home. He's not there during the day to hear the nearby pummeling of buildings. Sam's either at work or attending meetings to help to stop the bulldozers from reaching his front porch.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Abrams in New Orleans.

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