DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're remembering back to a decade ago this month and Hurricane Katrina. Amid all the loss of life and catastrophic damage in New Orleans, some saw opportunity. The government was able to speed up existing plans to tear down old public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments. The goal - to break up concentrations of poverty and give lower-income residents a better place to live. That was the goal. NPR's Pam Fessler reports on whether it was achieved.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Among the many insults suffered by New Orleans' poorest families was news shortly after Katrina that their public housing units would be knocked down, even those undamaged by the storm. Angry residents sued, protested, even confronted top housing officials at a hearing in Washington, D.C.
BOBBIE JENNINGS: Well, why can't we go back home? They say they going to do this and do that and don't do nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We want you to go back - we want you to go back home to another unit, to a better unit.
FESSLER: And for the most part, the government prevailed. Today, the projects, known as the bricks, are gone, replaced with rows of pastel-colored cottages and garden apartments, many with balconies and porches. There are pools, playgrounds, community centers with job placement services and activities for residents.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Under the O, 71.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Bingo.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There you go.
FESSLER: But while 5,000 families lived in public housing at the time of Katrina, today, there are only 1,900. Other poor families have relocated to places like Houston and Atlanta, or moved elsewhere within New Orleans.
EMELDA PAUL: We were like confetti, just snatched out of our comfort zone, and just thrown, scattered wherever we fell. That was it.
FESSLER: Eighty-one-year-old Emelda Paul evacuated to Arizona and was upset to learn while she was gone that the Lafitte public housing project that had been her home for decades was sealed up and slated for demolition. But after years of working with redevelopers on the new site, she's back and very happy.
PAUL: It's like in another world. It's like "Alice In Wonderland." I just love it, period.
FESSLER: Paul shows me around her spacious one-bedroom apartment at what's now called Faubourg Lafitte. All the projects have fancy, new names like Harmony Oaks and Columbia Parc. Her unit has wide closets, wood floors, an up-to-date kitchen.
PAUL: The old one wasn't this big. No, you had to buy your own appliances. Yes, I bought my own washer, dryer, my stove. Yeah. No, we didn't have this.
FESSLER: But other former residents aren't so pleased. That woman you heard earlier asking government officials, why can't we go back home? That's Bobbie Jennings, who now lives in a two-story townhouse at Harmony Oaks, the site of the former C.J. Peete housing project. Sure, she says, it's prettier and safer.
JENNINGS: You don't hear all the gunshots you used to hear. You don't see all the drugs you used to see.
FESSLER: But it's not home.
JENNINGS: It's hard to explain. There's something missing, and you miss it every day. You miss your neighbors for one. Like, we used to sit on the steps and conversate with our neighbors, and it's not like that anymore.
FESSLER: Jennings says there are so many new rules. She can't plant a vegetable garden out front like she used to or use a hose to spray off the kids on a hot summer day. No big barbecues with music, everyone hanging out, talking.
JENNINGS: We can have a party, but it's more like a secret. You have a secret party. That's not fun.
FESSLER: And while some residents say they do like the new rules - it makes it a nicer place to live - others complain about the loss of community and sky-high utility bills that residents pay along with a third of their income on rent. And even though every resident at the time of Katrina was told they could return, it didn't always work that way.
LAURA TUGGLE: Some folks weren't able to or either felt they weren't able to go back home to public housing.
FESSLER: Laura Tuggle runs Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which helps low-income clients. She says some couldn't pass tougher criminal background and credit checks at the new developments or lacked the money they needed to move back. But Tuggle says more often than not, those who didn't return did so by choice. Most were given housing vouchers to subsidize the rents elsewhere and liked that flexibility.
TUGGLE: If you go back to a public housing unit in a redeveloped site, you got to give up your voucher. And a lot of folks just - they liked the vouchers.
FESSLER: And while public housing units have become more scarce, the number of vouchers in the city has doubled, more than making up the difference. Gregg Fortner has run the Housing Authority of New Orleans for the past year. He says the city has tried, but it's been unable to fill all the new public housing slots with those evacuated after the storm.
GREGG FORTNER: I have not heard since I've been here that anyone who wanted to go back to one of those communities was not allowed to go back.
FESSLER: He says instead, the city faces a different problem. Since Katrina, rents here have soared, which means a whole new wave of people who need help. The waiting list for subsidized housing has 16,000 families on it. And that list has been closed for several years.
FORTNER: So if we open that waitlist today, we may have 50,000 households apply.
FESSLER: Which is putting pressure on developers to finish fixing up the old public housing sites, which in some cases are years behind schedule.
MICHELLE WHETTEN: Just a couple blocks away here, you can see our current phase of construction, which is a hundred units of senior housing.
FESSLER: Michelle Whetten is with Enterprise Community Partners, the nonprofit co-developer of Faubourg Lafitte. Whetten says they're a couple of years behind largely because the recession dried up private funding needed for the projects. She says it could still be years away, but they're committed to replacing all 900 affordable housing units along with 600 market-rate apartments.
WHETTEN: We actually have affordable units at this end of the site and at the far end. And the market-rate units are kind of in between, so they're not totally set apart from the affordable units.
FESSLER: Which is part of the goal of mixing poor families with those who are better off, maybe providing role models for kids. So far, a few police officers, security guards and offshore oil workers have moved in. Emelda Paul thinks it's great.
What's so great about it?
PAUL: Coming together and stop segregating ourself. Let's learn about each other - each other's culture. And since some of the people move in, I've seen them and I let them know who I am. I says, and welcome to the neighborhood.
FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.