New Orleans' Controversial Public Housing Model Officials in New Orleans plan to demolish four public housing projects -- and build mixed-income developments. It's part of an effort to make sure poverty is not concentrated in a rebuilt New Orleans. But many public housing residents are not pleased.
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New Orleans' Controversial Public Housing Model

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New Orleans' Controversial Public Housing Model

New Orleans' Controversial Public Housing Model

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And now an update on New Orleans' recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The city is planning to demolish four public housing projects that were damaged by the storm and replace them with housing for people of varying incomes. The new homes will be modeled after River Garden, a mixed income community built on the site of a former public housing project in 2004. Officials say developments like River Garden boosts public safety and economic growth. But as reporter Eve Troeh found, low-income residents in New Orleans aren't happy with the city's plans.

EVE TROEH reporting:

The River Garden Apartments were built to look like a historic New Orleans neighborhood, with tropical pastel paints, big shutters on the windows, and lots of decorative ironwork. But the feel of the place is new, more suburban. Buzzing air conditioners provide the only soundtrack on a summer afternoon. That's because most residents are at work. Few people are out on the sidewalks or talking on the porches.

River Garden sits on a 60-acre stretch along the Mississippi River. It used to be the site of the St. Thomas Public Housing Project, a massive cluster of crumbling brick buildings that was a hotbed of crime and a symbol of urban decay. Real estate developer Pres Cabicot(ph) says St. Thomas stunted the growth of an area that should have flourished.

Mr. PRES CABICOT (Real Estate Developer): This particular project had health all around it, had health on the river. The river is a very active place for us in New Orleans. There were a series of old neighborhoods called the Lower Garden District that surrounded it, and we saw that you could integrate the development into the social, physical, and economic fabric of the community.

TROEH: Cabicot's company was awarded a contract to build River Garden under a federal program called Hope VI. It aims to break up large blocks of public housing so that poverty doesn't concentrate in pockets of the city. The old St. Thomas Project at its height had about 1,500 apartments for poor people. River Garden will have only about 400 units reserved for low income families. Charlene Jackson lives in one of the few River Garden apartments reserved for former St. Thomas residents. She moved in last year, a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. Jackson lives with her 10-year-old grandson in a two-bedroom unit.

Ms. CHARLENE JACKSON (River Garden Resident): This is the walk-in closet here. This is the master bedroom here.

TROEH: She's 54 and lives on Social Security, about $600 a month. She likes the pretty building, central air and heat, new carpet and appliances in River Garden. But she is not happy here.

Ms. JACKSON: It's a nice community for who like it, but I don't like it. Just certain things that they (unintelligible) with us about. And I figure that it's mostly the St. Thomas residents. They don't really want us out here.

TROEH: Jackson complains there's no playground for her grandson. She gets letters from management telling her not to leave the kiddy pool in the yard or to take down her Christmas decorations. She says she was even threatened with eviction when her mother got in an argument with a neighbor over parking. Meanwhile, she says her complaints with neighbors do not seemed to be heard.

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I'm having problems with the people that's walking their dogs. They're not picking up they're poop, and I mean I don't want that in front of my door. I don't have a dog.

TROEH: Jackson says she would move out, but there's nowhere to go. When she agreed to live in River Garden, her name was taken off the list for public housing. If she gets kicked out, she will have to find a private apartment, which seems impossible in a post-Katrina housing market.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Good morning, it's Hope House.

TROEH: Hope House is a community center a block away from River Garden. Don Everhard(ph) has worked in the community more than 20 years, helping poor people like Charlene Jackson. He says officials have failed to address the cultural clash inevitable in planned mixed-income communities.

Mr. DON EVERHARD (Hope House): They come in from different backgrounds. They have different ways of living that just - you just don't stop. And my fear is that because market rate people are paying a higher amount, that their sensibilities, their concerns become more important than somebody else.

Mr. SCOTT KELLER (Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development): Everybody has the same rights and the same privileges.

TROEH: Scott Keller is deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which took control of New Orleans public housing more than 10 years ago. He says the goal of the mixed-income approach is actually to minimize differences.

Mr. KELLER: Public housing residents have the same sense of worth and value that everybody else does, and so there should not be a big neon sign that says, hey, this unit is a public housing unit, this unit's not.

TROEH: There is no mention of public housing in River Garden's brochures. Someone wandering into the leasing office would not necessarily know about the site's history or its redevelopment under Hope VI.

Albert Dibbs(ph) is a 24-year-old graduate student from Honduras. He shares a two-bedroom unit and pays a little more than $600 a month in rent. Dibbs says he brought up the St. Thomas Projects when he signed his lease.

Mr. ALBERT DIBBS (River Garden Resident): They assured us that, you know, we weren't going to have any problems and so far, so good, so - there's a lot of cops that live around here, too.

TROEH: That's because after Hurricane Katrina, the city gave away units reserved for former St. Thomas residents to New Orleans police, fire department, and housing authority employees. That helped the city get back up and running, but left poor people feeling like officials expected them to scramble for housing on their own.

Developer Pres Cabicot says it's more important to take time to redevelop the projects than to get former residents home at the expense of recreating old problems.

Mr. KABACOFF : We have a tremendous social opportunity to revitalize our city, and it's not going to be nirvana. Not everyone is going to get perfectly taken care of. That's the reality.

TROEH: For those who've lived for years in public housing, it's a grim reality. Some have filed suit in federal court to block the planned demolition of four major housing projects in the city. They're afraid they won't have a place at all in the new New Orleans. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh, in New Orleans.

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