Wednesday, December 12, 2007

David Vitter, You Ain't Cuz You Not - And Other Thoughts On the Public Housing Debate

Yesterday, I said this:

Politicians will be able to further use the media to make the public housing advocates seem like a danger to ordinary New Orleans citizens. I am sure they are already on the horn with the FBI and DHS to prepare for some sort of attack from an unknown enemy that hates the freedom to have a condo. A politician will say something about these safety precautions in front of a camera, thereby reinforcing the supposed legitimacy of "the threat" and the supposed irrationality of the public housing crowd.

Today, New Orleans City Business says this:

Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, is calling for a federal investigation into fliers that threaten to destroy a condominium for every unit of public housing destroyed in New Orleans.

"I write to request that you aggressively investigate this matter and take all appropriate law enforcement action," Vitter said today in a letter to Jim Letten, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and James Bernazzani, FBI special agent in charge in New Orleans.

This is juuust great. (h/t: Tim the Nameless)

I think it will be awfully hard for the Coalition to Stop the Demolitions to secure any type of negotiating power given the veracity of the public outcry against them. (Thanks largely to media handling of poster-gate) Public officials will feel totally justified in railroading protesters.


As we have discussed this impending public housing demolition, I have noticed an unfortunate rhetorical pattern that I think it is important to address.

Firstly, I will call myself out.

I don't think I have been particularly comprehensive in my descriptions of "the point" of opposing the demolition of public housing. I believe I have been very passionate in trying to push for solidarity with public housing advocates and residents and I still think we must support our neighbors. I described the demolition plans as racist. I am comfortable alluding to the recent collection of housing-related news as a deliberate scheme to permanently banish the African American working poor, or otherwise make further returns impossible. I through my support behind the Coalition to Stop the Demolitions because I believe that there is a crisis here.

And I have followed up by continuing to link to sites that are directly affiliated with the protest mobilization. And cajoling people to be more active. Others have done the same.
It is not unexpected that, during this week of protests and sensationalized threats, media and blog energy has been focused on the public housing demolition debate. That is the top story and it should be.

Unfortunately, however, in attempts to be forceful and passionate, many parties with opinions on public housing have been forced to fit into two diametrically opposed frames:
You are either for demolition or you are against it.

I have tried to temper this by saying caveatted things like "You must oppose immediate demolition," or "You must be against this demolition until the housing crisis is mitigated."
But I think given the events of the past ten days, the passion, and polarization, my attempts at being "inclusive" via wordplay have been half-assed or otherwise ineffective due to short-sightedness.

Certainly the protests this week are about more than public housing demolition. The issue is so much more complicated than that.

I, myself, have proven that I have complicated feelings on public housing issues. Earlier this fall, I moved to defend River Garden and other mixed-income communities in Philadelphia and criticized the four projects targeted for demolition from a design perspective.

Yet I think others have also been guilty of short-sightedness in regards to this week's public housing debate. I've sensed that people out there are reluctant to take a stand against demolition because they have long supported the demolition of these public housing units. There is a sense that staving off demolition this week represents an endorsement of returning to the pre-Katrina public housing situation, an endorsement of crime-ridden encampments of social and economic isolation. For example, Pistolette (a favorite of mine, sorry to use ya as an example) is "against the rebuilding of those 'concentration camps' known as public housing."

"I simply saw them as a humanitarian disasters based on 'positive' racism - a social disaster perpetuated by the 'well-meaning'... ...We need to socially integrate our low-income residents, not corrall and isolate them from the rest of society so we can forget about them."

Now I agree with that!

But there's a big but. Actually there are few of them.

If you listen to what these public housing advocates are saying, they're not actually demanding a permanent return to the isolated and neglected public housing lifestyle of the past.
There isn't even a whole lot of blistering rhetoric against River Garden or the idea of mixed-income communities. The issue is that even the most rosy projections of HANO and developers indicate that new units will not be livable until 2010. (and of course there won't be any delays or anything in New Orleans)

Housing is an issue that demands immediate attention:

From the December 2nd NY Times: New Orleans rental crisis.
From the November 29th Times-Pic: FEMA to evict trailer residents.
From the November 12th MSNBC: 12,000 homeless in New Orleans.

The stop the demolition movement seems to be much more about forcing government to somehow address the housing crisis BEFORE going ahead with demolition plans, given that many argue these projects could be viable short-term emergency housing options.

There is no reason there can't be compromise on this issue. Why not increase aid vouchers to give people a better chance of finding market apartments? Why not quickly remodel one or two of the project complexes and while taking down the others? Why not force developers and HANO to have a redevelopment contract in place before beginning demolition so that we can guarantee that these land tracts will not sit empty (like Magnolia)? Why not begin a program in which salvageable homes slated for demolition are distributed to working families so that our city is not dismantled into empty lots? I mean have you read what Karen Gadbois has been saying?

This is NOT a debate about whether or not do demolish these projects. This is about a humanitarian housing crisis. This is about a demolition blight crisis. This is about a developers and politicians having do it together crisis. This is about addressing the needs of the people living here.

This is why it is important to support the Coalition to Stop the Demolitions. They are trying to force municipal government to address these things. They are trying to force Ray Nagin, City Council, the US Senate, HUD, and HANO to come up with a plan more sustainable than the current agenda of knocking down the buildings without redevelopment plans in place.

Please, please consider becoming more vocal about the problematic nature of this demolition process. Pay no attention to the man behind the poster. Do not be distracted by the bullshit.
You can go here for a list of elected officials to contact and other news about this week's mobilization agenda.

See Ray's letter here.

Here's another place for mobilization news.

Update: I hit publish and saw that two minutes ago Karen Gadbois emailed to say that crews have begun demolitions on C.J. Peete ahead of schedule. Makes me sick!

Update 2: Make that B.W. Cooper


Leigh C. said...

Daaaamn right!

Nightprowlkitty said...

Great post. Have already quoted from this over at Daily Kos.


Pistolette said...

"There is a sense that staving off demolition this week represents an endorsement of returning to the pre-Katrina public housing situation, an endorsement of crime-ridden encampments of social and economic isolation."

Yes, I think this is why the majority of Nola citizens want them taken down. Especially since the former residents (most of who are not even in the city) are being given preference over the low-income folks who ARE here and really need a place to live NOW. As I've said, nepotism doesn't belong in public housing.

But besides that I think it's simply time to start a new era. Those buildings carry so much political and social baggage, and the new mixed income places offer a new hope in many ways. Sure, it will take a while to get the ball rolling, but that is one of the unfortunate and expected side effects of depending on the government for anything. Five years from now, I'm sure everyone (from the residents of public housing to the tax payers who paid for it) will see what a better, more positive choice it was.

You can pick on me anytime hon, I've got thick skin ;-)