Monday, February 11, 2008

Salt in My Old Wounds

Over the weekend, the Times-Picayune ran a couple of pieces related to the public housing demolition debate that occurred around Christmas time.

You might remember that debate. Let's recap as quickly as possible:

The city of New Orleans had an acute affordable housing crisis that contributed to a homeless population of around 12,000 people.

Plans by the Federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans to demolish four major public housing complexes were being fast-tracked without a transparent process for evaluating alternative plans that might both alleviate our housing crisis and provide a long-term public housing solution addressing economic and cultural isolation.

Instead, HUD, HANO, and the pro-"development" faction of City Council pushed through the demolition permits in spite of the objections of concerned citizens from many divergent interest groups as well as national leaders.

The local mainstream media went to extremes to discredit the most visible public housing advocates. Their poorly thought-out tactical strategies and their inability to forge diverse coalitions only played into the hands of the powerful forces happily awaiting scapegoats to divert attention from those hoping to have a rational debate about the efficacy of the demolition plans and the "redevelopment" contracts.

So the demolition permits were issued and some sites are currently in the process of being dismantled. In the mean time, the mixed-income community at River Garden, which was consistently pointed to as the success model by the pro-demolition crowd, has been determined to be a failure.

After building half of the homes they promised, the developers of the River Garden community have determined that the venture is just not profitable. But that information did not surface until after Council had hammered home the demolition permits in a "public" meeting that turned extremely contentious when citizens were left outside of the proceedings. The ensuing clashes between citizens and police embarrassed the city, as it was covered on national and international TV in a language more sympathetic to the protesters than any of the local outlets had the courage to muster.

As a result, the city of New Orleans coalesced against its most disadvantaged neighbors to the delight of the powerful pro-demolition interests. The taxpayers of this city were duped into giving public land and public tax dollars to private companies so that those private companies could build homes for rich people and sell them for their own profit. Meanwhile, the affordable housing crisis still remains one of the city's most pressing recovery issues.

So that's around where things stood last time I really addressed the debate when it was disclosed that River Garden was not the success it was claimed to be. That was in early January.

The world turns and your new word-a-day desk calender has marginally expanded your vocabulary.

Over the weekend, the Times-Picayune revealed that some housing advocates were in big trouble for wielding a "fake bomb" of some kind. I don't even really want to talk about this because I think this story, as were most of the housing debate stories coming from T-P writer Gwen Filosa, is a distraction from substantive issues. I will say that I think the charges sound pretty groundless. I also think it is ironic that the police were so suspicious of a "bomb" carried by a protester at a public housing site when the sensationalist worry of the day was that housing activists would be destroying the city's high-end condominiums. (None of which are anywhere near B.W. Cooper.)

Today, there was another story related to the bygone public housing demolition debate. It was a column by Lolis Eric Elie. The column addresses the concerns that many have expressed about the "redevelopment" contracts doled out by HUD and HANO. Mr. Elie deftly contrasts the reactionary characterizations of projects as cesspools of crime to the unfortunate quiet when it came to questioning the white collar criminals behind the demolition and redevelopment plans. The new information he provides comes from an article in the National Journal that alleges ties between the wife of HUD chief Alfonso Jackson and several firms awarded HANO contracts. I applaud Mr. Elie for writing about this and keeping attention on the public housing screw job in spite of an unsympathetic employer and the seemingly expired mainstream news cycle on the subject.

But when I read the article, my first emotion was anger. Not anger at HUD and HANO and our City Council, because I already had that, but anger at the T-P and Mr. Elie.

Where the hell have you been?

You're two months too late. While the latest allegations against the ethics of HANO and Alfonso Jackson are both disappointing and newsworthy, it is not as if we had any reason to believe these folks were clean prior to this new story. It is not as if we weren't suspicious before and it is not as if we didn't already have concrete corruption allegations.

Now you have concerns over the efficacy of the "redevelopment" plans? Now you're worried about unfair influence in the awarding of the demolition and redevelopment contracts? Now you think the deals were shady?

Where the hell have you been?

The sun continues to rise and set and the your new Far Side desk calender reveals daily chuckle-worthy pictorials.

Given that the city didn't take the opportunity to address the housing crisis during the demolition debate, it has been hard at work "resettling" the homelessness problem as far away from television cameras as possible. Having a tent colony of three hundred homeless people across the street from City Hall was much too embarrassing, so Duncan Plaza was roped off and the people were swept literally under the highway. That occurred in the midst of the demolition debate in December.

This week the city has realized that the tent colony at Claiborne and Canal was actually more embarrassing than the one that had previously existed at City Hall. Turns out, more people see what goes on under the overpass than what goes on at City Hall. Oops.

The Mayor won't stand for it. So he's again relocating the homeless to one giant tent shelter behind the New Orleans mission on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. (Without informing City Council or advocates for the homeless. Also there are no social workers on staff at the mission, but the city is going to send the fire marshal over.)

Nagin alluded to a plan for the homeless last week during an appearance on WWL-TV. He said he had recently seen a man in the encampment on Claiborne Avenue beneath Interstate 10 "drinking beer and just flipping the bird to citizens."

God bless T-P writer Katy Reckdahl for following up on that allegation specifically.

People at the Claiborne encampment recalled seeing the mayor's sport utility vehicle pass. Referring to the mayor's comments about an obscene gesture, Brown said, "That man, he was flipping off the mayor . . . because we're out here and he's doing nothing for us."

So the Mayor gets flipped off and he accuses the homeless of random, wanton acts of telling passing citizens to expletive themselves. How adorable that he still considers himself a citizen. Most say he lives in Dallas. Some say Jamaica. We all know he doesn't vote here.

The Mayor's plan doesn't end with a hastily thrown-together plan to quarantine the homeless on O.C. Haley Blvd. He also plans to throw the non-compliers in jail.

Makes sense to me, Mayor Nagin can't have these homeless people creating some weird perception that his administration has been incapable of addressing the same basic social service crises that have demanded attention since his reelection. Because nobody would be thinking that if there weren't any homeless people creating that false perception.

Great job everybody!

Mr. Nagin's long term solution for homelessness? Mayoral term limits.

The tide comes in and goes out and your new countdown to George Bush's last day in office desk calender is getting thinner and thinner.

Meanwhile, the city of New Orleans continues to make more people homeless, demolishing private homes that citizens have been in the process of rebuilding. Talk to Karen Gadbois.

Many in the city are starting to realize what's going on with the demolition committee thanks to the hard work of Karen and others. We need to make sure all demolitions are halted until the process is cleaned up. Not one more viable property should bight the dust in the midst of a housing crisis. Not one more New Orleanian should come home to see that the home they've been rebuilding has been demolished by a city so backward that it demolishes its own citizens' homes. Can you imagine? Doesn't matter if you can or not, because it's real.

For more on the history of the public housing debate, click the public housing tag...


Maitri said...

"The taxpayers of this city were duped into giving public land and public tax dollars to private companies so that those private companies could build homes for rich people and sell them for their own profit."

Where are these rich-people homes exactly?

I'm more concerned about the Empty Lotting of New Orleans, when the developers realize few here can afford $300K condos. It's already happening.

Leigh C. said...

Elie is quite late to the housing hoo-hah. And, as I read more about what good city planning oughta be compared to what it is now, I can't help but think that the one thing actually working in New Orleans' favor is that there ain't much land with which to place the average suburban sprawl. The downside with all the demolitions is that all that empty land will prove to be fresh meat for those (un)planners. I think we're gonna beg for folks like Andres Duany to come back before all is said and done.

E said...

maitri -

the rich people would be those getting the market rate homes in these developments - market rate homes that replace houses for low income tenants... rich might be too much. let's call them upper middle class. that is toward who the market rate properties are marketed.

i think this is asinine given that this city seems to have a glut of high-end housing built that has not sold well since the storm.

Brian said...

Great post. Very frustrated.