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New Orleans tussles over public housing

City intends to knock down damaged projects. But the former tenants intend to return, and some already have.

January 23, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — To some, the four sprawling three-story brick complexes may not look like real estate worth fighting over.

But with inhabitable housing of any kind at a premium here, the fate of New Orleans' four largest public housing complexes -- St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte -- is at the center of another battle in the city's turbulent efforts to reshape its future.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans have approved plans to demolish these complexes, landmarks in their neighborhoods, and replace them with lower-density apartment clusters for mixed-income residents.

Their decision has brought relentless opposition from former tenants who insist they want to restore their lives in their old homes.

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Residents storm gates

Last week, residents ignored "No Trespassing" signs and stormed through unlocked gates and torn barbed-wire fences into the St. Bernard complex to clean their units.

But Monday, lawyers for the city's public housing agency filed illegal-entry and property-damage claims against those trying to halt the public housing demolition. They are seeking a court order to bar entry into any of the projects without the agency's approval.

Housing officials argue that the apartments are too badly damaged to repair. They insist that redevelopment would improve tenants' lives by eliminating crime-infested dens of concentrated poverty.

"People deserve better than this," said Jereon "Jerry" Brown, a Washington-based spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as he showed reporters flood-damaged and ransacked units at Lafitte last month. "If they could just be patient. A mixed-income neighborhood can better attract businesses and better schools. It's all tied together."

"It's not just about bricks and mortar," said C. Donald Babers, the New Orleans housing authority's federally appointed administrator, who accompanied Brown. "We're looking at quality of life for our families."

Dressed in a tailored suit and a hat, and wearing a diamond-studded gold ring on each hand, Babers did not enter the mold-crusted apartments, citing respiratory concerns.

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'It's definitely about race'

But advocates for public housing -- where about 5,100 people lived before Katrina, and where some 1,200 have since returned -- insist that the complexes were safe during past hurricanes because they were solidly built of steel, concrete and brick. Many apartments escaped flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

The advocates also argue that tearing them down prevents a key segment of the city's workforce from returning, and excludes thousands from the city's rebuilding process.

Nearly all the families who lived in New Orleans public housing were African Americans on low incomes.

"It's definitely about race and class," said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights and racial justice group that is also representing tenants in a class-action lawsuit seeking to restore them to their apartments. "If you look at what happened after Hurricane Katrina, the people who were residents of public housing were the people who were left behind at the Superdome and Convention Center, and now they are the same people who are being locked out."

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'It's affordable housing'

For former Lafitte tenant Jeffrey Hills, 31, a tuba and sousaphone player, the desire to return to the projects is simple.

"It's affordable housing," said Hills, who used to pay $400 a month rent, which included utilities, for a two-bedroom apartment with a balcony and parquet floors. "I'm a young man with three kids. I can't afford to pay $1,500 in rent."

The sense of place, community ties and social networks are also what former tenants say they miss most.

"Every single person still displaced is constantly reevaluating wishes to come home with the unfolding reality they are not welcome at this point," said William P. Quigley, another attorney for the plaintiffs.

But Babers said tenants were swayed by nostalgia and had been isolated in such communities for so long that they were unable to consider alternative, viable living arrangements.

"It's a 1940s mind-set," said Babers, a reference to when many of the projects were built. "Change is difficult for people. They're afraid of the unknown."

Brown, his colleague, recalled how plans for demolishing and rebuilding public housing in other cities, such as Chicago and Atlanta, had met similar resistance.

But once tenants moved into new, modern units in mixed-income neighborhoods with easy access to shops and schools, the opposition quickly waned, Brown said.

Jacquelyn Marshall, 36, a former resident of C.J. Peete, said tenants' reluctance to forsake their old units stemmed from distrust that the authorities would do right by them.

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