The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

City in Exile

New Orleansâ€TM Displaced Struggle for Housing, Jobs, Neighborhoods

Part Three

by Michelle Chen

Under the looming threat of a “re-envisioned” city that could reflect the whiter, wealthier designs of developers and planners, New Orleanians struggle to meet housing needs and eventually return home.

This is the third in a series of articles by staff reporter Michelle Chen examining the challenges and tensions in the rebuilding of New Orleans. Part One of this series, "Katrina’s Displaced Move to Defend New Orleans from Elite Visionaries," ran on October 7. Part Two, "Safety Places a Distant Second in Race to Repopulate New Orleans," ran on October 14.

Oct. 21, 2005 – The letter from the landlord stated in bold type, "YOU ARE NOT BEING EVICTED." But to Charlestine Jones, a lifelong New Orleanian who had just survived a month of exile in Mississippi, the all-too-familiar sting of forced displacement seemed to be bearing down on her once again.

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The management of Forest Park Apartments in the Algiers district told all tenants to vacate their apartments by October 17, until repairs for hurricane damage were completed. But Jones and dozens of other tenants, unnerved by the thought of being forced out for the second time in seven weeks, insisted that their apartments were not severely damaged.

October 17 came and went, but Jones stayed put, unable to find other living arrangements and unsure whether the evacuation would end up being permanent. "This is the only place I have to be," she said.

Jones is not the only one looking for housing. For nearly two months, refugees of Hurricane Katrina have been warehoused in shelters, checked into hotel rooms, planted in trailer parks, and occasionally, resettled in homes -- but inside and outside of the city, hundreds of thousands remain uprooted.

Locked Out

Local activists say that while comprehensive plans for temporary and permanent housing have yet to materialize in Katrina’s wake, the city’s existing affordable housing seems to be collapsing.

The advocacy group National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that over 140,000 units in the city were destroyed, the majority of them considered affordable for low-income families.

The wave of homelessness set off by Hurricane Katrina has rippled throughout the country.

After the storm, the Housing Authority of New Orleans shut down its public-housing operations "due to security and safety concerns" and relocated its offices to Texas. The agency has informed the landlords of people assisted by federal rent vouchers that government rent subsidies for impacted units have been suspended indefinitely.

Currently, an executive order by the governor temporarily bars formal evictions in the hurricane-impacted areas, but landlords have protested the stricture, arguing that many displaced tenants have "abandoned" their apartments, and they should be free to rent the units out to new tenants or begin renovations.

Residents are concerned that at affordable housing developments like Forest Park, landlords are circumventing the governor’s decree by using "orders to vacate" and other indirect schemes to displace low-income residents.

Forest Park tenants have secured a small victory, however. They negotiated an agreement with the management company that current residents would be offered first priority in reclaiming the apartments after repairs and that the terms of their leases would not change.

Tom Vacarro, a spokesperson for the NHP Foundation, the nonprofit company that manages Forest Park, said that given the uncertainty of the situation and the severity of the damage, the company does not know how long the repairs will take, and it plans to notify residents once it is possible to return.

Many New Orleanians see trailers as the fastest means of reestablishing themselves in their communities.

In the meantime, the company offered Jones a place at one of its other properties in Houston, but she read the offer as an attempt to "satisfy me on the quick and get me to leave."

Like other Katrina survivors scattered across the country, Jones feels forces beyond her control pulling her away from home, but is nonetheless determined to hold onto her city any way she can. "You can’t take your roots from no one, you know what I’m saying?" she said. "They’ll never be able to take New Orleans out of me."

A Homeless City

The wave of homelessness set off by Hurricane Katrina has rippled throughout the country. As of Wednesday, according to federal government, roughly 200,000 survivors were living in hotels in various states. In addition, thousands are precariously housed in shelters, while countless others reside with friends or relatives.

Often constrained by limited federal cash assistance and few social-support resources, some Katrina survivors struggle to secure jobs and housing in their new locations, others refuse to settle anywhere except their old neighborhoods, and some just want to return before their properties are written off as abandoned. The question of how long this limbo will persist and whether temporary displacement will become permanent relocation hovers over the city and its diaspora.

Affordable-housing advocates are bracing for a new blow to an already overburdened system. "If there were actually affordable housing resources to deal with the needs of people who were homeless prior to the hurricane, you might think there were resources to deal with people made homeless by the hurricane," said Carla Javits, president of the anti-homelessness organization Corporation for Supportive Housing. "But given that that’s not the case… there’s likely to be a big gap."

“It’s very, very important that we not rebuild New Orleans on the backs of the families who are displaced.” -- Jeff Lubell.

The Bush administration’s current emergency housing plan is jointly administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Both components have been criticized for failing to meet the survival needs of displaced residents.

FEMA offers direct disaster relief stipends to pay for housing assistance, amounting to about $800 per month, beginning with a three-month lump-sum grant.

According to an analysis by the progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, FEMA’s official policy provides funding for up to eighteen months, but it has not issued guidelines for the extension of funding beyond the initial cash grant.

Barbara Sard, a housing-policy expert with the Center, told the NewStandard even those who receive assistance "may not be able to use it, because they don’t know where they want to live, they can’t negotiate the rental market in a strange place, or the assistance is not sufficient in amount."

Earlier this month, ACORN members in Houston protested to local relief authorities that the assistance program was inadequate to cover basic needs as dislocated families struggled to find housing and jobs on their own. Through negotiations with FEMA officials, ACORN secured enhancements to the program to help survivors transition, such as better transportation services, translated informational materials and additional aid for survivors of Hurricane Rita.

Past recipients of federal housing assistance and people who can prove they were homeless prior to the hurricane are eligible for the Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which offers vouchers worth about $800 monthly for up to a year and a half, to be used for renting a home in a new location. In theory, people may be able to move back to New Orleans and resume their original federal benefits if "there is housing available in the home area to which the family may return."

Critics say the program is inadequate for survivors who have been displaced to areas with a low supply of affordable housing or tight job markets. The voucher cannot be transferred after the recipient settles in a certain location, curtailing options for finding new work or housing elsewhere. Unlike the regular federal housing voucher system, the program does not cover utilities, which low-income housing advocates say could severely limit rental options.

Moreover, local housing authorities may lack the resources to address both local demand and the influx of Katrina survivors. Housing advocates in Texas and California have reported that Katrina survivors are being piled on to heavy backlogs of locals waiting for housing slots to open up.

But Mark Muro, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the centrist Brookings Institution, said that when done right, a voucher system could be "a very flexible, dignified and powerful tool" to help people resettle. For displaced families struggling to meet basic needs, he said, "if you don’t have vouchers, all of that kind of condemns folks to just live hand-to-mouth where they are, build a new life where they are."

For people unable to secure existing housing, or who prefer to remain as close to home as possible, the federal government has commissioned over 120,000 mobile homes, with plans to deploy them in open spaces like public parks and on people’s properties while their homes are rebuilt. More than 6,500 trailers have been occupied as of last week, but according to FEMA, the agency has been unable to find adequate sites for an estimated 9,000 trailers.

Many New Orleanians see trailers as the fastest means of reestablishing themselves in their communities.

Tanya Harris, an activist with the New Orleans chapter of the low-income advocacy group ACORN, said that residents "want to be over there with their property as it’s being rebuilt. And if we’re going to have jobs there, people need to have houses.… We want to have those trailers."

Mike Howells, an organizer with the local human rights group C3, said that New Orleans has plenty of vacant lots and parks where trailers could be safely deployed, to enable people to get back on their feet in their home territory. "The gentrifiers are not going to be happy about that," he said, referring to what some view as a broad attempt to cleanse the city of its poorest inhabitants. "But we’re talking about addressing human needs."

But one major controversy surrounding trailer housing is that it could become semi-permanent. Without strong support from government authorities, say critics, the rebuilding of the city’s housing stock could drag on for years.

Tom Angotti, a professor of Urban Affairs and Planning with the City University of New York, said that the length of time people are forced to live in exile depends on the government’s initiative. Conceivably, he said, within a few years, "permanent housing could be built for everyone, if there were that kind of political will." But under the current administration, he said, that is "far from a possibility."

Staking their Claim

Concerned New Orleans homeowners are anxious to return to the city, fearful that developers or government authorities will steal their land. Many are alarmed by reports that the government is planning to bulldoze swaths of low-income communities, including many properties in the heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward.

New Orleans homeowner and ACORN activist Derwin Hill said, "They’re picking homes that really could be, you know, put back together. And they want to just wipe out the whole area."

Hill predicted that those whose homes were completely destroyed, or who lack the financial resources or insurance money to hold onto damaged property, might be preyed upon by real-estate speculators seeking "to buy them out cheaply. They’re not going to get what their property’s worth."

Jeff Lubell, incoming executive director of the community-development think tank Center for Housing Policy, said that to ward off predatory developers, the government should establish "land banks," a centralized mechanism for acquiring property that is vacant or purchased from residents at a rate reflective of pre-hurricane values. The land could then be apportioned for affordable housing or other public interests.

"It’s very, very important that we not rebuild New Orleans on the backs of the families who are displaced," Lubell said.

Trying to bridge immediate concerns and long-term visions for the city’s recovery, advocacy groups are pressing policymakers to open the planning process to the people with the most at stake.

ACORN has recently organized displaced residents to form the Katrina Survivors Association, to serve as a vehicle for political representation and a counterweight to corporate interests. The group is pushing a rebuilding agenda that prioritizes economic opportunities and affordable housing for working-class families.

ACORN advocates also warn that plans seeming equitable on paper may play out differently in people’s communities.

A pillar of mainstream urban planning is the idea of "mixed-income" housing development, usually engineered through "inclusionary zoning" schemes, which mandate a certain portion of new units to house low- or moderate-income families. But from the perspective of the low-income communities, efforts to reconfigure poor enclaves could potentially break up neighborhoods and sap the color from the city’s cultural fabric.

Noting that making a predominantly low-income neighborhood more "mixed" could simply translate into fewer poor people, Harris said, "It’s still a shut-out. It’s just a nicer way to do it."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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