The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

New Orleans Homeowners Fight to Save Homes from Bulldozers

by Michelle Chen

Lower Ninth Ward residents and their advocates talk about why they persist in opposing City Hall’s plans to demolish and clear out thousands of storm-ravaged houses in their beleaguered neighborhood.

Jan. 6, 2006 – The house at 2345 Andry Street had always been a sturdy pillar in Calvin Turnbough’s life. His father built the humble three-bedroom stucco structure in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and for the past half a century, Turnbough has never called any other place home.

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But 2345 Andry recently relocated. Clawed off its foundation by Hurricane Katrina four months ago, the house shifted about one block down the street, where it has remained for months, dilapidated but intact.

The storm left Turnbough dislocated, as well. The 48-year-old forklift operator is now living with family in Houston, awaiting word from his insurance company, the government, or anyone, about the fate of his home. Having received virtually no information about how the reconstruction process is affecting his property, he said, "I really feel as though I’m being left out."

The final blow to Turnbough’s beleaguered house could come in the form of a government-contracted bulldozer. Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration has announced sweeping demolition plans that center on the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest enclaves, yet also a bulwark of black home ownership.

The city first announced last month that about 2,500 heavily damaged properties were facing demolition citywide, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. But amid public criticism, the mayor’s chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, who is coordinating the demolition process, recently stated that the city was focusing on a list of about 120 extremely damaged homes, to be torn down as soon as the city is able to move ahead with plans.

To concerned residents, the demolition plans reflect the government’s desire to create a whiter, more affluent New Orleans.

To concerned residents, the demolition plans reflect the government’s desire to create a whiter, more affluent New Orleans by shutting low-income minority communities out of the reconstruction process, both physically and politically.

The city says the houses are unsalvageable and must be demolished for safety reasons.

To prevent the demolitions, a coalition of hurricane survivors, activists and public-interest lawyers has filed a lawsuit, charging that by destroying properties without notifying owners or seeking approval through a standard court procedure, the city would violate due process rights.

The plaintiffs scored an initial victory last week when a civil district court issued a temporary restraining order, barring demolitions until the case receives a full court hearing. That order was technically due to expire today, however, and while the city has agreed not to demolish homes until a January 19 federal court hearing, the plaintiffs’ legal team says that prospects for further blocking the city's plans remain uncertain.

Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who helped file the suit, told The NewStandard: "Both the Louisiana and the US constitutions say very clearly, government can’t take life, liberty or property without due process of law…. Doesn’t sound that controversial, but the city won’t agree to that."

The mass displacement wrought by the hurricane has spawned grassroots activism to defend communities from the threat of demolition.

Tensions surrounding the demolitions flared yesterday when community members and advocates rallied outside City Hall to protest the bulldozing plans, and later confronted municipal workers in the Lower Ninth Ward as they were clearing wreckage in the area with bulldozers. According to news reports, the city called off the operation in response to the demonstration.

The mass displacement wrought by the hurricane has spawned grassroots activism to defend communities from the threat of demolition. Activists with the antipoverty group ACORN have posted "No Bulldozing!" signs in the Lower Ninth Ward and organized a network of survivors across the country to campaign for their "right to return." Recently, the group launched a renovation program to pool money and volunteer labor for the restoration of properties in low-income neighborhoods.

Greta Gladney, a Lower Ninth Ward resident and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has resolved to restore her flood-damaged home, even though city inspectors have designated the house as structurally unsound. Her determination to preserve her property folds into a broader commitment to see her city through the rebuilding process.

"Residents have to be here in order to participate in the political process and the decision-making," she said, "because as long as we’re displaced, we’re in other cities, decisions are being made without us."

Other homeowners are not opposed to their homes being demolished, but simply demand transparency and the dignity of closure.

Since he lacks the financial resources to refurbish his house, Turnbough said, "I know it has to be destroyed… but I also would like to know when they’re doing it." He says he would like the chance to retrieve salvageable belongings and settle his insurance claim before his home is razed.

Tensions surrounding the demolitions flared yesterday when community members and advocates rallied outside City Hall to protest the bulldozing plans, and later confronted municipal workers in the Lower Ninth Ward as they were clearing wreckage in the area with bulldozers.

"It’s still my property and all, and I own it," he said.

According to the legal complaint filed against the city, the local government has in recent weeks issued unclear and contradictory statements about the demolition policies.

An advisory on the city’s website states, "All demolition will require permission from the property owner, unless an owner is negligent in responding to attempts to reach the owner." But in mid-December, Meffert announced that of about 5,500 homes deemed structurally unsound, the government had decided to raze roughly 2,500 of the most severely damaged properties within weeks.

This week, Meffert provided a more conservative figure, stating that the city would move immediately to destroy about 120 extremely damaged homes, including dislodged houses like Turnbough’s, which supposedly pose a public safety threat or nuisance.

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Meffert commented that there would be little point in notifying owners of the homes slated for immediate demolition. "Is that house in any way salvageable? Is that house in any way something that you can put back together?" he asked. "There's absolutely no way."

But critics counter that the city inspectors’ assessments are inconsistent, and since many heavily damaged structures are in depopulated areas, the safety hazard is not extreme enough to justify rash demolitions. And some accuse officials of attempting to remake the city without the predominately low-income, black residents of the Lower Ninth.

Noting that the Lower Ninth Ward was the last section of the city to be reopened, officially allowing in returnees to visit, but not stay, starting December 1, Gladney told TNS, "It doesn’t make sense that folks have been kept away for four months, and now there’s a rush to demolish the houses. I think that it’s more an issue of trying to make sure that people don’t try to come back to neighborhoods."

Even though the city’s elected officials have insisted that all neighborhoods would be rebuilt, the funding for reconstruction has generally been concentrated in more affluent areas.

In an interview with the New York Times yesterday, a member of the state body distributing the federal money confirmed what residents in poor areas of New Orleans have suspected all along. "Someone has to be tough, to stand up, and to tell the truth," Sean Reilly of the Louisiana Recovery Authority said. "Every neighborhood in New Orleans will not be able to come back safe and viable. The LRA is speaking the truth with the money it controls."

Quigley said that the court battle could be a prelude to more extensive direct action. "If we lose in court, you know, people are not going to stop resisting," he said. "They’re going to try and stop the bulldozers by whatever means are necessary."

In the view of Ishmael Muhammad, another attorney for the plaintiffs, the lawsuit’s ultimate outcome will be determined by advocacy outside the courtroom. "The court process is as tainted as the political process," he told TNS. "The only process that’s untainted is the people’s process. And that’s the process that we’re trying to tap into."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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