New Orleans; Feb. 27, 2006 – "Am I glad to be home!" exclaimed Gloria Irving as she set her plate of red beans and rice on the dashboard and opened the van door to let in the cool New Orleans air after a long drive from Texas.
But she had come back only as a visitor; after fleeing Hurricane Katrina to Houston, her journey home had just begun. Like many other public housing residents, Irving is waiting for the city to decide the fate of her apartment in the long-running battle over affordable housing in New Orleans.
Even though the St. Bernard housing projects, where Irving has spent most of her 70 years, sustained what residents consider survivable damage, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) has not yet allowed residents back in.
First floor apartments like Irvingâ€™s filled with water during the flood, but Dr. Marty Rowland, a civil engineer who toured the project, has told reporters all of the units could be livable again with rewiring and the restoration of utilities. Second- and third-floor apartments were hardly damaged at all, he said.
The Housing Authority has not announced what it plans to do with the approximately 1,300-unit development, but it did say it would put a fence around the site -- a move many see as a sign of impending demolition or redevelopment.
What the Housing Authority doesnâ€™t seem to understand, Irving says, is that she and her former neighbors have nowhere else to go. Even before Katrina, the number of public housing units in the city had fallen from about 14,000, sheltering about 60,000 people in the 1980s to 7,379 units.
Residents suspect federal officials are using the disaster as an excuse to accelerate a trend to raze or alter public housing for private development.
That number could dwindle further in the coming months. Several housing developments, including the Desire and Florida projects in the Upper Ninth Ward, sustained heavy damage from Katrinaâ€™s flooding and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has said they may be demolished.
The fate of three other public housing developments â€“ LaFitte, B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete â€“ is less clear. Each sustained at least some storm damage, and the federal government has announced intentions to "redevelop" them. In the meantime, according to HANO, residents are slowly and "strategically" being allowed to return to select units.
But many residents and public-housing advocates are skeptical of the cityâ€™s assessments, suspecting that municipal and federal officials are using the disaster as an excuse to accelerate a trend to raze or alter public housing for private development in New Orleans and throughout the nation.
History supports their fears. In 2000, the city demolished the St. Thomas housing projects â€“ home to nearly 1,700 people â€“ under a deal to re-develop the area for "mixed-use" homes and retail space. The plan was blessed and paid for by the federal government under the Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) VI program, which was designed to rehabilitate distressed public housing into so-called "mixed-income" developments.
â€œWhy pay for a trailer for me when you could pay someone to clean up my unit, so I can come home?â€
As with many Hope VI projects, only a small percentage of the previous residents were able to afford to live in the new development, River Garden. Most of the affordable housing was replaced with luxury condominiums and a Wal-Mart Superstore; the rest of the residents scattered in search of housing they could afford.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Pres Kabacoff, the developer behind River Garden, has been touting his rehab model as a solution for the whole city. His idea seems to align neatly with the agenda of the top federal official in charge of government-supported housing.
In a November 3 speech last year, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson promised to build $1.8 billion worth of public housing along the Gulf Coast. But, he said, the government would not build "traditional public housing anymore." Instead, St. Thomas would be the new model for redevelopment of several of New Orleansâ€™s public housing projects.
Nevertheless, public housing residents can also draw hope from a more recent example: Residents in the Iberville housing projects successfully secured the right to return to their homes, at least for now. Located just north of the French Quarter and next to the famous St. Louis cemetery, Iberville had been slated for redevelopment before Katrina and the city had locked residents out after the storm.
But Iberville resident Annette Davis recounted how, with the help of activist groups and the local media, she was able to come home.
"[The city] got scared once the media showed up," said Davis, sitting in her meticulously decorated apartment, her bright sweater dress matching the apple-themed dÃ©cor.
Davis evacuated to Baton Rouge before the hurricane and then spent time in Gonzalez, Galveston and Houston, Texas. She returned to New Orleans after Christmas, and was one of the first residents to move back into Iberville, a neat complex of brick buildings with wrought-iron balconies and weedy courtyards. She said about half of the 200 or so residents have returned. But she still feels like their future at Iberville is shaky.
"[Housing officials] want to keep the low-income people away and give the development to big-shot lawyers and doctors so they can enjoy the French Quarter and Canal Street," Davis speculated.
Stacks of Styrofoam trays are nestled among a faux apple tree and other decorations in Davisâ€™s cozy kitchen. Twice a week, she cooks a big pot of red beans and rice and delivers food to people living on the street.
"Before, my life wasnâ€™t perfect, but it was okay," she said. "All I want is my old life back. But if they take Iberville away, I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™ll do. I have to deal not only with losing the Lower Ninth Ward where I was born and raised, but now with them trying to take Iberville too."
Jay Arena, with the local activist group Hands Off Iberville, believes the city is "using the hurricane to deepen the overall privatization agenda," and that the demolition of public housing is "a key component of this plan."
"Before the water was even drained from New Orleans," he said, "developers were gunning for Iberville."
Kabacoff and other developers had set their sites on Iberville before Katrina even hit. Kabacoff had even been raising money from area bankers to conduct a feasibility study for redeveloping the site into "mixed use" housing, with less than a third of the subsidized units it has today.
Residents of St. Bernard and other projects say it is illogical and cruel for the Housing Authority to refuse to reopen public housing developments at the moment they are most needed, with huge numbers of poor, black residents wanting desperately to return to the city but having nowhere to go. Some have been promised FEMA trailers and relocation aid, but they say those are only temporary solutions, while many of their former homes are habitable and sitting empty.
"Why pay for a trailer for me when you could pay someone to clean up my unit, so I can come home?" asked Stephanie Mingo, 43, who has been staying in Houston with her five kids for two months. "Just give me my home back! I have such a big hole in my heart, sometimes I just feel like dying so I wonâ€™t have any more problems. They donâ€™t realize how much people are suffering."
Mingo, Irving and other St. Bernard residents returned to New Orleans for a February 14 protest outside a shuttered health clinic at the housing project. The demanded their "right to return" and the reopening of the clinic, which had been one of the cityâ€™s few healthcare options for financially strapped residents.
"Iâ€™m ready to fight and Iâ€™ll tell them that," said Irving. "I can hardly walk and I just had a double bypass, but Iâ€™m ready."
"The walls and floors are cement â€“ theyâ€™re not going to fall down," said Lynette Bickham, who has lived at St. Bernard for 27 years and raised her kids there. "Residents would clean out and rehab their own units if they let us, thatâ€™s how badly we want to come back. Weâ€™d get together as a team and do what we have to do."
Loretta Lyons, 61, who has lived in St. Bernard most of her life, made the trip back from Houston with Irving and Mingo. "I appreciate Houston opening their city to us, but itâ€™s time for us to go home," she said.
Waliuddin, 54, who uses only his Muslim name, reminisced with Irving about growing up at St. Bernard.
"It was a beautiful experience," he said. "We played Chinese tops, football, baseball; we made our own kites."
The housing authority, in Waliuddinâ€™s view, may be underestimating peopleâ€™s will to return home.
"Once a force is put upon you, and you resist it, you gain power," he said. "The power is within us already. [This struggle] will release it."