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Victory for Public Housing Residents and Activists: House Passes HR 1227
by Jacob Bor Tuesday, Mar. 27, 2007 at 3:44 PM

The US House of Representatives passes HR 1227, the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007. If passed by the Senate, the bill would end demolition of public housing, guarantee right of return to public housing residents, and subsidize moving costs for returnees.

Wednesday, March 21, New Orleans—In a victory for low-income residents of New Orleans, the US House of Representatives passed HR 1227, the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007 by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 302-125. The bill, co-sponsored by Representatives Maxine Waters (CA-D) and Barney Frank (MA-D), ensures that public housing residents displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will be able to return to affordable housing. To become law, the bill must pass the Senate and escape Presidential veto.

Representative Waters cast the bill as an issue of fairness. “Every person who desires to live in the Gulf region must be given an opportunity to rebuild and to return home,” she said.

As passed in the House, HR 1227 orders the reopening of 3,000 public housing units in New Orleans by August and mandates one-to-one replacement of all public housing demolished by the housing authority, for a total of 7,100 units. The bill also provides relocation assistance for residents moving back to affected areas. Perhaps most importantly, the bill guarantees the involvement of public housing residents in every step of the process.

At a meeting of Survivors Village, an association of displaced public housing residents, participants were euphoric. “I think it's excellent,” said Endesha Juakali, lead organizer of Survivors Village. “This is our bill.”

Sharon Sears Jasper, activist and resident of the St. Bernard Housing Development, expressed relief: “I've been out here fighting and fighting. It has been a long hard fight. I know so many people who have died. So many families who have been displaced. Listened to so much negative criticism from politicians. But today I can thank God. At last, the bill has passed.”

Residents celebrated the leadership of Representative Waters, who convened hearings in Washington D.C. (2/06/07) and New Orleans (2/22/07) on the Gulf Coast housing crisis and drove the bill through the Financial Services committee. Several residents including Ms. Jasper testified at these hearings. “It just goes to show you, all you need is a few strong positive people fighting,” she said. The D.C.-based Advancement Project has led a national advocacy campaign for the right of public housing residents to return to New Orleans.

HR 1227 seeks to address a housing crisis that has prevented many residents from returning to New Orleans. The housing stock is seriously depleted: of the more than 130,000 homeowners who applied for federal funds for home repairs, only 2,000 have received federal assistance. Many returnees face rental rates two to three times what they paid before the flood—often for apartments that have not been properly decontaminated.

This housing shortage has been exacerbated by the closure of 80% of public housing in New Orleans post-Katrina, despite the fact that these apartments were some of the least damaged in the flood. HANO has spent 1.5 million to barricade residents from their homes.

HANO’s efforts to keep poor, Black residents from returning to New Orleans are an insidious attempt to shift the demographics and whiten the image of the city. After Katrina, Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker (R-LA) had the gall to say, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

The public housing closures would also be a boon for real estate developers. The LeFitte Housing Development, now sporting steel plates over the doors and windows, sits only five blocks from the French Quarter. According to Mr. Juakali, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) is trying to “grab valuable land occupied by poor people before the storm and use it to make money for greedy developers and their political cronies.”

While residents and activists welcomed the news that HR 1227 had passed the House, they acknowledged that there is a long way to go. The bill must still pass the Senate, where the Democrats have only a single vote majority, and escape Bush’s veto. In New Orleans, Survivors Village activists are keeping the pressure on HANO through acts of civil disobedience, such as the Resurrection City project, in which residents and activists are building “Katrina Protest Cottages” outside the St. Bernard Housing Developments. At the same time, residents and legal allies, including the Advancement Project, continue to pursue a class action law suit against HUD, filed June 2006, to reopen public housing in New Orleans.

Even if HR 1227 becomes law, activists anticipate a fight to get the public housing provisions of the bill implemented. “If we win the war, we have to win the peace,” said Mr. Juakali. “We can't rely on HANO [to reopen public housing].” HANO has long stoked distrust through its efforts to keep residents out of public housing.

Ms. Jasper would brook no compromise: “When I see the day that families are back in their homes and living like human beings. That is when this fight will be done.”

The bill does not dictate whether or not new affordable housing units will be within mixed income developments, a contentious issue among housing activists. Either way, there is general agreement about the need to get low income residents back into the city so that, at the very least, they can advocate for themselves.

In addition to reopening public housing, HR 1227 would improve federal oversight of the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) and would relax restrictions on federal funding for the LRA’s Road Home program, which provides compensation to homeowners.

Jacob Bor

Material from the AP was used in this report.

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