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New Orleans: The Perfect Storm
by Elizabeth Cook Thursday, Nov. 22, 2007 at 9:02 AM 504-319-3564

With demolition of public housing set to begin mid-December, New Orleans residents are about to loose over 5000 units of public and affordable housing, possibly forever.

New Orleans: The Per...
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I told my friend this morning, I think the city is coming apart. An outbreak of robberies, some perhaps by teenagers, authorities believe; homeless population exploding; politicians looking the other way when corruption serves their purpose. I'm reminded, I tell her, of the Bugs Bunny cartoon, where he is busy, furiously, digging underground, trying to tunnel his way to paradise, or a beach, or somewhere pleasant; I can't remember exactly.

He pops his head up, in the middle of the North Pole, and says something to the effect, "I must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque".

It can feel like that sometimes. That one wrong turn and you wind up in a very cold environment.

The kind of cold environment, perhaps, where 17,000+ of our residents, citizens and neighbors are homeless. The kind of cold environment where politicians are willing to tear down viable public housing, for a "theory", and a poor one at that, that clustering the working poor together creates poverty.

The kind of cold environment where our elected "leaders" prattle on about ethics and reform in government, yet look the other way while the head of our federal agency, entrusted with creating housing for the working poor, is under criminal investigation for sweetheart deals that will demolish, viable, public housing for the working poor in New Orleans.

And if there were ever a corrupt concept, than that of destroying neighborhoods where poor people live, in order to combat poverty, particularly when there has been little effort, to date, to replace that housing before it is destroyed, well, you almost have to conclude that it is, truly, about learning to look the other way, to look away from the suffering of others.

Yes noises are being made, for example, for supportive housing vouchers, 3000 to be exact, according to City Councilwoman Stacy Head, that she has requested. We'll take the 3000 vouchers, if and when it happens. But you, Ms. Head, and the city council, are advocating for the eventual destruction of 7000 units of public housing, while you are asking for 3000 vouchers for "permanent, supportive housing". What better place to provide supportive housing, than in the housing developments, where you usually have the support structures as part of the developments?

Go figure.

Then we hear that Ms. Head is willing to have a few, supportive housing units in her district uptown. It's going to take more than a few, Ms. Head, to address this issue.

Two New Orleans East political leaders, City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard Lewis and State Senator Ann Duplesis, are opposing the construction of multi-family housing in the east. They are supported by some home owner's groups. If you look at the proposed rents for that 276 unit complex that they are opposing, it isn't like we are providing housing for the lowest wage earners in the city. Rents would range between $700 and $1300 per month, with emphasis placed on those who can "pay on their own".

Not wanting housing in the east because of the lack of resources there won't solve the lack of resources there. Usually, resources follow people, if we adequately fund those resources and insist that they get up and running again, like our public health system. Having people back in our neighborhoods in the east will increase the voices and the pressure for adequate services out there.

Factor in the Federal Emergency Managment Agency's (FEMA) decision, apparently backed by the city, to close all FEMA trailer group sites, and this is added wind pressure in this perfect storm. FEMA have been quietly closing the sites since August. This decision involves the closing of 2797 trailers, and over 5000 residents of the city. Many of the residents are questioning where they will end up.

The FEMA trailers were less than ideal, perhaps even dangerous in terms of the levels of formaldehyde found in them. But residents find themselves between a rock and a hard place: board with already stressed and over-crowded homes of relatives, or homelessness. There simply is not enough affordable housing to go around in New Orleans right now.

There is of course another alternative here: what about the federal government providing the necessary resources to rebuild our neighborhoods and infrastructure, like they should have done in the first place? What about creating a massive job works program, with living wages, funded by the federal government, to rebuild New Orleans
and the Gulf Coast?

Why are our city leaders lobbying for inadequate resources, rather than the adequate resources needed to rebuild?

Why has ICF earned $16.7 million off of the Louisiana Recovery Authority's Small Rental Property Program, when not a single, small rental unit has yet to be funded by that program? This is criminal. This is corruption.

But it serves the interest, at least so far, of agendas: that of reducing the numbers of affordable units for the working poor, in order to keep people from returning. What other conclusions can we draw, when we see politicans advocating for reduced numbers of units available to the working poor? Demolishing public housing, limiting the construction of multi-family housing in the east, the failure of our elected "leaders" in the rebuilding and rehabing of our rental units in the city, is all creating the perfect storm in New Orleans, a storm that is engulfing our social services and crippling our city.

We're all waking up in that middle of that storm to a very cold, very windy landscape of our fellow residents sleeping in tents, with no bathroom facilities, huddling together in an encampment on the front doorstep of City Hall, where at least they feel safe from constant police harassment and the revolving door of Orleans Parish Prison.

We hear of our friends and neighbors getting sick from stress, some dying. This is ongoing. We have residents who have been fighting the good fight for public and affordable housing, even though they are under tremendous stress in what has become the daily fight for survival in New Orleans: rising Entergy rates, through the roof, rising food prices, inadequately funded public transportation, a fractured and chronically underfunded public school system in competition with charter schools.

And there are those who have simply given up, given up on their dream to return home. And isn't that what the powers that be have wanted? For people to give up the fight to return home?

Demolishing the buildings of public housing won't make our problems go away. It will exacerbate what may become the permanent shortage of affordable housing, and chronic, catastrophic numbers of homeless people.

Will the motto then be, "get used to it"?

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