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"Renewal" of Iberville: Same Old Redevelopers
by Elizabeth Cook Saturday, Nov. 06, 2010 at 11:16 AM

The proposed "renewal" of downtown New Orleans would come with a steep price: less affordable housing for the working poor traded for low paying service industry jobs in big box retailers.

One thing history can teach us: historical patterns can stay the same, but wear shiny new clothing that makes it seem different. Sort of like the emperor got a set of new clothes, that is really no clothes at all. The latest plan for the redevelopment of Iberville and the downtown area surrounding, detailed in the Times Picayune on Sunday, October 31st, reflects an historical pattern that appears attractive. The pattern is this: co-opt the land that the poor, and working poor are living on and redevelop it for the profit needs of the capitalists.

In this instance, in the midst of the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression, we are treated to what could almost be called an obscene proposal: bring in big box retailers in the area around Iberville Housing Development, more shopping options for the disappearing middle class, staffed by the working poor, with truly affordable public housing sacrificed at the altar of “urban renewal”.

Although no retailers have “contracted”, the HRI proposal, led by Pres Kabacoff partnering with redevelopment magnate McCormick Baron Salazar, bears the unmistakable “pie in the sky” Kabacoff mark that this would “transform the city”. “If you get the retail, it would transform the city,” says Kabacoff in the recent Times Picayune story that details the plan. The idea that big box retailing, with its attendant service industry type jobs would be transformative for the entire city is ludicrous on the face of it. Walmart provided yes, low paying jobs with the historically anti-union giant retailer. Has this been “transformative” for the city? Only if you laud the disappearance of low income families from the land that Walmart now sits on. Most of those former St. Thomas Housing Development families are now simply scattered about in other neighborhoods, in a Hope 6 process that scattered families of poverty rather than dealing with any issues remotely to do with the root causes of poverty.

Dealing with “root causes” are not HUD’s specialty within the context of neoliberalism. The mass demolition of public housing and concurrent driving out of city centers of the working poor has simply put a new face on an old problem. Poverty and its attendant issues have now to a great extent spread out to the suburbs. It’s still there, like a ticking time bomb, and with the collapse of the economy in many areas of the country, is growing. New Orleans currently has a slower growth in unemployment, due to the ongoing rebuilding after Katrina. The economy here though is hurting, and with the BP spill, took another big hit. What’s needed are permanent jobs that pay living wages. What’s absent is the will or the means to create them.

From the beginning of the urban renewal movement, fueled by the real estate industry in the early 20th century, low income housing has been torn down en masse and not replaced. The result? Huge pockets of the homeless that are growing, crowded and distressed living conditions for the working poor, and the need to travel ever greater distances from the home center to find work. The red lining of neighborhoods is now illegal. However, the real estate industry with its obsession with property values has been served ably by Hope Six and now Neighborhood Choice.

The article by Katy Reckdahl seems to detail a plan in a tone that could nearly be called “soothing”. The obvious comfort that the Times Picayune has with the plan is reflected in Reckdahl’s interview with Iberville resident Elaine Roboho, a former public housing activist now sitting on the “Iberville Committee”, crafted together by HUD Federal Receiver David Gilmour to get a stamp of approval on redevelopment plans. ‘”They wouldn't mind seeing Canal Street revitalized, that's what people back here say," said Robiho’, according to the article. No opposing viewpoints of residents was recorded in this article, as if they don’t exist.

First of all, let’s be clear what redevelopment will mean for the residents of Iberville. Recently I spoke to a former resident of the St. Bernard Housing Development who spoke to an elderly resident living in the shiny new Columbia Park. This elderly resident was told she could not sit on her porch. Yes. Could not sit on her porch and rock, and watch the neighborhood.

I've heard similar stories emanating from Rivergardens, the other HRI redevelopment scheme that destroyed the St. Thomas Housing Development. Can't have outdoor parties, can't sit on your porch and socialize, guests coming to visit are harassed by the security patrolling the neighborhood. I heard some former public housing residents are trying to leave Rivergardens, which is nothing more than a kind of cultural prison camp. It is the equivalent of cultural genocide when residents are forced to live under the kind of rules that reflect gated/security neighborhoods of the very rich.

I did a little search on the internet, and with redevelopment of public housing all over the country comes the draconian living rules: can't dribble a basketball on the sidewalk, 'cause that's loitering. No outdoor activities. Over and over, public housing residents are finding the mecca promised them becomes a physical and psychological prison.

Here's the other part of the dangerous equation that comes with redevelopment of public housing. The Neighborhood Choice program for redevelopment promises one to one replacement of public housing, although I suspect this component is not carved in stone. The new public housing however, absolutely no longer includes utilities. Public housing residents are in for a sticker shock when they find not only do they pay rent based on income, as is the present formula, but they will also now pay full utilities. The working poor and those on fixed incomes will be hard hit in New Orleans, a city that has seen Entergy jack up their rates since Katrina in order to pay for infrastructure repairs.

This "new" public housing more closely resembles Section 8, where residents are forced to pay rent over and above the voucher amount, and pay full utilities. Even David Gilmour, the Federal receiver of HANO, acknowledged this comparison to me after the recent Iberville public hearing.

For those residents who are cooperating with this new redevelopment scheme, they are apparently paid small salaries to sit on the Iberville Committee, and likely promised apartments on site after the redevelopment takes place. They may find however, that they traded relative freedom for a set of values that has nothing to do with black, working class neighborhoods in New Orleans.

That's not to say there aren't problems in Iberville, serious problems that need addressing. However, problems and issues require organizing. You destroy the neighborhood, and yes, certain problems go away, replaced however, with a new set of issues that involve basic and fundamental human rights: the right to live in a neighborhood in which cultural expression is cherished, not stamped out for a type of antiseptic cleansing to make it attractive for the middle and upper middle class to live there.

It was interesting the other day to sit in on the Iberville public hearing. The room on the 4th floor of the Basin Street Center Visitor Information Center was packed with residents, activists, the politically connected, at least one City Council member, and HANO security. The building is owned by Michael Valentino who made a push right after Katrina to redevelop Iberville. Remember that he and other developers, and HANO itself, was thwarted by courageous residents who returned on their own to reopen apartments without utilities connected. It was the residents themselves who reopened Iberville, and activists supported them with rallies and marches.

The hearing began with a presentation from Urban Strategies, with the ominous title of the “Lead Implementation Team”. Similar to the strategy of shock of awe in which the U.S. military destroys resistance with initial, massive aerial bombardment, Urban Strategies deliveries the promises that at least some residents can’t resist. Urban Strategies is a not for profit organization that delivers the carrot on the stick for the redevelopment of public housing, paving the way for demolition. One of their partners is Baron Salazar as stated on their web site, and Baron Salazar employees were present and introduced at the hearing: Vincent Bennet and Ron Robins. Here is Urban Strategies' stated purpose on their web site:

"Healthy communities that nurture healthy families need safe housing, good schools, and a wide range of supportive services.  These amenities are tied to a specific geographic area and therefore must be developed as part of a comprehensive, integrated planning and management approach, specific to that geographic area. Central to sustained implementation of a dynamic plan is resident participation and effective resident leadership."

The Urban Strategies representative, Ester Chin, proceeded to roll out what these urban planners probably call "the vision". Promising the moon is apparently the strategy: job training, recreation, case management for every family. "From the cradle to the grave" was the vision presented, in their words.

The question of course that kept rattling around in my head while Ms. Chin spoke was "where have y'all been". Yes, Iberville could use some of these services NOW. These services however are promised in conjunction with redevelopment. It is a form of blackmail with hints of a dark lining: resist, and you shall not receive the promise of services to come. The goals that Ms. Chin proposed for Iberville, presumably from resident "input", was 1. jobs: "able-bodies adults are working". 2. Place-based job training. 3. literacy classes 4. Increase number of children receiving quality child care (this is probably tied in with every able-bodied adult working, but who will pay for the child care? Wasn't discussed to my recollection.) 5. Employ the Section 3 program, with 250 employment slots, and a focus on hiring adults with disabilities. 6. Increase average earnings and employment potential.  (Presumably these folks will be hired to demolish, and rebuild the development. Where else would Section 3 jobs come from in that area?) 6. Sports and recreational activities. There may have been others but I couldn't write fast enough.

It was pointed out that 300 public housing units, the "new" public housing, would be constructed on site, while 550 public housing apartments would be built offsite. It should be pointed out that HRI, the chosen developer, promised 100 3 and 4 bedroom affordable apartments offsite of the St. Thomas redevelopment. Not a single one of those 100 units has been constructed. In addition, former residents of the St. Thomas development had to sue to be allowed back to Rivergardens. Promises made to the working poor are easily discarded when it comes to the developer feeding frenzy that surrounds Hope 6; will promises be kept under Neighborhood Choice schemes?

The developers were present at the Iberville Hearing. Pres Kabacoff and former mayor Sidney Barthelemy, now a consultant for HRI, got their noses bent out of shape when housing activist Jay Arena called them “punks”, and alluded to Barthelemy as the wealthy elite hand-picked choice for mayor in the early 90’s. Arena called Gilmour a “pig”, and at that point, HANO security surrounded him and threatened to throw him out. Several folks stood up to defend him verbally, and Barthelemy practically demanded that he be allowed to stay. He wanted Arena present for the “reply”. Barthelemy, close to tears, defended his record. He created jobs, he said, with the building of Harrah’s Casino, definitely the kind of careers young people in New Orleans should look forward to. “I stand by my record”, he said over and over. Kabacoff and Gilmour are wonderful people to work with, he stated in so many words.

Gilmour is filling his role as HUD henchman ably. Gilmour clearly is acting on the behest of the Obama administration that views the demolition of public housing as a primary goal held over from the previous two administrations, Clinton and Bush. It was under Clinton that the one to one replacement rule that protected public housing for decades was demolished, and it was under Bush that the “new” public housing that includes full utilities cost was created. I wonder though, if Obama’s Justice Department would agree with Gilmour’s bullying tactics in threatening to terminate the Section 8 voucher of an elderly, disabled, female African American activist with health problems, and native New Orleanian that survived Katrina, and returned here to protest for the Right to Return for all.

The lawless nature of this capitalist society in which laws and justice exist only to protect those that profit off of exploitation and greed, take the foreclosure crisis for instance, is in full view when it comes to public housing residents since Katrina. Massive demolition of affordable, public housing has resulted in the massive increase in homelessness, as New Orleans leads the nation per capita with its burgeoning homeless rate. New Orleans families living in cars, and the elderly living visibly on the street with all ages, is evidence of a derelict and criminal HUD housing policy that has failed the very people HUD is entrusted to protect and serve.

The question is: how do we respond to this?

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Make your calls now Jay Arena Saturday, Nov. 06, 2010 at 10:16 PM

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