Odessa Lewis is 62 years old. When I last saw her, she was crying because she is being evicted. A long-time resident of the Lafitte public housing apartments in New Orleans, since Katrina she has been locked out of her apartment and forced to live in a 240-square-foot FEMA trailer. Ms. Lewis has asked repeatedly to be allowed to return to her apartment to clean and fix it up so she can move back in. She even offered to do all the work herself and with friends at no cost. The government continually refused to allow her to return. Now she is being evicted from her trailer and fears she will become homeless because there is no place for working people, especially African-American working and poor people, to live in New Orleans. Ms. Lewis is a strong woman who has worked her whole life. But the stress of being locked out of her apartment, living in a FEMA trailer and the possibility of being homeless brought out the tears. Thousands of other mothers and grandmothers are in the same situation.
Renting is so hard in part because there is a noose closing around the housing opportunities of New Orleans African American renters displaced by Katrina. They have been openly and directly targeted by public and private actions designed to keep them away. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just added their weight to the attack by approving the demolition of 4,500 apartments in New Orleans.
Despite telling a federal judge for the last year and a half that approvals of public housing demolition applications take about 100 working days to evaluate, HUD approved the plan to demolish public housing units one day after the complete application was filed.
[The Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is overseen by HUD, has plans to open up apartments to 3,000, the Times-Picayune reported Sept. 26. HUD plans to issue 1,800 housing vouchers, which cover a portion of the rent, but some residents have found it difficult to find apartments that are cheap enough.]
HUD's actions are consistent with other governmental attacks on African American renters. After Katrina, St. Bernard Parish, a 93% white adjoining suburb, enacted a law prohibiting home owners from renting their property to anyone who is not a blood relative. Jefferson Parish, another majority-white adjoining suburb, unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting the construction of any subsidized housing. The sponsoring legislator condemned poor people as "lazy," "ignorant" and "leeches on society" -- specifically hoping to guard against former residents of New Orleans public housing. Across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans, the chief law enforcement officer of St. Tammany Parish, Sheriff Jack Strain, complained openly about the post-Katrina presence of "thugs and trash from New Orleans" and announced that people with dreadlocks or "chee wee hairstyles" could "expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff's deputy."
HUD's actions are also bolstered by pervasive racial discrimination in the private market as well. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center has documented widespread racial discrimination in the metro New Orleans rental market and in the states surrounding the gulf coast.
HUD and HANO, which HUD has been running for years, argued passionately that residents displaced from public housing (referred to once in their argument as "refugees") are financially "better off" than they were before. This echoes the Barbara Bush comment of Sept. 5, 2005 when she said, viewing the overwhelmingly African American crowd of thousands of people living on cots in the Astrodome, "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this -- (she chuckles slightly) this is working very well for them."
New Orleans had a severe affordable housing crisis before Katrina when HANO housed over 5,000 families. There was a waiting list of 8,000 families trying to get in. HUD and HANO together did such a poor job of administering the agency that there were about 2,000 more empty apartments that had been scheduled for major repairs for years.
The continuing deceptions by HUD and HANO have been shameless. Since Katrina, HUD has continued to act out both sides of a charade that the local housing authority is making decisions and HUD is waiting on local actions. Yet, the decision to demolish was announced by the secretary of HUD in D.C. over a year ago. But in the year since then, HUD has continued to tell a federal judge that any legal challenge to demolitions was premature because HANO had not even submitted an application to HUD for their careful 100-day evaluation. This is while a HUD employee runs the agency, commuting back and forth to D.C. each week. HANO even announced they would have 2000 apartments ready for people in August of 2006 -- a deadline not met even in September 2007. HANO later announced to the public that they had a list of 250 apartments ready for people to return only to admit in writing weeks later that no such list existed -- nor were the phantom apartments ready.
The list of untruths goes on.
HUD would not agree to delay the demolition of the first 3,000 apartments until Congress finished reviewing legislation that would give residents the right to return and participate in the process of determining what kind of affordable housing should be in place in New Orleans.
So HUD's actions help further restrict the opportunities for African-American renters in New Orleans. Adjoining white suburbs do not want African-American renters back. HUD does not want them back. The local federal judge has refused to stop the demolitions.
But the mothers and grandmothers and their families and friends are still determined to return and resist demolition. One sign at a recent public housing rally summed it up. "We will not allow the community we built to be rebuilt without us."
Odessa Lewis, despite her tears, said she is not giving up. She and other public housing residents promise "we did not come this far to be turned back now. We will do whatever is necessary to protect our homes." Thousands of African American mothers and grandmothers are the ones directly targeted by HUD's actions.
Forty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., said "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society When profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered." We can add sexism to the list, particularly in the fight for the right of public housing residents to return.
The fight of Ms. Lewis and others on the gulf coast shows how much we need a radical revolution of values.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Email Quigley@loyno.edu.
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