The stories sound like strange echoes from another era, as if someone had wound up the old Victrola of history and let the Dixie tunes rip. They begin on a half-abandoned street in St. Bernard Parish, an aggressively white community on the southeastern edge of New Orleans. That is where Daphne Clark, 39, an African-American supervisor at a group home, rented a house with help from a rental voucher last year, and that is where the harassment began. First, the Confederate flag hoisted over a neighbor’s house followed by stares and sneers; then the official torment by the parish government as it waged a post-Hurricane Katrina crusade against the specter of rental housing. For Clark, this took the form of a series of “notices of violation” warning her that the parish would disconnect her utilities–not because she had done anything wrong but because her landlord had failed to apply for a rental permit, as required by a new parish law. According to Hestel Stout, a white contractor working on Clark’s house, the parish official who delivered one of these notices explained to him, “How would you like those types living next to you?”
Around this time, in nearby Jefferson Parish, Leatrice Hollis was enduring her own losing battle with the forces of housing prejudice. The founder and director of People’s Community Subsidiary, a nonprofit housing development agency, Hollis had just completed plans for a mixed-income development that would have created forty-nine occupant-owned homes, with twenty-five going to moderate- and low-income “first responders.” But just as she was ready to close the deal, Parish Councilman Chris Roberts declared that he wouldn’t approve parish funding for any affordable housing in his district. The project was killed.
And then there is the tale of Maria Tejeda, 48, a receptionist and janitor who lived in the Redwood Apartments complex–in apartment L, “as in love”–before the storm. Located in Kenner, the Redwood complex was a 400-unit subsidized housing development and longtime anchor for the area’s Latino community. But after the storm, the city decided not to rebuild it. And in April, just two weeks after nearly 1,500 poor and mostly black and brown people lined up overnight to apply for affordable housing vouchers, the parish council unanimously passed a yearlong moratorium on the building of multifamily housing–a measure that effectively halts affordable housing construction in Kenner and leaves people like Tejeda struggling to pay market-rate rent in New Orleans, miles from her community and 12-year-old son. “Maybe in the future I could find me a nice place for me and my child to live,” she sighed.
Such are the stories drifting out of New Orleans and its environs these days, dispatches from a rebuilding effort that often bears an alarming resemblance to a segregation re-enactment. Throughout the region, historically white suburbs, as well as one African-American neighborhood, have been tightening the housing noose by passing laws that restrict, limit or simply ban the building–and even renting–of homes that traditionally benefit poor and working-class people of color. Couched in the banal language of zoning and tax credits, density and permissive-use permits, these efforts often pass for legal and rarely raise eyebrows outside the small community of fair-housing monitors. But taken together–and accompanied, as they so often are, by individual acts of flagrant racism–they represent one of the most brazen and sweeping cases of housing discrimination in recent history.
“It’s been like a wildfire,” said Lucia Blacksher, general counsel for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, an advocacy group that has been leading the fight against post-Katrina housing discrimination. “Local governments have been creating legal barriers–legal, in the sense they created laws–to prevent people who are African-American from returning. And I’m saying that because we all know what we’re talking about here. Affordable housing or multifamily housing is where African-Americans lived. And if you don’t let that kind of housing back, you’re not going to give people who are African-American or Latino an opportunity to live [here].”