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Purging the Poor | The Nation

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Purging the Poor

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The citywide numbers are staggering: In the areas that sustained only minor damage and are on the mayor's repopulation list, there are at least 11,600 empty apartments and houses. If Jefferson Parish is included, that number soars to 23,270. With three people in each unit, that means homes could be found for roughly 70,000 evacuees. With the number of permanently homeless city residents estimated at 200,000, that's a significant dent in the housing crisis. And it's doable. Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, whose Houston district includes some 150,000 Katrina evacuees, says there are ways to convert vacant apartments into affordable or free housing. After passing an ordinance, cities could issue Section 8 certificates, covering rent until evacuees find jobs. Jackson Lee says she plans to introduce legislation that will call for federal funds to be spent on precisely such rental vouchers. "If opportunity exists to create viable housing options," she says, "they should be explored."

Research assistance provided by Aaron Maté.

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Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein
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Malcolm Suber, a longtime New Orleans community activist, was shocked to learn that thousands of livable homes were sitting empty. "If there are empty houses in the city," he says, "then working-class and poor people should be able to live in them." According to Suber, taking over vacant units would do more than provide much-needed immediate shelter: It would move the poor back into the city, preventing the key decisions about its future--like whether to turn the Ninth Ward into marshland or how to rebuild Charity Hospital--from being made exclusively by those who can afford land on high ground. "We have the right to fully participate in the reconstruction of our city," Suber says. "And that can only happen if we are back inside." But he concedes that it will be a fight: The old-line families in Audubon and the Garden District may pay lip service to "mixed income" housing, "but the Bourbons uptown would have a conniption if a Section 8 tenant moved in next door. It will certainly be interesting."

Equally interesting will be the response from the Bush Administration. So far, the only plan for homeless residents to move back to New Orleans is Bush's bizarre Urban Homesteading Act. In his speech from the French Quarter, Bush made no mention of the neighborhood's roughly 1,700 unrented apartments and instead proposed holding a lottery to hand out plots of federal land to flood victims, who could build homes on them. But it will take months (at least) before new houses are built, and many of the poorest residents won't be able to carry the mortgage, no matter how subsidized. Besides, it barely touches the need: The Administration estimates that in New Orleans there is land for only 1,000 "homesteaders."

The truth is that the White House's determination to turn renters into mortgage payers is less about solving Louisiana's housing crisis than indulging an ideological obsession with building a radically privatized "ownership society." It's an obsession that has already come to grip the entire disaster zone, with emergency relief provided by the Red Cross and Wal-Mart and reconstruction contracts handed out to Bechtel, Fluor, Halliburton and Shaw--the same gang that spent the past three years getting paid billions while failing to bring Iraq's essential services to prewar levels [see Klein, "The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," May 2]. "Reconstruction," whether in Baghdad or New Orleans, has become shorthand for a massive uninterrupted transfer of wealth from public to private hands, whether in the form of direct "cost plus" government contracts or by auctioning off new sectors of the state to corporations.

This vision was laid out in uniquely undisguised form during a meeting at the Heritage Foundation's Washington headquarters on September 13. Present were members of the House Republican Study Committee, a caucus of more than 100 conservative lawmakers headed by Indiana Congressman Mike Pence. The group compiled a list of thirty-two "Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices," including school vouchers, repealing environmental regulations and "drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." Admittedly, it seems farfetched that these would be adopted as relief for the needy victims of an eviscerated public sector. Until you read the first three items: "Automatically suspend Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws in disaster areas"; "Make the entire affected area a flat-tax free-enterprise zone"; and "Make the entire region an economic competitiveness zone (comprehensive tax incentives and waiving of regulations)." All are poised to become law or have already been adopted by presidential decree.

In their own way the list-makers at Heritage are not unlike the 500 Scientology volunteer ministers currently deployed to shelters across Louisiana. "We literally followed the hurricane," David Holt, a church supervisor, told me. When I asked him why, he pointed to a yellow banner that read, SOMETHING CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT. I asked him what "it" was and he said "everything."

So it is with the neocon true believers: Their "Katrina relief" policies are the same ones trotted out for every problem, but nothing energizes them like a good disaster. As Bush says, lands swept clean are "opportunity zones," a chance to do some recruiting, advance the faith, even rewrite the rules from scratch. But that, of course, will take some massaging--I mean assisting.

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