Apparently seeking post-Sandy advice, New York Mayor Bloomberg’s deputies recently paid a visit to New Orleans. According to The New York Times, Deputy Mayors Howard Wolfson, Linda I. Gibbs and Robert K. Steel met with New Orleans officials to discuss recovery and rebuilding. If New York’s development-minded mayor is consulting his equivalents in Louisiana, one can only hope that housing justice activists and especially public housing residents in this city are consulting theirs. When it comes to next steps after Hurricane Sandy, there are lessons to be learned from New Orleans after Katrina. The question is, Which ones will New York learn?
Seven years ago, as Hurricane Katrina was hitting the Gulf Coast, developers and their political allies were already seeing to it that minimum wage laws would be suspended in the name of urgency; they were. In the weeks following, thousands of public school teachers found themselves out of a job. The city’s free hospital was closed and every public housing development was either partially or totally torn down. Next, came a flood of eyes-on-the prize entrepreneurs with all manner of experiments for new models for housing, healthcare and schools. The results have been mixed, but by all available measures, the Big Easy’s more divided and, all these years on, longtime residents (especially African-Americans), feel more disenfranchised than ever.
Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers Center and a community activist who has worked in that city since the storm, says it’s never too early for residents to start pushing for a place at the decision-making table. Change is going to come for sure, but there’s no guarantee that those who have been directly affected will have any say in shaping that change.
“If we wait for the lights to turn on, then what will happen is, by the time the lights turn on, what will be illuminated is the way public housing was stolen from right under the feet of residents, safety net was taken away," Soni told me in the interview transcribed below.
That’s one reason that December 6's day of coordinated action on housing was so encouraging. Loosely linked under the banner “Occupy Our Homes” grassroots and community groups undertook house occupations and bank protests from Atlanta to San Francisco (you can see pictures and a full account at OccupyOurHomes.org.)
Even more noteworthy, in many ways, is the ongoing work that's been continuing in the Sandy-hit neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, where residents with the help of Occupy Sandy and the Red Hook Initiative have been responding to immediate needs while simultaneously organizing for political power. Frustrated and angry with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the Red Hook residents recently drew up a list of demands. Among those were an extension of the moratorium on evictions, a suspension of rent, employment for local residents in repair work, and the creation of a community-led board. After their first meeting with residents (and a good amount of pressure from local politicians), NYCHA authorities actually met some of the Red Hook Assembly’s requests last week, but the community-led board and transparency in decision-making are still up for grabs.