Who Killed Public Housing in New Orleans?

Who Killed Public Housing in New Orleans?

Who Killed Public Housing in New Orleans?

After Hurricane Katrina, big developers, government bureaucrats and anti-housing ideologues pushed to destroy “Bricks.”


This article is adapted from We’re Still Here Ya Bastards, published this month by Nation Books.

New Orleans was one of the first cities in the country to get public housing, with six projects in place in the early 1940s. These were solid, well-crafted brick structures of three to five stories, often with tile roofs, front-entrance grillwork, solid wood floors, and separate entrances for small clusters of apartments. Many of them stood around courtyards with shade trees and paths. As a style, they became the model for the many private garden apartments that followed.

The “Bricks,” as they were called, are now gone, save for a few restored legacy buildings, torn down after one of the most contentious disputes in post-Katrina New Orleans. They have been replaced with faux-historic, privately built developments that accommodate only a fraction of their former tenants. This has kept many of the working poor from returning.

The demolition of public housing in New Orleans is a perfect example of what Naomi Klein has dubbed the “shock doctrine”: the exploitation of disaster to achieve what would be impossible through the normal public process. Representative Richard Baker (a Republican from a wealthy area of Baton Rouge) got it right when he said after Katrina: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it. But God did.” Actually, God had nothing to do with it; rather, the local politicians and power elite of the city, in partnership with the state and federal government, made sure that most of the 5,100 units occupied before Katrina were doomed.

The buildings targeted for destruction were broadly recognized for their incomparable quality. Architecture critic James Russell articulated this widely held view in a 2007 column for Bloomberg News: “In New Orleans, public housing doesn’t mean bleak high-rise towers. The city has thousands of units with Georgian brickwork and lacy ironwork porches that came through Hurricane Katrina barely scathed.”

Many units had private or semiprivate entrances, avoiding the often unsafe and space-wasting corridors. And the pitched terra-cotta roofs outlived most other roofing materials, not unlike buildings in Europe that are more than a century old. Multipane windows, solid wood doors, and columned entryways completed the tableau. As former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff noted: “Solidly built, the buildings’ detailed brickwork, tile roofs and wrought-iron balustrades represent a level of craft more likely found on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public-housing complex.”

The fight over this public housing was one of the ugliest of the post-Katrina controversies. Although the projects were minimally damaged, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) boarded up almost all of the buildings right after the storm, enclosing them behind locked chain-link fences and forbidding access to Katrina evacuees; in fact, people were not even allowed to retrieve their belongings. As the demolition plans began to take shape, former residents and grassroots activists marched and protested, but their pleas were ignored, since the agenda had been set before the floodwaters drained out of the city. The culmination was a shocking City Council hearing at which the members voted unanimously to demolish all 4,500 units of the “Big Four” public-housing complexes: St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper, Lafitte, and C.J. Peete. Hundreds of people showed up at City Hall hoping to testify, but many were locked out, their protests met with pepper spray and Tasers. The scene was reminiscent of a Third World uprising, brutally put down.

* * *

To many, the planned demolitions were one more indication that the poor, mostly black refugees were not welcome home after Hurricane Katrina. “This is not about [helping] the poor; it’s about not seeing the poor,” said Ron Mason, president of the Southern University and A&M College System and for four years (1996–2000) executive monitor of New Orleans public housing.

Without Katrina, it’s unclear how far the city could have gotten in eliminating public housing. Politically, the idea was untenable. The Iberville complex, one of the best of the Bricks and the last of the New Deal developments to be demolished, is a case study in the difference a disaster can make. Iberville sat, until recently, on the corner of Canal and Basin streets—just steps from the downtown core and the French Quarter—making it the most valuable site of any of the projects. Completed in 1941, it consisted of some 820 units in 74 brick buildings, each one outfitted with lacy wrought-iron railings and terra-cotta roofs.

Starting in the late 1980s, when cities were regenerating and downtown real estate became ripe for private investment, developers began eyeing the 23-acre project. In 2001, Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints, proposed tearing down Iberville and turning its flattened remains into a stadium. And in 2004, Pres Kabacoff, one of the city’s most active and politically well-connected developers, proposed partially demolishing the project in order to reinvigorate the city’s tourism economy and the urban core.

Kabacoff wanted to revamp Canal Street with a music museum and big-box retail (he’s still trying for the latter) and, in his words, to create a kind of “Afro-Caribbean Paris” as the city center. This proposal sent chills up the spine of many New Orleanians, especially since they knew how frequently Kabacoff gets what he wants. But his project stalled before it could be built. “Local politicians did not have the stomach for the massive relocation such plans entailed,” explains historian Alecia Long. “Then Katrina came along.”

After the storm, Kabacoff received the go-ahead to pursue his vision of transforming Iberville into a mixed-income residential and retail hub. The effort was given a significant boost—and the federal seal of approval—in 2011, when the city won a $31 million grant from HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods initiative for the project. The plan calls for the demolition of roughly 80 percent of the original Iberville buildings, leaving 16 structures in place. Although they’re little more than a remnant of the storied complex, the fact that even some of these buildings are being saved is a major shift.

“There was a dispute within our own company over how many buildings to preserve,” Kabacoff acknowledged. But in the end, he added, “we didn’t want to have it just look like a cleaned-up public-housing project. The key is to attract market-rate residents.”

Ironically, Kabacoff and his company, Historic Restoration Inc., are responsible for some of the best of the preservation projects that have helped downtown retain its traditional feel. A New Orleans native, Kabacoff was born in 1945 and learned the development business from his father, Lester Kabacoff, who had jump-started the revival of the city’s Warehouse District by converting a cargo wharf into a Hilton hotel. “My father knew tourism could be a big game, a distant second to oil and gas,” Kabacoff said in an interview.

The Warehouse District, now one of downtown’s most desirable areas, is primarily residential. Both Kabacoff and his father saw great potential in the slowly emptying warehouse buildings before the renewed interest in cities appeared on everyone’s radar. “Look at the building material, what there was to work with. Why wouldn’t you want to live in a place like this?” Kabacoff asked me, referring to the loft buildings—but not to the Bricks.

Kabacoff insists that the Iberville redevelopment, like all his development efforts, is motivated by altruism. “I don’t think of myself as an opportunistic developer,” he told Tyler Bridges of the Lens, an independent, New Orleans–based news site, in 2013. “I think of myself as on a mission.”

Yet Kabacoff’s missions have been known to stir controversy. In the late 1990s, Kabacoff won hefty federal subsidies to help convert the St. Thomas projects, another aging New Orleans public-housing development, into a mixed-income Eden called River Garden. The St. Thomas transformation was spearheaded under the “Hope VI” program, a HUD initiative that sought to “eradicate severely distressed public housing” by tearing it down and then replacing it with a mix of affordable and market-rate housing—with an emphasis on market-rate. In the case of St. Thomas, this meant swapping out the old brick structures for a candy-colored mix of “Creole cottages, Victorian doubles and Greek Revival houses,” as Time magazine called it. It also meant adding a Walmart. The only thing it lacked was large numbers of low-income residents.

This was not altogether uncommon, since Hope VI redevelopments were notorious for displacing the poor residents who had for so long depended on public housing. “Since 1994,” said sociologist Hilary Silver, “Hope VI has demolished more than 500,000 public-housing units.” And national studies have found that only an estimated 8 to 50 percent of the displaced tenants move into the replacement developments. Indeed, it was the experience of Hope VI and the St. Thomas projects that helped fuel some of the opposition to the demolition of the other housing projects after Katrina.

The overseers of the Iberville transformation claim they can avoid the pitfalls of Hope VI by providing a one-for-one replacement of the original 821 units. (In fact, the Choice Neighborhood initiative requires this.) In practice, however, that may not be so simple. In order to make room for all the market-rate and workforce-housing units in the revamped project, a good number of the affordable units will be located offsite, spread out within the larger 300-block Treme neighborhood. There is no deadline for their construction.

There are other factors that conspire to keep tenants from returning, particularly the strict selection criteria for admission. Since the onset of Bill Clinton’s “one strike and you’re out” policy, local authorities have been allowed to evict tenants from public housing if someone in the family is arrested for criminal activity. Given how easily African-Americans can get arrested and convicted in New Orleans for both major and minor offenses regardless of guilt, this policy narrows the eligibility pool, since a family can be barred for the actions of a single member.

* * *

 Ten years after Katrina, most of the city’s public-housing projects are gone, especially those in or close to high-value downtown real estate. The privately owned, privately developed, primarily publicly funded replacements substantially reflect New Urbanist town-planning principles, with narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets, neighborly front yards, and variations of quaint two- or three-story houses—some in pastel colors, some in faux-historic styles. Several of the developments are as set off from their surrounding neighborhoods as they were before Katrina. All have economically mixed tenants. Social services of various kinds—learning centers, playgrounds, community centers—have returned, although maybe not as robustly as during the Work Projects Administration period of Boy Scout troops, gardening clubs, adult education, and on-site healthcare that had been defunded by the 1960s.

All of the new developments present an alluring face to their neighborhood and to the city, and you can be sure that political and business leaders will tout their appeal to the outside world. It is much too early, however, to know if these structures will come through as hurricane-unscathed as the original brick structures did. There is no evidence that entrenched poverty has been addressed, and no effort has been made to determine how well the several thousand displaced families are faring with their housing vouchers—or where they landed. The city’s shameful low-wage economy remains in place, and local families struggle to live a minimal life. Nor is there evidence that dispersal has had an impact on crime rates. Without living-wage jobs that can compete with the illegal industries of the streets, it is unclear how much this can change.

For years, public-housing detractors bemoaned the high cost of subsidizing housing for the poor—a policy considered by many to be an important component of a democratic society. The public-housing subsidy is now drastically diminished. Developers and tax-credit investors reap benefits from building new projects, and the largest housing subsidy of all—the mortgage-interest deduction—survives for those fortunate enough to own a home.

The public-housing story is one of the most blatant examples of a “Katrina opportunity” used to undermine the already overly challenged lives of New Orleans’s low-income residents. Sadly, this chapter of the Katrina recovery story diminishes the success of the 10-year rebuilding effort.

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