Hurricane Katrina caused widespread devastation and loss of life, and many of those whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged fled New Orleans.
In the months that followed, many of the city’s poorest families got even more bad news: The public housing units they called home would be knocked down, even if undamaged by the storm.
The destruction had given the government an opening to speed up its pre-Katrina plans to tear down old public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments. The goal was to deconcentrate poverty and give lower-income residents a better place to live — a goal that has been met with only partial success.
Angry residents sued and protested the city’s plans. But today, the projects — known as “the bricks” — are gone, replaced with rows of pastel-colored cottages and garden apartments. Many of them have balconies and porches. There are pools, playgrounds and community centers with job placement services and activities for residents.
At the time of Katrina, more than 5,000 families lived in public housing; today, there are only 1,900. Other poor families have relocated to places like Houston and Atlanta, or moved elsewhere within New Orleans.
“We were like confetti, just snatched out of our comfort zone, and just thrown, scattered wherever we fell,” says 81-year-old Emelda Paul, who was evacuated to Arizona.
While she was gone, she was upset to find out that the Lafitte public housing project that had been her home for decades was sealed up and slated for demolition. But today, after years of working with the redevelopers on the new site, she’s back and very happy.
“It’s like in another world. It’s like Alice in Wonderland,” Paul says. “I just, just love it, period.”
Paul lives in a spacious one-bedroom apartment at what’s now called Faubourg Lafitte. All the projects have new names, like Harmony Oaks and Columbia Parc. Her unit has wide closets, wood floors and an up-to-date kitchen.
Her old unit wasn’t as big, she says, and residents had to buy their own appliances, such as washers, dryers and stoves.
But other former residents aren’t so pleased. Bobbie Jennings, 69, lives in a two-story townhouse at Harmony Oaks, the site of the former C.J. Peete housing project, where she lived at the time of Katrina. The new housing is prettier and safer, she says.
“You don’t hear all the gunshots you used to hear. You don’t see all the drugs you used to see,” she acknowledges.
But it’s not home.
“It’s hard to explain,” Jennings says. “There’s something missing, and you miss it every day. You miss your neighbors for one. Like we used to sit on the steps and conversate with our neighbors, and it’s not like that anymore.”
Jennings says there are so many new rules. She can’t plant a vegetable garden out front, like she used to, or use a hose to spray the kids on a hot summer day. Big barbecues — with music, everyone hanging out, talking — aren’t allowed.
“We can have a party, but it’s more like a secret. You have a secret party,” she says. “That’s not fun.”
The new rules do make it a nicer place to live, some residents say. But others complain about the loss of community and the sky-high utility bills that residents have to pay, along with one-third of their income on rent.
And even though every resident at the time of Katrina was told they could return, it didn’t always work out that way, says Laura Tuggle, executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which provides civil legal aid for low-income clients involved in housing and other disputes.
“Some folks weren’t able to, or either felt they weren’t able to, go back home to public housing,” she says.
Tuggle says some residents couldn’t pass tougher criminal background and credit checks at the new developments, or lacked the money they needed to move back.
But more often than not, she says, those who didn’t return, did so by choice. Most were given government housing vouchers they could use to subsidize rents elsewhere and liked that flexibility.
“If you go back to a public housing unit in a redeveloped site, you gotta give up your voucher,” Tuggle says. “And a lot of folks just, they like the vouchers.”
While the number of public housing units in the city has dropped, the number of vouchers has doubled — to 17,632 — more than making up the difference.
Despite the popularity of the vouchers, though, those using them often end up clustered in other high-poverty areas around the city, studies show.
“Very often it is difficult or nearly impossible for voucher holders to find housing that they can afford in areas of high opportunity,” says Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
She says many of these families, most of whom are African-American, have a hard time finding landlords willing to accept the vouchers. And she says that can mean they end up with less opportunity, not more.
“They have to look at some of these neighborhoods that are further away from the city and again they are segregated in neighborhoods that are chronically poor and very often racially segregated,” says Hill.
Still, Gregg Fortner, who has run the Housing Authority of New Orleans for the past year, says that despite trying, the city has been unable to fill all the new public housing slots with those evacuated after the storm.
“I have not heard since I’ve been here that anyone who wanted to go back to one of those communities was not allowed to go back,” he says.
Instead, Fortner says, the city faces a different problem. Since Katrina, rents in New Orleans have soared, which means a whole new wave of people who need help. The waiting list for subsidized housing has 16,000 families on it. And that list has been closed for years.
“So if we opened that wait list today, we may have … 50,000 households apply,” he says.
And that’s putting pressure on developers to finish fixing up the old public housing sites, which are years behind schedule in some cases.
Michelle Whetten of Enterprise Community Partners, the nonprofit co-developer of Faubourg Lafitte, says the group is a couple of years behind, largely because the recession dried up private funding needed for the projects. She says it could be years away, but they’re still committed to replacing all 900 original affordable housing units, along with 600 market-rate apartments.
“We actually have affordable units at this end of the site and at the far end, and the market-rate units are kind of in between, so they’re not totally set apart from the affordable units,” she says, pointing to rows of two-story apartments on the former Lafitte public housing project site.
That’s part of the goal of mixing poor families with those who are better off, and maybe providing role models for some of the kids. So far, a few police officers, security guards and offshore oil workers have moved in. Faubourg Lafitte resident Emelda Paul thinks it’s great for several reasons.
“Coming together. And stop segregating ourself. Let’s learn about each other, each other’s culture,” Paul says. “And since some of the people move in, I’ve seen ’em and I let them know who I am. I says ‘And welcome to the neighborhood.’ ”