Monday, September 18, 2006

Survivors Village: Nine Myths and Realities about Public Housing in NO

From the PDF (emphasis added):

1) “The storm did irreparable damage to public housing projects like St. Bernard. For this reason they should be demolished.”

Some public housing apartments were damaged by Katrina, but most were not. The developments HUD wants to demolish remain fit for human habitation. Dr. Marty Rowland, a civil engineer who conducted an informal survey of the units in several developments including St. Bernard, has assessed that the vast majority of units are habitable with rewiring and restoration of utilities. Second and third floor units were hardly damaged at all. Reopening the units would allow residents to return and begin the work of cleaning up.

2) “Those [public housing projects] were horrible places to live in before hurricane Katrina. We should all be glad they’re gone.”

Life for public housing residents in New Orleans may not have been ideal before hurricane Katrina, but this is no reason to demolish their homes. Destroying public housing and
displacing residents will only make their lives more difficult. It will uproot communities, separate families, increase homelessness, and raise unemployment as displaced residents find themselves forced into unfamiliar and hostile surroundings.

Our first step in addressing the problems that public housing residents face should not be to
destroy their homes. Reductions in the total number of affordable housing units is exactly the
opposite of what New Orleans needs right now as more than 200,000 citizens remain displaced.

3) “The projects were breeding grounds for poverty, crime, drug abuse.”

Public housing does not create poverty, crime, drug abuse, or any of the other problems affecting residents and their surrounding communities. These problems are much more complex and widespread. The vast majority of public housing residents are law-abiding productive citizens, no different than in other communities. Reducing public housing subsidies, demolishing units, and forcing out residents is simply another example of the overall problem -- we are taking too much from the working poor who live there and not giving anything back. Public housing does not breed social ills; they are symptoms of racism and poverty.

4) “Public housing and low-income housing in general were always intended as a crutch, a temporary place for people to live while they get back on their feet, find a job, and a permanent home.”

Public housing was created so that families and persons who cannot afford market rate housing can have a roof over their heads. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development imposes no time limits on the duration of a family or individual’s stay in publicly assisted housing (and never has). Public housing was never intended as “temporary assistance.” In fact, projects like St. Bernard and Iberville were built because the country recognized that people working entry-level jobs didn't earn enough to support a family. Living in these projects carried no stigma.

By the 1960s public housing was increasingly designed to serve the needs of those 8.2 million
families living below the poverty line in the United States. In New Orleans before hurricane
Katrina, there were at least 26,000 poor families and almost 30,000 individuals who were eligible for publicly assisted housing.

Another way of estimating the city’s need for better low-income public housing assistance is by
gauging the affordability of housing in New Orleans. Before Katrina 36% of families in New
Orleans spent more than 35% of their income on housing. According to HUD, for housing to be deemed affordable a family should have to “pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing.” Since Katrina, the cost of housing has drastically risen, further increasing the percentage of income that families spend on housing. Clearly there is an enormous need for public housing in New Orleans to support those who cannot afford the privilege of living in Uptown, the Marigny, or out in Jefferson. We should not expect time limits to public housing. It is unrealistic and cruel.

5) “High density and concentrated poverty is the problem. If we just reduce the number of units by redeveloping them, spreading them out, and building ‘mixed income’ or ‘mixed use’ buildings we can revitalize these communities.”

This statement illustrates what social scientists call a “spatial fetish.” A spatial fetish is a theory or belief that claims poverty, crime, delinquency, or other social ills are caused by poor urban planning, residential density and crowding, or general urban environment. It is a fetish because it draws attention away from the real causes of poverty. It is appealing because it proposes simple solutions that involve mostly the redevelopment of urban space without the need to address issues of racism or social justice.

Social scientists have not demonstrated a causal link between concentrated poverty and increased social problems within specific neighborhoods. There is a correlation, but simply erasing pockets of concentrated poverty by demolishing and redeveloping them does nothing to solve the problem. It does however cause mass displacement of public housing residents in the meantime.

6) “Poor people will have more opportunities to better themselves when they are integrated in mixed income communities.”

This is wishful thinking at best. Many displaced residents experience no positive change in their life chances after their former homes are demolished and redeveloped along these lines. Indeed, because redevelopment takes years and 80-90 percent of residents are not allowed to return, many find themselves further dislocated and entrenched in poverty.

The real problems are poverty and racism. Mixed income communities cannot be created by
decree. They can only be created once society is more equitable and people have more control
over their lives. If we are serious about creating mixed-income communities we will develop
affordable and public housing in affluent communities and provide more support and services to poorer areas rather than forcing out residents and redeveloping their homes in the name of some elusive goal.

7) “Public housing and low-income housing programs are government handouts (entitlements) that should be ended. It just perpetuates the cycle of poverty, hopelessness, and irresponsibility amongst the poor.”

Public housing programs are ‘government handouts,’ but so are the enormous middle and upperclass housing subsidies that dwarf HUD’s programs targeting assistance to the poor and working class. In 2006 the federal government will funnel $136 billion in guaranteed loan commitments to middle and upper-class homebuyers. Compare this to only $6 billion that will [be] spent on housing for the elderly, housing for the disabled, AND public housing combined. ...

8) “Residents don’t want to come home. They’ll be happier and better off with the opportunity that hurricane Katrina has provided.”

It’s probably true that some residents are choosing not to return to their previous homes. However, published US guidelines guarantee the right of return for internally displaced people, and many thousands do want to return to their homes in New Orleans. Instead of assuming what residents want, HANO, prospective developers, and civic groups should do everything they can to reach out to public housing residents and listen to their concerns and desires.

9) “HUD has already decided to demolish St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, and the Lafitte projects to build better ‘mixed-income’ communities in their place. People should move on.”

While HUD’s proposal is unfortunate, it is by no means the final word. Residents are returning
and want their homes back. We should support them in their right to return regardless of what
HUD has said it intends to do. HUD’s plan for these four developments is virtually the same
blueprint it used in the failed River Garden experiment that has not provided adequate housing for former St. Thomas residents. This is a national trend that is pushing tens of thousands of poor citizens out of their homes and demolishing their communities. So called “mixed-income” communities are always built on demolished low-income communities. They typically result in far fewer affordable housing units for those who used to live there and marked increases of homeless families.



Notes removed from original.

14 Comments:

Blogger mominem said...

Why should we not abolish the abysmally failed HANO and establish NOHA (New Orleans Housing Assistance) which would provide housing vouchers to those families who are eligible for assistance?

Tue Sep 19, 01:16:00 AM  
Blogger Schroeder said...

I'm going to chew on this one for a while, because it raises so many interesting questions about poverty, democracy, the abdication of the responsibility of society in a market-based economy to fill the needs created by inequality, and even faith.

The issue of "temporary assistance" and use of the term "entry-level job" really popped out at me.

I think a search for the definition of "entry-level job" would go a long way to helping understand why poverty exists in the first place.

The point I would make is that poverty is not a temporary condition -- it is in large part a structural byproduct of "free-market" capitalism. Even the most right-wing free-market advocate could be forced to admit that capitalism requires government support to enforce rules about fair competition to prevent monopoly, to enforce contracts, to litigate (and reduce the costs of litigation by enforcing laws to avoid abuses), and to create the entire superstructure of money, money supply, money support (i.e., money value), and banking and investment, all of which permit the accumulation of capital. These are, obviously, extremely costly subsidies by government to support the "free" market.

So when the "free" market fails to provide proper signals and supports to raise children into adults who can fulfill their potential and succeed in that market, then the market has failed, and society has an obligation to clean up the mess it has created.

When society instead chooses to cast aside those people who don't succeed in the marketplace, it is only displacing the problem somewhere else. In a place like New Orleans, with a highly dysfunctional economy based largely on low-paying services, high-paying lawyers, medical professionals, and government contractors, there is an extremely high responsibility that society has to balance the playing field -- not just a local responsibility, but a federal responsibility.

It's not just a social responsibility, but should be considered a fundamental moral obligation of people of any belief system. To view the problem of poverty any other way is a convenient "displacement" of personal morality using justifications made by an elite class of people who probably drive to church services in expensive luxury vehicles.

Tue Sep 19, 01:21:00 AM  
Blogger G Bitch said...

After you, Schroeder, I sound like a babbling idiot. You laid it all out. Many thanks.

Mominem, the idea of vouchers works only in the ideal. In a city where gainfully employed folks are having a hard time finding affordable housing, what possible incentives are there to honor vouchers? Or create enough supply for them to be viable? Before Katrina, the waiting list for Section 8 in NO was, I often heard, so long as to create a 1-3 year waiting period and that was just to get the voucher, not to find a place to live. In our post-Kat economy where landlords/owners are jacking up rents to make a quick buck (home sale prices are also like this; a house next to my grandmother's worth less than $70K before the storm is now on the market for $150 with no changes in the structure or neighborhood), it's highly unlikely that vouchers will solve even a fraction of the problem. And as Schroeder said so well, this is not just about a few people needing a place to live. This is about our national, state and local economies, ideologies, neglect, willful delusions (do you know I have actually had to say to students, and gotten looks back, "Poverty is not a lack of morals but a lack of money"?) and the perpetuation of inequality to benefit a few. No housing project created that.

And HANO is the organization that ran things. Tearing that apart might work. Maybe. Ideally. Tearing down actual buildings because HANO workers were corrupt, incompetent, indifferent, under-staffed and/or -trained, etc. punishes the working poor, single mothers and children and elderly people who are the victims of HANO, not its architects. NO's economy depends on low-wage workers but the housing market relies on overpaid executives, lawyers and doctors. (No offense to lawyers and doctors but other professions also deserve largesse for keeping the shit running around and under them.) That can't be solved with a handful of vouchers.

I've been on public assistance. It was no gravy train. Once I got a check for $5. For an entire month's "assistance." From WIC we got cheese and peanut butter and 1 pound of dry beans a month. We were damn grateful for it but I will not lick the ass of the system because of it.

Tue Sep 19, 07:01:00 AM  
Blogger Professor Zero said...

OK I'll make a link to this, this very week!

Tue Sep 19, 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger mominem said...

I just did some checking and in 2004 HANO has an operating budget of $161,000,000. That covered 16,779 units. Including 7379 owned and 9400 Section 8 units.

If that money were delivered directly to the people eligible for assistance it would work out to not quite $800 per month.

Tue Sep 19, 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger G Bitch said...

If only it were that simple.

Even if it were that simple, would 10,000 "units" appear? Would Section 8 still inspect those properties? If so, how would those inspectors be paid and how many would there be? If not, is it okay if that $800/month of taxpayer money goes to slumlords and exploiters and others sick with greed? To apartments filled with flaking lead paint, broken or missing toilets, holes in the floor, no heat? How far does $800/month go right now? Most folks eligible for Section 8 have children. We're not talking 3-person families but 5-. 6-. sometimes 8-person families. You might find a studio for $800. Then there are all the other needs of the working poor, like public transportation, health care, child care, decent schooling (for their children and themselves), none of which is addressed by a voucher.

I wish it were just that simple.

Tue Sep 19, 05:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Would love to see people out at our Thursday night meetings to organize for the reopenning of ALL public housing units in New Orleans. Residents of public housing have still been refused the right to return to their homes. United Front for Affordable Housing meetings Thursday Nights at 7:00pm at St. Jude's Community Center at 400 N. Rampart St. http://www.c3nola.org/ Survivors Village meetings are Monday nights on St. Berndard Ave across from the St. Bernard Housing Project. You'l see the signs. I'm not sur what time they are at, but they usually try to end before the bugs come out. So I think 5 or 6. http://www.survivorsvillage.com/

There will also be a panel discussion on public services in New Orleans (transportation, housing, health, education, etc) on thursday the 28th at 7:00pm at St. Jude's community center.

Wed Sep 20, 08:33:00 PM  
Blogger G Bitch said...

Thanks, Brian!

Wed Sep 20, 11:09:00 PM  
Blogger mominem said...

I guess I have more faith in the market to deliver and in the recipients of the vouchers to make decisions for themselves.

If they don't like the landlord they can move.

The whole Section 8 program is rotten from the core. The "landlords" get the money and it virtually impossible to evict them from the program. Just like it's virtually impossible for trouble makers to be evicted from public housing.

The insertion of any bureaucracy into the transaction makes it almost impossible for anything to happen.

The most impossible thing in the world is to make a bureaucrat to make a decision.

The US housing support system is a lot like debtors prison, except you don't have to be a debtor to enter.

Thu Sep 21, 09:57:00 PM  
Blogger prancerst said...

Go to whitehouse.gov/ask and under August, 2006 you will find an interview with Donald Powell, Bush's Puppet Federal Coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding. He's very proud of HUD's redevelopment plan for four public projects.
One of them is the Fischer Project. Now, it's been 20 years since I lives in NOLA, so I could be wrong, but isn't Fischer on the West Bank. A year to get it back online? A year for people on the WEST BANK to get their homes bank?
No wonder it's so easy for HUD to make bogus claims about the condition of the other buildings. They have everyone in the Bush team on their side.

Fri Sep 22, 11:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Grandmère Mimi said...

I guess I have more faith in the market to deliver and in the recipients of the vouchers to make decisions for themselves.

Mominem, I wish I had your faith in the market. Look at where the untrammelled market has gotten us today. The rich do very well; the poor suffer; the middle class is disappearing. The US looks more third-worldish every day to me.

Fri Sep 22, 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger mominem said...

Grandmère Mimi;

I wish some one had tried. The market has never been given a chance because those with the best interests of the poor at heart have never given the poor credit for making rational decisions.

Maybe in New Orleans; Post Katrina we could try an experiment.

Sun Sep 24, 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger G Bitch said...

I wish some one had tried. The market has never been given a chance because those with the best interests of the poor at heart have never given the poor credit for making rational decisions.

You speak of The Market with religious fervor. It is The Market that creates conditions of poverty and perpetuates them to the advantage of others. And what you refer to as "rational decisions" worries me--so people are poor b/c of poor decision -making? they live in substandard housing b/c they can't make better decisions? they WANT their kids to go to shitty schools? When you don't have much money, most "decisions" are not--you take what you can get, go without, wheel and deal, close your eyes. You can't seriously think that folks choose to raise children on minimum wage. Some things are beyond your control, esp. since money tends to mean control.

I call the belief in The Market religious b/c it is--"religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern" (Harrris, The Enf of Faith, 65). There is little evidence The Market (alone, not regulated by government) can help the poor with income, housing, schooling, etc. and to argue that it will "b/c" or "it's never been tried" or "the people know better" is to ignore much concrete evidence and consequences.

I do not disagree b/c I do not fully understand your position/argument. I've heard it before, well- and -long-argued. I don't buy it b/c I've seen no evidence belief in The Market bears out for anyone but the already-haves (they more hhey have, the better). The Market says you get what you pay for and are worth what you earn. That's what The Market has contributed to the situation.

Mon Sep 25, 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger G Bitch said...

I wouldn't want my life, or my child's, to be someoen's "experiment."

Mon Sep 25, 05:03:00 PM  

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