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