Grassroots fight for Gulf Coast justice
"We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did. "
- U. S. Rep. Richard H. Baker, R-Baton Rouge
Ten months and counting. Tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors still stranded, flung across the United States much like the slaves after the Civil War, cut loose with only the clothes on their backs.
Today many survivors are facing an even bigger crisis than the flood waters that turned the city of New Orleans into "Lake New Orleans." They have nothing to return too ... no home, no personal possessions and no place to stay.
But they are not taking it lying down. The Big Easy has never been an easy place to get fair and just treatment. Before Katrina, most faced an uphill battle just to survive, particularly low- to moderate-income people. Fighting for justice is nothing new to most New Orleaniaos. So, the battle for the right to return and just compensation continues.
The latest salvo in the second Battle of New Orleans took place last Tuesday in federal district court, in the form of a class action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 1,000 public housing residents against the Department of Housing.and Urban Development - HUD - and the Housing Authority of New Orleans.
Led by a coalition of lawyers, including legal counsel from the Advancement Project, and Loyola University's Gillis Long Poverty Law Center, the lawsuit charges government housing agencies with "ethnic cleansing" and violating fair housing laws.
"This is a systematic attempt . by HUD to reduce the opportunity for African Americans to return home," said Bill Quigley, a Loyola Law School professor. "HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson is on record as saying that' New Orleans will never be a predominately Black city again," Quigley adds.
, The systematic elimination I of public housing residents has been going on for a decade, he continued. "Ten years ago, th'ere were 13,500 public housing units.
Today there are"7;500, and they are trying to wipe
those out now," said Quigley.
The civil rights attorney said the legal team last week filed an administrative complaint with the HUD inspector general on behalf of homeowners. Those who had no flood insurance will incur a 30 percent penalty, which will be deducted from the $150,000 they may be eligible for from the state's "Louisiana Road Home" program.
"The program doesn't offer a road home for most people," Quigley added. Homeowners who did have flood insurance, if they qualify for the so-called home repair, renovation or rebuilding grant from the state, will receive $150,000 minus flood insurance payouts and FEMA aid.
If the HUD inspector general refuses to investigate or mandate transparency, oversight and accountability from government agencies handling billions headed to Louisiana and New Orleans for affordable housing, "We will go to court to stop the Louisiana Recovery Authority's Road Home program," Quigley affirmed.
At least 50 percent of Community Development Block Grant monies must go to low- and moderate~
income city residents, according to federal laws. In short, the neediest must benefit from at least half of the $8 billion expected to reach local and state government.
Endesha Juakali, a lawyer and long time grassroots activist, grew up in the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. He is one of several community organizers involved in the Survivors' Village Direction Action Collective, a tent city project of the United Front for Affordable Housing Coalition. The coalition is comprised of New Day, the New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team (NOHEAT.org) , C3 NOLA/Hands Off Iberville (c3nola.org) and the Common Ground Collective (commongroundrelief.org).
Survivors' Village opened on June 3 and is occupied mostly by men, many of whom lived in public housing developments before the storm.
"The government has got to come in and rebuild the entire city. That's the only way that redevelopment is going to happen," said Juakali. He strongly criticized HUD, saying the agency is "using us as a guinea pig" or a model for redeveloping public housing across the U.S. "HUD has no intention of rebuilding public housing," he continued, noting that the Lafitte, C.J. Peete and B. W. Cooper Public Housing Developments are slated for closure.
Pamela Mahogany also grew up in the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. She is working in the movement for justice for New Orleanians, too. "I had about more than 1 a feet in my apartment."
When the water was chest-high, Mahogany, 5 feet, 7 inches, and her son walked to the other end of the development to his Godmother's house. One of her sons-in-law liberated a boat and 13 family members and friends evacuated to the 1-610. The National Guard stopped the rescue effort at nightfall. Mahogany and her fellow evacuees spent the night on the interstate highway.
The next morning, they walked for three hours until they reached the Superdome.
"That was another nightmare. We had a portable radio. People were shooting in the Superdome. We spent two days waiting for a bus." The National Guard stood at attention as they boarded a Florida bound bus. Halfway there, they turned around and headed to Plano, Texas, where Mahogany joined relatives.
She returned to New Orleans on Labor Day and began working with others to ensure the right to return for public housing residents.
"We set up the tents as a symbol that we all want to come home," said Mahogany, of the St. Bernard's 997 displaced tenants. '" really want to go back to my house," she said. "Drugs and murder will no longer be a part of our community. I know it existed," but such criminal activity will not be acceptable in the new St. Bernard development.
"They're saying we've got all that mold and mildew. But that is only in first floor units.
"I want to have a home one day, but you have to have funds to maintain and manage a house," adds Mahogany. "Right now, we want to work with our own residents and educate them about their rights," she continued.
The coalition is playing a July 4 protest action. "We're expecting people from Houston. We need people to come out and support the cause."
Twelve feet of water invaded Juakali's home on St. Bernard Avenue. "We caught water from the 17th Street Canal levee breach and the London Avenue Canal." Juakali, who had focused more in recent years on his work as a consultant and professor at Southern University at New Orleans, said the Katrina disaster brought him out of retirement.
"The big secret about this fight is we're going to win it. Something good came out of St. Thomas," Juakali said of the much maligned private-public Hope VI development spearheaded by wealthy developer Pres Kabacoff, largely with public dollars.
At the end of the day, St. Thomas public housing development was replaced by a mixed use development that only high middle- and upper-income earners could afford. The 1,200 displaced St. Thomas families offer a grim look at gentrification and its aftermath.
"St. Thomas was a good thing. Everybody got screwed. All the white property owners who supported him (Kabacoff) got screwed when he brought in Wal-Mart over their objections. If Pres Kabacoff comes anywhere near S1. Bernard, we're going to cane him." Further, "Alphonso Jackson and Bush are both lame ducks."
The lawsuit, he said, is based on a violation of the Fair Housing Act and racial discrimination in housing. "If you want to do redevelopment, tenants must be a part of the planning process. We have to make sure they don't get excluded like in St. Thomas," Juakali continued.
The community activist took issue with a statement . made by City Councilman-at-Large Oliver Thomas, who said that drug dealers and criminals are not welcome to return. And that 'We don't want people watching soap operas in there.'
"There is no public housing now, and they're killing five at a time," Juakali said of the recent multiple murders of five young men under age 19.
"You can't displace people and not bring them home. Everyone should come home and join the planning process. Katrina didn't do nothing to us. The Army Corps of Engineers did this to us," the activist said.
The coalition protests the ill-treatment every week by disrupting the flow of activities in wealthy, upscale areas of New Orleans. Last week it was St. Charles Avenue. This weekend, it's the French Quarter.
The housing coalition wants all of the city's public housing to be re-opened. Their slogan is 'No to Racial and Class Cleansing, and Bring New Orleans Home Now.'
"On July 4, we're going to mount a major protest. We may commit acts of civil disobedience," Juakali said.
CC Campbell-Rock, a native New Orleanian, veteran journalist and Katrina evacuee, is the editor of the Bay View. Email heratcampbellrock [at] sfbayview [dot] com.