PHRF Reconstruction Committee Field Work Group Critique of the Bring New Orleans Back Proposal

Our general critique of the “Bring New Orleans Back” plan commissioned by Mayor Nagin is based on residents’ major concerns about the right to return, community-based economic development, neighborhood planning, greenspacing, and levee reconstruction.

The People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition (PHRF/OC) is a coalition of more than 100 civil society organizations within New Orleans and around the country supporting citizen and community involvement in the redevelopment planning and implementation process. The Policy Field Work Section of the PHRF/OC Reconstruction Committee took on the task of reviewing existing redevelopment plans and proposing alternative plans and democratic, community-based economic development strategies. PHRF/OC/s highest priority is ensuring the right of return to all of the Survivors displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Survivors’ right of return includes addressing a process to make it possible for survivors to return as soon as possible, and attending to their immediate needs in New Orleans and in the Diaspora (clean up, environmental justice, temporary to permanent housing, transportation, jobs, health care, education, child care). The right to return also requires environmental reconstruction including toxic clean up, environmental sustainability planning, and reconstruction of the levees to withstand Category 5 level hurricanes. In addition, the survivors’ right to return must address the racial/ethnic and class biases in existing plans. The “build at your own risk” and “greenspace” plans, for example, are thinly masked ethnic-cleansing, “Negro removal” plans in the guise of environmental sustainability and free enterprise individualism. As such they are unacceptable.

Principles and Values: We use the following values to evaluate plans and strategies for rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

*Anti-racist and oppression framework for policy and planning is essential. Any successful plan must address issues of race, class and gender discrimination. No plans that fail to addressed and challenge the underlying and historic racial inequities will work.

*Human Rights and Human Development perspectives emphasize the dignity of all human beings, and include cultural, economic, social and political rights. We evaluate the human development concerns of New Orleans residents and place human rights policy at the center of the analysis. We utilize a people-centered human development approach emphasizing a process of enlarging people’s choices and building human capabilities to enable them to: live long and healthy lives, have easy access to information, have a decent standard of living, and participate in the life of their community and the decisions that affect their lives. Economic and environmental sustainability, prosperity for all, and democratic participation are essential.

*Equity Planning for all New Orleans Survivors and neighborhoods focuses our analysis on equal access and opportunity to rebuild as well as the equality of the outcomes of rebuilding strategies. Such a strategy also recognizes that variations in neighborhoods and their needs exist - some neighborhoods deserve more attention than others. Many of the neighborhoods that were the products of racial segregation and historically underserved by governmental and economic institutions were also the same neighborhoods to suffer the greatest devastation from the failure of poorly constructed levees. Equitable development also focuses redevelopment planning around policies and strategies that protect human rights and reduce racial, ethnic, national and gender inequalities.

Overview of Bring New Orleans Back Commission Sub-Committee Reports:
The Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s “Action Plan for New Orleans” consists of a set of sub-committee reports and presentations. The reports covering City Planning, Transit, Economic Development, Culture, Health and Social Services, Education, Criminal Justice System, and Government Effectiveness were developed with limited input from city residents and with little consideration of the specific needs that would be required to enable people to return to the city. The legitimacy of the proposal (which is on its way to the state for approval to be submitted to the federal government for funding, according to WGNO news 3-21-06) is of issue. The board is appointed not elected; the plan has no basis in law; the City Council was circumvented; and no public hearings were held.

The BNOB proposal is a corporate model that only superficially, if at all, addresses the specific needs of African Americans, women, the working class, immigrants, or the disabled. The report accepts stated conservative estimates (from the Rand Corporation) that only about half of the city’s population are expected to return by 2008 and only a third by September 2006. A newer study by Professor Jeff Shadow of LSU-Shreveport suggests that African Americans have and will return faster than previously estimated. The Shadow report also estimates that by September 2006 the total population will be 273,010 (versus the 181,000 projected by the Rand study). This suggests that more resources and emphasis should be placed in areas that will allow and enable greater numbers of the population to return sooner. Therefore many of the assumptions underlying the plan are based on erroneous projections about a smaller city. The plan demonstrates a consistent bias toward special interests in the corporate, tourism, and real estate sectors at the expense of families who have been in the city for centuries. Their needs for affordable housing, good jobs, education, day care, social services, mental health services, and women-specific issues are being deliberately ignored. Large scale displacement of low income residents and communities of color, and the shoring up of pre-Katrina level racial and economic inequality will be the results of the current BNOB proposal.

Our general critique of the “Bring New Orleans Back” plan commissioned by Mayor Nagin is based on residents’ major concerns about the right to return, community-based economic development, neighborhood planning, greenspacing, and levee reconstruction.

RIGHT OF RETURN: There is no plan outlining the right to return. There are no provisions for how to bring people back, how to finance it, or how to address their social, mental and physical health needs. Economic development is not actually addressed for survivors: there is no planning for affordable housing, jobs programs, or community-based development.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: The economic development proposals address bringing back pre-Katrina industries and tourism, and the “infrastructure” needed to rebuild downtown. The report does not include provisions for democratic participation or mechanisms for ensuring accountability in the design, financing, and implementation of policies. The transportation plan, along with other infrastructure plans, repeats the thinking that led to the Katrina disaster; services are once again denied to those communities most dependent upon transportation and other public services. The report is solely industry-focused and disregards the city’s historically rooted communities and neighborhoods. The report does not mention livable wages or state a goal of creating sustainable livelihoods for residents. It focuses on creating a business-friendly environment rather than incentives to bring local businesses and workforce back. The report is also based on the assumption that only certain populations are coming back and then proceeds to develop priorities based on this assumption. Finally, this model of development focuses on assisting historically privileged areas, sectors, and individuals. It exhibits values and intentions that are racially, class, gender, and culturally biased.

CRESCENT CITY RECONSTRUCTION CORPORATION: This CCRC board is a dangerous precedent that would remove home rule and governance rights from citizens and the City Council. Without oversight, they would have control over eminent domain decisions, the “greenspacing” plan, economic employment decisions, and would coordinate the denial of services to the most devastated zones under the “build at your own risk” policy.

GREENSPACING: While promoting the policy of build at your own risk, the revised plan did not abandon the green space program that would turn major African American communities into parks, open spaces, and amusement parks, etc. Predominantly whiter and wealthier areas further below sea level are not included in this program. There was no explanation of why some neighborhoods, like Lakeview, which is actually lower than the 9th Ward, were selected over others. Even if people build at their own risk, this will not prevent the Crescent City Authority from using eminent domain to accomplish the greenspace policy. “Greenspacing” as proposed is essentially predatory “greenwashing” of neighborhoods - using ecological and new urbanism language to “whitewash” or mask ethnic cleansing and removal policies. Ecological solutions do not have to be race and class biased, nor should they destroy Black neighborhoods and communities.

NEIGHBORHOOD PLANS: The deadline for submitting neighborhood plans, even if extended to June 30th, does not recognize the fact that many neighborhoods are just now returning - some people were actually prevented from returning - and need time to organize themselves. The short deadlines allow those neighborhoods that were least damaged and often wealthier and whiter to make the most critical decisions about the reconstruction of the city. The neighborhoods most damaged, which were predominantly Black and mixed income are being left without a voice. Moreover, many of the proposed neighborhood boundaries include a variety of neighborhoods and dilute the individual, cultural and ethnic character and history of the small communities within them. There is not a fair or democratic procedure for creating, submitting, or implementing neighborhood plans. In addition, the Neighborhood Center Model does not recognize existing assets, public spaces and community hubs. Racial and class inequalities are being produced daily by national professional organizations and major universities assisting in the further displacement of devastated communities in favor of wealthy neighborhoods and gentrification projects.

BUILD AT YOUR OWN RISK: Legal action is being considered by the PHRF/OC legal team and others to challenge the “build at your own risk” policy as a taking of property. By denying services to neighborhoods outside the shrunken footprint, it makes insurance, mortgages, and other necessities almost impossible to obtain. It makes it impossible to return for people reliant upon the basic necessities of education, health care, fire protection, sanitation and police services. This is essentially a “land grab”, and raises the question of taxation without representation. That is, being taxed for services not received.

LEVEES: While the plan suggests building levees to withstand Category 5 hurricanes, the US Army Corp. of Engineers is being used to restore the levees to “pre-Katrina” status, and there are no written operational plans to improve them. The US Army Corp. of Engineers has failed to dam the Industrial Canal at Seabrook Bridge (since 1965). The best plan for storm protection is not “common sense” as the plan mentions. We need an adequate system of levees and canals that works with nature’s processes. Many residents will not consider returning until this is accomplished. The longer this takes, the less likely some people will ever return. Thus, displacement becomes permanent.