Friday, December 21, 2007

Violent Protest Over Housing in New Orleans

After protesters clashed violently with the police inside and outside the New Orleans City Council chambers on Thursday, the council voted unanimously to allow the federal government to demolish 4,500 apartments in the four biggest public housing projects in the city.

But the council also called on the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reopen some apartments in the closed projects immediately, and to rebuild all of the public-housing units that it bulldozes. The agency plans to replace barracks-style projects, known as “the bricks,” with mixed-income developments.

“We need affordable housing in this city,” said Shelley Stephenson Midura, who proposed the resolution adopted by the council. But, she continued, “public housing ought not to be the warehouse for the poor.”

Advocates for public housing residents contend that the agency’s plan will not provide enough housing for the 3,000 families who lived in the projects before Hurricane Katrina, almost all of whom were black. Many of them have not been able to return to the city, and some protesters say they are being deliberately excluded from New Orleans.

“The issue is and the question remains, who’s in the mix,” said Torin T. Sanders, pastor of the Sixth Baptist Church, referring to the plan for mixed-income housing. He and other speakers at the four-hour hearing that preceded the vote said that previous redevelopment efforts had shut out most public housing residents.

The city’s shortage of low-cost housing is only going to get worse in the coming months, as the federal government tries to move more than 30,000 people out of government-owned trailers, said Courtney Cowart, strategic director of disaster response for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.

But representatives of the residents’ councils at three projects spoke earlier in the hearing, describing the poor conditions at the complexes before the storm and expressing their support for the new plans. “It’s about being able to walk into a house and say this is a house, not a project,” said Donna Johnigan, a resident at the B.W. Cooper Apartments, which the government began to demolish last week.

The future of public housing in the city has been a subject of passionate debate in this storm-scarred city, involving race, money, history, the right to return — and who gets to make the decisions.

That the three blacks and four whites on the council joined to support the demolitions seemed to echo a widely held feeling here, crossing racial lines, that the old housing projects were deeply dysfunctional, both for their residents and for the people who lived around them.

Mistrust of the government was voiced by many of the speakers who opposed the demolitions, while supporters said most of the protesters were outsiders who did not live in New Orleans, much less in the four housing projects.

Police officers on foot and horseback tried to keep protesters out of the council chambers once all the seats were filled. Demonstrators tried to push through some iron gates to get into the chambers when the police used what appeared to be pepper spray and stun guns; at least two demonstrators needed medical treatment.

There was also a brief fight inside the chambers and the police ejected some demonstrators. About 15 protesters were arrested, the police said, mostly on charges of disturbing the peace.

Adam Nossiter reported from New Orleans, and Leslie Eaton from Dallas.