Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Demolition crews arrive at B.W. Cooper

Demolition crews this afternoon began tearing down 14 brick buildings at the B.W. Cooper public housing development -- work that had been scheduled long before Hurricane Katrina struck two years ago.

That meant nothing to protesters who tried to block a second crane that arrived to the 3400 block of Erato Street after 3 p.m., chanting "Housing is a human right."

"This is immoral and must be stopped," said Don Everard, an activist who stood right in front of the wrecking crew's path. "It's a hate crime. It's a hate crime against poor people."

Attorney Bill Quigley, a Loyola Law School professor who is leading a civil rights lawsuit against the demolition of public housing, said that more protests will follow the wrecking crews, which are set to descend on Cooper and two other complexes Saturday.

"At least," said Quigley, eyeing the scores of protesters, which included members of Safe Streets New Orleans.

Known as the "new side" to Cooper residents, the flat-topped dormitory-style buildings were opened around 1950 and were designed much differently than the handsome pitched-roof style buildings that flank Earhart Bouelvard.

With open, common-use hallways, the buildings became crime havens, said B.W. Cooper Resident Management Corporation president Darrell Williams.

"They were never upgraded," said Williams. "The criminal element was always present. We welcomed those being torn down."

Sharon Sears Jasper, who lived at the St. Bernard complex before the storm forced her out, held a bullhorn and led protesters to condemn the demolition. By 6 p.m., a crowd of about 500 protesters had winnowed down to around 200, and backhoes had been silent since about 3 p.m. The crowd was a mix of residents with small children, and seasoned protestors who alternated chanting into a bullhorn.

In June, the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced they would demolish the city's four largest developments -- B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard, C.J. Peete and Lafitte, to make way for "mixed income" modern-day housing.

Demolition on all sites except Lafitte is scheduled for Saturday.

Poor Hit Hardest by Climate Change

BALI, Indonesia (AP) -- Surrounded by rising seas and short of water, the glitzy city state of Singapore has built one of the world's largest desalination plants and is paying Dutch experts tens of millions of dollars to devise ways to protect their island.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, is digging out from a cyclone that killed at least 3,200 and left millions homeless. The impoverished country wants to build up its coastlines to ward off the potentially devastating impacts of global warming, but has no money.

The disparities between the rich and poor in adapting to encroaching oceans and the floods and droughts that are expected to worsen with rising temperatures have dominated the U.N. climate conference on Indonesia's resort island of Bali.

Many delegates touched Wednesday on the inequalities in both the levels of assistance and impacts of climate change when they spoke at the opening of high-level talks.

The haves -- which pump the lion's share of pollutants into the atmosphere -- are arguing about emission targets and high-tech solutions. The have-nots -- which contribute little to global warming but are disproportionately among the victims -- need tens of billions of dollars to save their sinking islands, to help farmers adapt and to relocate those in the path of destruction.

''The issue of equity is crucial. Climate affects us all, but does not affect us all equally,'' U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told delegates. ''Those who are least able to cope are being hit hardest. Those who have done the least to cause the problem bear the gravest consequences.''

The United Nations Development Program says 98 percent of the 262 million people hit by disasters from 2000 to 2004 came from impoverished countries, while the money to prevent disasters in the United Kingdom alone was six times what was spent in all poor countries.

The number of people affected by natural disasters has quadrupled over the past two decades -- from famines in Africa to floods in South Asia, according to Oxfam International, though it is not clear how much of that is due to global warming.

But with scientists predicting that temperatures could rise by as much as 5 degrees Celsius -- 9 degrees Fahrenheit -- things are only expected to get worse.

The U.N. predicts that about 1.8 billion of the most vulnerable people across the globe will be hit by water shortages, 600 million more will go hungry and 32 million will be displaced by droughts and floods.

''Poor countries have really urgent priorities -- putting food on the table, accessing water, health care,'' said Antonio Hill, a climate change expert with Oxfam. ''On all these issues, climate change is making these things worse.''

From Venice to New Orleans, the West is already taking action to fight climate change within their borders.

Canada said Monday it would spend $85.4 million on adaptation measures, including tens of millions of dollars to help its Inuit communities adapt to warming Arctic climate.

The low-lying Netherlands -- which for centuries has built a vast network of canal systems, experience it is now passing on -- is spending an additional $25 billion to improve its water defenses. Italy is doing the same.

Singapore, meanwhile, has built a 139 million desalination plant to boost its domestic water supply and teamed up with the Dutch engineering firm Delft Hydraulics as part of a more than $208 million effort to become a hub for climate change research -- much as it has for biotech and the medical industry.

The tiny city-state is itself vulnerable to global warming, but also realizes that ''there is great potential to make money,'' said Peter Ng, who is part of the Dutch partnership called Singapore Delft Water Alliance. ''If we play our cards right and do what we do well, other countries will come to us for help.''

Poor nations, in the meantime, are doing what little they can.

Some are creating early warning systems, building bamboo storm shelters on stilts or making plans to relocate island communities. But the money often does not reach villages hardest hit by worsening floods and the rising seas.

In Kaoakola located along Bangladesh's Jamuna River, for instance, Mohammad Sheikh complains he has been forced to move his house three times because of increased floods.

''We're very poor. We can't afford it,'' the 70-year-old said, adding that he has been forced to become a day laborer after his 300 acres were lost to flooding. ''The river, the floods have taken everything from me.''

The Maldives -- a popular tourist destination made up of more than 1,000 low-lying islands -- also exemplifies the limits of good intentions in developing countries. It has rolled out plans to move communities to a few, well-protected islands, but so far has only been able to come up with the money to build up one such island.

''Climate change has become a daily reality in the Maldives and other small island states,'' said the country's president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, recalling how his islands were being hit by storm surges and erosion while fish were dying of mysterious diseases.

Even if the maximum suggested assistance is approved, it won't cover the costs.

Up to $300 million will be available annually if a U.N. adaptation fund is created in Bali as expected, and up to another $1.5 billion a year if an international climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, is approved.

That still falls far short of the nearly $86 billion the UNDP estimates is needed annually by 2015, prompting some to suggest that additional mechanisms, such as a tax on bunker fuels or, as Oxfam demands, funding targets for industrialized countries.

Impoverished nations are also demanding a post-Kyoto agreement offer increased access to technology for adaptation and assurances the money for climate response won't be taken from already meager development aid.

''The money they put up for this adaptation fund is peanuts. It's nothing,'' said Khandaker Rashedul Haque, a Ministry of Environment comparing his problems in Bangladesh to those of New Orleans, which is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

''Why are they putting up a few billion for a city like New Orleans when they are putting up a few million for the entire world?''

LRA accepts home buyout plan

BATON ROUGE -- The Louisiana Recovery Authority on Tuesday approved Orleans and Jefferson parishes' plans to deal with thousands of storm-damaged properties being sold to the state through the Road Home program.

So far, 2,000 homeowners have sold their properties to the state -- rather than renovate or rebuild -- but officials expect about 15,000 will take the buyout option by the time the homeowner grant program is done.

Ultimately, those properties will be transferred to local governments which will decide what to do with them, such as renovate or redevelop, or convert them into parks or green space. The LRA must approve each parish's plan for the buyout properties it receives.

Of the two plans approved, the largest came from New Orleans, which expects its New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to receive 7,000 Road Home properties in the next year. The city's plan calls for the properties to be sold to developers or cleared for parks and community gardens in the next 10 years.

A goal of the city plan is to avoid putting too many of the properties on the market too quickly, out of concern that supply will outpace demand and lead to blight in some neighborhoods, NORA Executive Director Joe Williams said.

Williams said that even before any Road Home properties are passed on to NORA, a process that will start next year, there already are about 2,400 properties on the market in New Orleans, a year's worth of housing supply. Ommeed Sathe, a land policy expert for NORA, said healthy real estate markets should have six to nine months of inventory.

NORA also is concerned about how it will cover costs to keep the properties maintained and secure, a bill that could reach $12.5 million a year. LRA Housing Chairman Walter Leger said the board would look at ways to help the parishes pay such costs, and Sathe said it would be important to hold the LRA to that.

Jefferson Parish's plan, which is slated for approval by the Jefferson Parish Council today, is far smaller and doesn't have such complicated strategic issues. It is based on fewer than 200 properties and seeks to sell all of them at auction within a year.

St. Bernard Parish, which expects to get nearly as many buyout properties as Orleans, was the first parish to offer a redevelopment plan, but the LRA said it must be reworked to adhere to federal requirements before it can be approved.

Each parish plan also must set aside 25 percent of the properties for low- to moderate-income housing. In its plan, Jefferson Parish said it might not be able to adhere to that requirement because of the high cost of development.

A faith-based organization, the Jeremiah Group, may have found a way to make that requirement easier. It asked the LRA to dedicate $75 million in the affected parishes to so-called "soft-second mortgages," subsidized no-interest second mortgages that are typically forgiven if the buyer stays in the house for 10 years.

The LRA voted Tuesday to redirect $35 million to the subsidies. The LRA previously had put that into a tax-credit program for large rental property developers, but the Jeremiah Group, which had long fought to protect the rental money, said Monday it would support stripping the money because it would help many renters become homeowners.

Leger said his LRA housing task force would meet in a week to try to come up with another $40 million, possibly from the LRA's $869 million Road Home small rental program.

Donald Vallee, head of the New Orleans Landlords Association, said drawing down from the small rental program would be a mistake. He said that program needs more money, not less.

"Many housing loan programs are available in the industry that provide this service to homeowners," Vallee said of soft-second mortgages. "None, if any, are available to restore or build rental housing for our work force and displaced residents."

All told, it was a good day at the LRA for the hurricane-affected parishes, with the biggest news being the board's preliminary approval of $500 million to help 23 parishes with their long-term recovery efforts.

Sathe said the infrastructure financing, the redevelopment strategy and the extra help for homebuyers will work together to drive an efficient redevelopment effort.

"It's three legs of a stool, and all will help revitalize our city's neighborhoods," Sathe said.