Wednesday, December 19, 2007

St. Tammany to cut utilities to 166 FEMA trailers

St. Tammany Parish officials say they will move to disconnect utilities early next month to 166 FEMA trailers whose residents do not have special permits to continue using them as temporary homes.

"After the first of the year, we will begin utility disconnections," parish spokeswoman Suzanne Parsons Stymiest said Wednesday. "And at this time, we have no plans to issue any more notices . . . We feel everyone has had plenty of notices. There's been mailings and we've physically posted trailers" which are in violation of parish codes.

The last set of notices were delivered in late November when parish code enforcement officers slapped citations on 605 illegal FEMA trailers throughout St. Tammany that did not have permits or had expired permits. The notices gave residents 10 working days to contact parish officials to acquire a valid permit.

The parish learned the status of 439 cited trailers through responses from residents or data provided to the parish this week by FEMA, Stymiest said. Some of the 439 trailers are no longer being used and are awaiting pickup by FEMA, she said.

Most residents in the remaining trailers have asked for permits, saying they are still awaiting Road Home grants or insurance settlements to rebuild, Stymiest said. "And some are going to need FEMA assistance to find suitable housing," she said.

Stymiest said the parish is working with FEMA to expedite the removal of empty trailers and will work with the agency when the parish starts disconnecting utilities to 166 trailers whose residents have not responded to the parish citation. She noted that FEMA regulations require residents to acquire the necessary local permits for trailers.

After Katrina, Parish President Kevin Davis through executive orders allowed permits for FEMA trailers used for temporary lodging to remain in effect. But beginning in March, the parish began requiring residents to get temporary permit extensions to continue living in trailers that violate zoning and other codes.

Parish officials said there were more than 11,000 FEMA trailers in St. Tammany after Katrina. About 3,700 trailers remain in St. Tammany, including some 1,500 trailers in mobile home parks whose residents currently are not required to get permit extensions, officials said.

Housing officials claim surplus

As housing activists continued to protest the proposed demolition of four public housing complexes, federal housing officials provided new details Tuesday about hundreds of public housing units available across New Orleans, with dozens of units ready for occupants in the B.W. Cooper, the former Desire and the Guste developments.

Housing officials said hundreds of private apartments where disaster or Section 8 vouchers can be used are also available to help meet the needs of displaced public housing residents, both in the short and long term.

Meanwhile, activists staged a protest on the steps of City Hall, saying procedural snags, as well as extra costs for utilities and security deposits, put those options out of reach for many poor people. Furthermore, some alleged "slum" conditions at those properties, and they have said they don't trust housing officials to make good on promises of mixed-income redevelopments that will welcome the poor.

Federal Department of Housing and Development officials said the local public housing supply outstrips demand. Currently, 1,762 public housing units are occupied and nearly 300 are available or within weeks of being ready at eight Housing Authority of New Orleans complexes and at scattered housing authority sites.

Another 802 public housing units across the city are being repaired and will be put to use in the coming year, housing officials said.

Three support demolition

On Thursday, the City Council will decide whether to grant demolition permits to each of the four complexes in a vote that could be divided and politically charged. Three members on the seven-member panel -- Jackie Clarkson, Stacy Head and Shelley Midura -- said Tuesday that they plan to vote for the demolitions. A fourth, Council President Arnie Fielkow, has said he supports mixed-income housing developments, but he has stopped short of promising a vote for demolition of the traditional complexes.

Members Cynthia Willard-Lewis and James Carter declined to detail their positions Tuesday. Carter said he remained undecided, while Willard-Lewis said she had met with housing advocates and others to seek "common solutions to these difficult problems." Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell could not be reached for comment.

In addition to the units available or scheduled to open soon, federal and local housing officials said their agencies would provide a total of 3,343 public housing units in the next four to five years, including nearly 900 units in planned mixed-income developments. The first phase of those units should be finished and leased by 2010, HUD spokeswoman Donna White said.

Rebuilding plans

If the council approves demolition, mixed-income developments would open at the St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete and Lafitte sites within months. In addition to the total of 900 public housing units, the three complexes would include 900 market-rate rental units and 900 homes for sale at the four long-standing public housing sites, according to current proposals. Many of the homes for sale would be reserved for first-time home buyers, with financial subsidies designed to allow former public housing families to become property owners.

But the target of 3,343 public housing units in New Orleans is a flashpoint because it represents a drop of about one-third from the 5,100 units occupied before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As the city repopulates, housing officials say, other demands for housing can be met through use of vouchers that can be used for private apartments, the quality of which is in dispute. HANO officials say they inspect private units, more than 500 of which are listed on the housing authority's Web site, but activists say poor conditions in many units deter renters. 

Added expenses

Regardless of the conditions, many former public housing residents avoid privately owned apartments because they typically face utility and deposit expenses not charged in public housing.

Sharon Jasper, a former St. Bernard complex resident presented by activists Tuesday as a victim of changing public housing policies, took a moment before the start of the City Hall protest to complain about her subsidized private apartment, which she called a "slum." A HANO voucher covers her rent on a unit in an old Faubourg St. John home, but she said she faced several hundred dollars in deposit charges and now faces a steep utility bill.

"I'm tired of the slum landlords, and I'm tired of the slum houses," she said.

Pointing across the street to an encampment of homeless people at Duncan Plaza, Jasper said, "I might do better out here with one of these tents."

Jasper, who later allowed a photographer to tour the subsidized apartment, also complained about missing window screens, a slow leak in a sink, a warped back door and a few other details of a residence that otherwise appeared to have been recently renovated.

At the City Hall protest, a crowd of people railed against "privatization and gentrification of the city," saying it would be a mistake to raze well-built public housing at a time when so many people need affordable housing. One of their leaders, Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley, said it's appropriate that advocates for the poor from across the country have gathered in New Orleans to help fight the demolitions.

"This is a national scandal," he said.

Obama weighs in

The latest of many sidewalk protests drew support from presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who wrote an open letter to President Bush on Tuesday asking him to step in and delay the demolitions. Obama said he favors mixed-income neighborhoods, but not at the expense of poor families.

"No public housing should be demolished until HUD can point to an equivalent number of replacement units in the near vicinity," Obama said.

Quigley and other critics called HANO dysfunctional and noted that one of its rules -- a requirement that the agency attempt to reach people that previously lived in a public housing unit -- can cause a delay as long as two months for a family trying to return.

But HANO spokesman David Jackson called that a bogus issue, saying efforts to reach any former occupant of an apartment are made before it is fully repaired and available.

Activists also said an empty HANO unit might not actually be available to a family if it isn't the right size or isn't equipped for disabled or elderly members. Jackson said he's not aware of those complaints, but he conceded that large families needing multiple bedrooms could face a snag.

Meanwhile, developers of the River Garden mixed-income complex in the Lower Garden District, the HUD-backed replacement for the old 1,500-unit St. Thomas housing development, bristled at continuing criticism that only a small fraction of the public housing families have been allowed to return.

The developers don't dispute that far fewer public housing residents live in the neighborhood. But they point out that more than half of 921 rental and units for sale being built by HRI Properties, including use of scattered sites in other neighborhoods, will be reserved for former public housing residents.

Rent subsidies for some residents have been dropped because those residents have gotten jobs to raise their income and now live in market-rate units, said David Abbenante, a management executive.

"If anybody says they want to come back, they come back," he said. "I've got 11 former St. Thomas (households) that are in market-rate units. That's a good thing."

High Noon in New Orleans: The Bulldozers Are Ready

Ever since it took over the public housing projects of New Orleans more than a decade ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been itching to tear them down.

Now, after years of lawsuits and delays, it looks as if the agency will finally get its Christmas wish. The New Orleans City Council is scheduled to vote on Thursday on whether to sign off on the demolitions of three projects. HUD already has its bulldozers in place, engines warm and ready to roll the next morning.

Arguing that the housing was barely livable before the flooding unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, federal officials have cast their decision as good social policy. They have sought to lump the projects together with the much-vilified inner-city projects of the 1960s.

But such thinking reflects a ruthless indifference to local realities. The projects in New Orleans have little to do with the sterile brick towers and alienating plazas that usually come to mind when we think of inner-city housing . Some rank among the best early examples of public housing built in the United States, both in design and in quality of construction.

On the contrary, it is the government’s tabula rasa approach that evokes the most brutal postwar urban-renewal strategies. Neighborhood history is deemed irrelevant; the vague notion of a “fresh start” is invoked to justify erasing entire communities.

This mentality also threatens other public buildings in New Orleans that can be considered 20th-century landmarks. If the government gets its way, a rich architectural legacy will be supplanted by private, mixed-income developments with pitched roofs and wood-frame construction, an ersatz vision of small-town America. That this could happen in a city that still largely lies in ruins is both sad and grotesque.

Scattered across the city, the housing complexes involve more than 4,500 units. HUD plans to complete the demolitions within the next six months.

Despite the rush to raze the complexes, none of the designs for new housing are complete. And federal officials did not give developers the option of preserving part of any of the complexes in plotting the new projects.

Few would argue for preserving every one of the projects as it exists today. The facades of a 1950s section of the B. W. Cooper housing complex, for example, are monotonously repetitive. Its claustrophobic lobbies are in sharp contrast to the more private, individual entrances found in some of the older apartments, and the overall quality of construction is low.

But the best of the projects, built as part of the New Deal’s progressive social agenda, feature many elements that are prized by mainstream urban planners today.

At the Lafitte housing complex, a matrix of pedestrian roads fuses the apartment blocks into the city’s street grid and the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood. Low-rise apartments and narrow front porches, set around what were once beautfully landscaped gardens, are intended to encourage a spirit of community.

The quality of the construction materials would also be unimaginable in public housing today: Their concrete structural frames, red-brick facades and pitched terra cotta roofs would seem at home on a university campus.

The problems facing these projects have more to do with misguided policy and the city’s complex racial history than with bad design. The deterioration can be attributed to the government’s decision decades ago to gut most of the public services that supported them.

In the last few months the public has been able to judge firsthand how hollow HUD’s argument for demolition is. Just a few miles from Lafitte, the developer Pres Kabacoff is completing a renovation of the five remaining two- and three-story apartment blocks at the St. Thomas housing project, a complex that was partly demolished before the storm. The apartments, which are similar in scale to Lafitte’s, were renovated at a cost of under $200 per square foot — roughly what new construction with lesser materials would have cost.

Their handsome brick facades, decorated with wrought-iron rails and terra cotta roofs, are a stark contrast to the generic suburban tract houses that surround them on all sides. (And they are likely to be far more durable in the next storm.)

The point is that HUD’s one-size-fits-all mentality fails to take into account the specific realities of each project. The agency refuses to make distinctions between the worst of the housing projects and those, like Lafitte, that could be at least partly salvaged. Nor will it acknowledge the trauma it causes by boarding up and then eradicating entire communities in a reeling city.

In an eerie echo of the slum clearance projects of the 1960s, government officials are once again denying that these projects and communities can be salvaged through a human, incremental approach to planning. For them, only demolition will do.

The difference between then and now is what will exist once the land is cleared. If the urban renewal projects of the 1960s replaced decaying historic neighborhoods with vast warehouses for the poor, HUD’s vision would yield saccharine, suburban-style houses. And the situation is likely to get worse. The government has identified some other historically important public buildings for demolition as part of its push for privatization. Charity Hospital, an Art Deco structure built downtown in the late 1930s, was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and its fate is uncertain.

The Thomas Lafon Elementary School, a sleek Modernist structure from the 1950s, is destined for the wrecking ball. And there has been talk of tearing down the Andrew J. Bell Junior High School, an elegant French neo-Gothic building completed in the late 19th century.

Blow after blow, in the name of progress. Cast as the city’s saviors, architects are being used to compound one of the greatest crimes in American urban planning.