Friday, March 7, 2008

N.O. housing is still in crisis

While more than 70 percent of New Orleans' displaced public housing residents want to return to the city, most of those surveyed recently by the University of Texas at Arlington said they have no desire to return to New Orleans' public housing complexes.

And there's another striking finding, especially when cast against the backdrop of a raging debate over plans to demolish the city's "Big Four" complexes: More than 80 percent of those families who lived in C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard and Lafitte, the developments slated for the wrecking ball, said they now would prefer to live elsewhere.

Among pre-Katrina HANO tenants who say they favor living back in their old apartments, 20 percent of the total -- virtually all of them -- are already doing so, survey results show.

The survey of 2,109 families who lived in Housing Authority of New Orleans complexes before Hurricane Katrina was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that wants to demolish most buildings in the storm-damaged developments and replace them with a newer model of mixed-income units.

HANO plans to replace 4,500 demolished public housing units with 3,200 public housing units and 1,765 subsidized affordable units, for people at slightly higher income levels.

While the survey seems to validate HUD's strategy for ensuring housing slots for all displaced HANO residents who want to return, Bill Quigley, a lawyer for demolition opponents, said the broader housing needs of low-income families must be addressed.

Competition is fierce

"They're saying 3,200 is enough for the ones who lived in HANO units, but there are many more who lived in other subsidized housing," he said. "The competition for the 1,765 affordable subsidized housing units is 7,000 people," according to an earlier survey by the social action group PolicyLink, he said.

In addition, Quigley said, Katrina's destruction created a new population of needy families who also weren't considered in HUD's survey.

"At the end of the day, you can't then say this is enough housing for them (HUD) to meet their duty under the law, which is to provide enough housing for the community," he said.

The number of survey respondents equaled 41 percent of the 5,146 families who occupied HANO units at the time of Hurricane Katrina.

HUD hailed the survey as highly representative because, in addition to the large sample size, the distribution of respondents' pre-Katrina residences closely mirrored how families were spread among the 10 public housing developments and scattered-site HANO units in New Orleans.

C. Donald Babers, the lone member of the HUD receivership board that runs HANO, said the survey proved that the government's plan to replace traditional public housing with mixed-income complexes and other homes would be sufficient to meet the needs of those who want to come back. He said that flew in the face of housing advocates' demands for a one-for-one replacement of the traditional complexes.

It also could be used to counter arguments by housing advocates and even two United Nations experts that HUD's demolition plans discriminated against black people and violated international human rights law.

'Ready to move'

The HUD survey results were announced just hours before a U.N. panel, meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, was scheduled to rule on whether the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina had violated an international anti-racism treaty, but Babers said the timing was purely coincidental.

If the preferences expressed by the survey respondents were to bear out for all 5,146 affected families, about 1,800 will want to return to HANO facilities and 1,900 would prefer obtaining Section 8 vouchers for private apartments in New Orleans. Public housing residents and advocates generally accepted the survey results as highly indicative of the desires of the displaced, some representatives said.

"It's true, a lot of people were ready to move and wanted to get Section 8 vouchers even before the storm," said Cynthia Wiggins, a current resident of the Guste complex who was part of a residents group that helped formulate the survey questions and track down the displaced. "There's no doubt in my mind that is the case."

Responses to some questions may be affected by what residents knew about plans for their old neighborhoods. Former residents may have been aware that their old apartments were scheduled for demolition, or that they are already gone. Also, Quigley said the question of whether people want to return to their old apartments doesn't make clear that renovating the old units would make them better.

The University of Texas at Arlington researchers and a contracted survey team from Survey Communications Inc. of Baton Rouge developed the survey questions in consultation with HUD and resident leaders, with input from critics of HUD's plans, such as U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and housing activists.

Don't know about benefit

The survey included former housing complex residents who are now scattered around the country, but half of the respondents are back in New Orleans, either living in restored HANO units or in private apartments on HUD vouchers.

The survey also probed still-displaced residents' reasons for not coming home, and exposed a weakness in HUD's relocation efforts. Nearly 80 percent of those outside New Orleans who want to return said they wanted to be back home within the next six months, but the vast majority of that group said their return would be delayed by a lack of transportation or by moving expenses.

Babers said it was disheartening to see the persistence of such perceived barriers when HUD has a contract with U-Haul to pay for travel and moving expenses of returning families. He said HUD needs to do a better job of advertising and explaining the program.