On August 29, 2005 — eight years ago today — Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and federal levees failed in New Orleans, flooding the city. We honor the lives interrupted or lost to the deluge by turning our attention this week to the city’s recovery.
Jomari Jackson and her closest friends walked to her elementary school every day from their homes in the Florida Street public housing development in the New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward, about four miles from the French Quarter. The school’s principal regularly met the group of girls at the door and checked them for likely contraband — sunflower seeds in the shell, Jackson says with a giggle. The snack is still a weakness of hers, but it was forbidden at the school because the shells could make a mess.
To Jackson, the Florida projects seemed idyllic, a little clutch of colorful townhouses that echoed with children’s voices all day long because residents had demanded a playground at its center. The complex was small, only 77 apartments, and part of a larger planned redevelopment of a more traditional brick complex built in 1946 and torn down in the late 1990s.
Then, when Jackson was 10, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Faulty federal levees failed and floodwater rushed into the second floors of the townhouses. Her family, like thousands of others, moved frequently in subsequent years. That time was made harder because the projects remained shuttered for years, their future in limbo. “There’s no Florida anymore. Can’t nobody stay there,” said Jackson, who hasn’t seen many of her former neighbors since the storm in 2005.
Jackson is not alone in mourning a lost public housing community. Before Katrina, New Orleans had 5,146 households living in public housing apartments. Though these aging developments were far from ideal, plagued by mold and isolated from the rest of the city on superblocks rarely traveled by non-residents, they were home to tight-knit communities and intergenerational families. Eight years later, the city counts about 2,000 public housing apartments. Of the 3,077 families living in the four largest developments prior to Katrina, only 351 — a slim 11 percent — have returned to the rebuilt complexes. And because of the patchwork way in which flooded developments were rebuilt and rented out, no one knows exactly why thousands of former residents never returned.
The most current data from the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), released in 2011, shows that only half of Big Four residents have returned to New Orleans at all. Another 20 percent were unaccounted for. Among a sample of low-income parents enrolled at Delgado Community College, University of Washington sociologist Elizabeth Fussell found that public housing residents were least likely to have returned.
No one really knows why. Some say that residents displaced to Dallas or Houston found better schools and higher-paying jobs and decided to stay. Others blame the Housing Authority, which wouldn’t accept voucher transfers to New Orleans from out-of-town households during a key period after Katrina, forcing people to create new lives elsewhere. Another HANO rule barring certain credit and criminal histories in the new developments has kept out some former residents and their families. HANO had also refused to pay some Big Four residents’ moving expenses until the policy was reversed in 2009.
Lawyer Anita Sinha filed an unsuccessful suit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development soon after the government announced it would demolish and rebuild the Big Four. “What we were fighting was the permanent displacement of people,” said Sinha, who was then working with the D.C.-based Advancement Project. “Today, with a fraction of the families back, our worst fears have come true.”
Looking beyond public housing residents, New Orleans lost 50,000 poor people between 1999 and 2010, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. But the analysis found that the rest of the region did not show increased poverty, suggesting that most poor people had relocated outside the region.
Tourism is the biggest game in town, but the city’s low-income workers clearly struggle with steep post-Katrina rents, which leave many families doubled up in order to pay bills. After 80 percent of the city flooded in 2005, rents skyrocketed. They remain between 150 and 200 percent higher than before the storm, when half of the city’s apartments rented for $500.
Rates of return to the Big Four vary sharply from site to site. At Faubourg Lafitte, a mixed-income neighborhood styled after classic 19th-century New Orleans architecture, 45 percent of residents are people who lived in the development before Katrina. Built like all the post-Katrina developments with a mix of federal dollars, local housing authority money and some equity from private real estate firms that operate the project, the 6th Ward neighborhood is built with much more flimsy materials than the brick it replaced, a common concern of former residents.
“Looks like all it would take is a stiff breeze to blow it down,” said Travis Hill, a jazz trombonist from a sprawling musical family whose first public performances were playing 10-gallon buckets as drums in a Lafitte courtyard with his cousins.
By contrast, only 10 percent of former residents have returned to the former St. Bernard complex, renamed Columbia Parc by its Atlanta-based developer Columbia Residential and built with a splash park, exercise room and small movie theater, in addition to 684 units of mixed-income housing.
Missing residents haven’t been the only unsolved puzzle for HANO. With just 2,000 public housing units operational, the cash-strapped authority has failed to meet the demands of the recovery schedule on which HUD signed off after Katrina. According to that timeline, HANO would have had 3,762 public housing apartments completed by December of last year.
It’s hard to find a resident who believed that HANO would fulfill its obligations, given the agency’s dismal track record. Long hobbled by corruption and incompetence, the housing authority was put under the control of an entire federally appointed administrative team in 2009 — an unprecedented move by HUD, made after three decades of failed federal intervention. Under the current federal receiver, David Gilmore, the agency still stumbles occasionally, but it’s increasingly more functional.
Gilmore’s development staff is particularly skilled and has been able to break financial logjams that had stalled construction at two of the Big Four sites — Lafitte in the 6th Ward and B.W. Cooper in Central City near the Superdome. Both had not even broken ground when Gilmore arrived. They now have about 500 apartments combined.
A few weeks ago, HANO broke ground on another 51 new apartments on the Florida site where Jomari Jackson grew up. “I’m happy because I’ve been able to keep a promise I made to the residents when I first got here,” Gilmore said. “But it was a small promise, all we could handle.”
With the help of a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant from HUD, Gilmore’s “turnaround team” also plans to redevelop the city’s last traditional development, Iberville, which stands near the French Quarter and included more than 800 apartments. (The Choice Neighborhoods grant requires that HANO track original residents and also replace all public housing apartments, one for one.)
Gilmore acknowledges that in the past, HANO and the private developers brought onto run its projects may not have done enough to bring former residents back. “I think that it could have been done better,” said Gilmore, who has long remarked at public meetings meetings that he wishes he could launch and complete all of the planned apartments that remain unbuilt.
And while Gilmore has stuck to HUD’s post-Katrina plans to build mixed-income complexes on the site of former public housing sites, he admits to being a “traditionalist” who grew up appreciating public housing complexes and their bricks and mortar. “I’m old enough to have mixed feelings about this stuff,” he said. “But the mixed-income strategy came out of asking whether enclaves for the poor were the best way to provide housing for the poor. Even the traditionalists have grown to say no. We haven’t necessarily struck the right way to do everything. But the way it’s being done is a lot better than the way we were doing it.”
Gilmore has also overseen a shift in philosophy mirrored nationally that prioritizes providing rental assistance over building brick-and-mortar units. HANO now oversees 17,000 rental-assistance Section 8 vouchers, far more than the 9,400 vouchers it administered pre-Katrina. “It’s not the same housing authority it was, in many ways,” Gilmore said. “It used to have one of the largest inventories of conventional public housing apartments in the country. Now it has one of the smallest. We sponsor more affordable housing now, but in a different way.”
Jackson, who just landed a job on a public housing workcrew, now lives on her own in a small apartment where she pays more than $650 a month in rent and another $100 or more for her light bill. By comparison, she said, pushing her safety goggles onto her forehead, rent in HANO’s public housing is based upon income and tops out at $370.
Yet another reason why her former neighbors can’t wait until the 51 apartments in the Florida are complete “The apartments will fill up,” she said, “and they will have a long waiting list.”
Katy Reckdahl is a New Orleans-based news reporter who is a frequent contributor to the New Orleans Advocate and the Hechinger Report and has written for The Times-Picayune, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Weather Channel, The Nation, Next City, and the Christian Science Monitor.