Has HUD no Heart?

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development knows when it’s losing. Yesterday lawyers representing HUD filed a retaliatory suit against 10 residents and allied activists who have been waging a concerted nonviolent campaign to reopen public housing in the city of New Orleans. The suit seeks to bar residents from entering and cleaning their apartments. HUD’s counsel claims that these residents and activists are "acting in concert with their attorneys Tracie Washington and Bill Quigley" to illegally enter the St. Bernard public housing development, trespass, and do damage to property there.

The suit has been initiated by the Bush administration’s housing agency after more than a week of nonviolent direct actions aimed at reopening public housing in the crescent city. On February 15, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, residents of the St. Bernard public housing development gathered with other public housing tenants and allied activists at the survivor’s village, a makeshift camp and staging ground outside of the housing complex in the 7th Ward. In opposition to HUD’s desire to close off and demolish the St. Bernard and 3 other major public housing developments in the city – home to tens of thousands of New Orleanians still displaced more than a year after Katrina – residents and activists cut through the fence surrounding St. Bernard and entered with the intention to clean up and reoccupy the development. They did so.

Since that day a group of activists, calling themselves May Day NOLA have occupied apartments in St. Bernard. Residents of the complex have given them permission to sleep and work there as their guests. Under the Housing Authority’s rules, residents of the complex may allow a guest to reside in their apartment for up to 1-month. May Day NOLA’s members explain in an open letter that their actions are intended to reopen public housing and secure the right of return for public housing residents who are being displaced by greed and poor policy decisions, not a natural disaster. “We are hopeful that through negotiation this occupation will end quickly, so that we can go home, and that Public Housing residents may return to their city and to their homes,” reads the group’s statement, released shortly after they cut through the chain link fence enclosing the development. On Saturday, February 20th residents and others re-entered the St. Bernard and continued the cleanup. May Day NOLA helped by holding down the St. Bernard for the week.

The actions have energized community members and fueled the desire to come back home. Josh Cousin, aka The Book, a blogger from New Orleans – http://booknote.blogspot.com - who grew up in the St. Bernard explains the wider significance of retaking public housing in the city:

“Many of the Residents fighting for the St. Bernard were already in there own/rented homes now and don’t really need to return to the St. Bernard. All we really want is to see an active neighborhood again. One that we can visit and see people we know. We the people want our hood back because of just that.”

Although he doesn’t live in the St. Bernard anymore, Book has followed the actions closely and written about them because he understands their wider significance to the city; how the re-opening of public housing will have a ripple effect on all of New Orleans and help to revitalize whole surrounding neighborhoods. After MLK Day, Book wrote that, “it was like the old hood. That’s what I wanted to see. Happy people.”

Apparently HUD does not. The lawsuit, if successful will provide Housing Authority police with a court order to force out the occupants who have been holding down apartments in the St. Bernard and bar residents from entering to clean them out and prepare for their homecoming. Bill Quigley, a lawyer working with the residents in their homecoming struggle explains that, “HANO's suit seeks money damages and a temporary restraining order. No date has been set for the hearing. The judge said he will decide a date after he reads all papers filed in this matter - he ordered lawyers for the residents to file papers by Thursday afternoon.”

How this latest twist in the Right of Return Movement will turn out is anyone’s guess. Residents point to their legal, civil and human rights as justification for their confidence that HANO’s retaliatory lawsuit will be dismissed. As legal lease-holders of apartments largely undamaged by hurricane Katrina who are merely seeking to expedite their return by cleaning up the complex themselves, residents and their allies hold faith that the court and public opinion will find in their favor. “The residents who are cleaning their apartments have current leases and therefore have a legal right to enter their homes,” said Endesha Juakali of Survivor’s Village. HUD’s legal action at this point appears to be a rearguard effort to undercut the forward momentum of the Right of Return Movement. The federal department understands the power of direct action, and is therefore pulling out all stops to squelch it before its opportunity to demolish and redevelop is lost.


Darwin BondGraham said...

LA Times reports HUD's comments on the conflict:

"People deserve better than this," said Jereon "Jerry" Brown, a Washington-based spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as he showed reporters flood-damaged and ransacked units at Lafitte last month. "If they could just be patient. A mixed-income neighborhood can better attract businesses and better schools. It's all tied together."

HUD just doesn't get it. People can't wait. Residents are dying, literally dying to come home. The crisis of displacement cannot be solved in any other way. The best option, if HUD is serious about providing the best possible solution for residents is to reopen the developments. Waiting for pie-in-the-sky plans to redevelop the complexes into "mixed-income" neighborhoods will fail. It sounds nice, but it's totally out of touch with the needs of New Orleans displaced.

t [] p said...

Here's an article I came across from the NY Times.

What's notable form the article is that the writer chose to focus on a white middle-class couple that has recently (according to the article) decided to leave N.O. after buying a handgun, and making other attempts to give N.O. another chance.

What's scary is that the author also focuses on a quote regarding that fact that NO has never had enough "educated people."

I'm semi- incoherent right now, I apologize, but just though this was a good read.

Nicole said...

I know you think you are representing people who need homes and deserve to live in the St. Bernard project, and I respect that you are fighting for something you believe in, but you are fighting for something you don't understand.

I grew up .5 a mile away from the St. Bernard housing project. My mom was a teacher and my dad was in school. Even though I spent a lot of time at home, I wasn't allowed to play in my front yard because there were too many drive-by shootings and drug deals in the neighborhood.

The St. Bernard Project was the center for crime and drug deals in the neighborhood. When my mother got off of the interstate exit at St. Bernard, she looked both ways and ran the light, every time. Even the police didn't stop people for running the light-it was too likely you'd get held up or carjacked if you stayed at the intersection too long.

I understand that there are people who are disabled and/or elderly who need housing assistance, but there is no reason for people who are able to be gainfully employed have to live in public housing. I am not referring to section 8, but to public housing.

My parents worked ridiulously hard to pay their rent, and eventually, and we moved out of the neighborhood when I was 14.

I know you're just some white kid from the West Coast who thinks the projects were happy little villages of sweet & kind poor people. They were not. Housing projects never will be.

Why do you think "The crisis of displacement cannot be solved in any other way. The best option, if HUD is serious about providing the best possible solution for residents is to reopen the developments. Waiting for pie-in-the-sky plans to redevelop the complexes into "mixed-income" neighborhoods will fail."?

First of all, EVERYONE who loved in a housing project has been given vouchers by HUD to rent elsewhere, in New Orleans or anywhere else in the country. It's not as if they've been kicked to the curb. Secondly, you don't know what the crime is like in this town when the projects are open. You don't even know what filthy, roach filled, unkept places they were, how is it that reopening them is the best option? Finally, ""pie-in-the-sky plans to redevelop the complexes into "mixed-income" neighborhoods will fail"??? Have you been to the neighborhood where the St. Thomas housing project used to be? It is a mixed-income neighborhood, that is gorgeous, and has little crime. It is exists. It's not impossible.

Fight for something with which you have experience. I could shake all you white kids from the Midwest and the West Coast who are protesting to reopen the projects.