How New Orleans’ Largest Newspaper Played a Key Role in Public Housing Demolition

On Thursday, December 20 the New Orleans City Council voted to demolish their city’s four largest public housing developments. Bulldozers are set to roll over the next few months. The highly controversial vote was 7 to 0 in favor of demolition, despite the fact that the city is experiencing its worst housing crisis since the end of the Civil War. There are reportedly more than 12,000 homeless, hundreds of whom lived under the I-10 freeway just blocks from the tourist heavy French Quarter. Rents have skyrocketed while wages have stagnated making decent housing unattainable. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced, many of them still in Houston and beyond.

Leading up to the Council’s vote, New Orleans’ only daily newspaper, the Times Picayune, stepped up what can only be described as a propaganda campaign against public housing. The paper’s effort to stoke negative public opinion comes in response to multiple victories by residents and activists to delay demolition of the complexes and to force a vote by the City Council to determine the fate of the more than 5000 apartments.

Published on the 15th of December, the paper’s most blatant piece of anti-public housing material was entitled “Demolition Protests Ignore Some Realities.” Three staff writers penned the editorializing piece. It ran on the paper’s front page and was prominently featured on the newspaper’s nola.com website. Under the guise of “news” and reporting the facts, the Times Picayune claimed that the position taken by residents and their allies against demolition are “demonstrably false.”

“The public housing residents who support the demolitions struggle to be heard, while well-organized protesters - including many who are not displaced public housing residents - have achieved a degree of success in portraying the demolitions as oppressive. Bulldozers are coming to knock down public housing, they say, in a city in desperate need of housing for the poor.”

Adopting the tone of investigative journalism the reporters simply re-state talking points given to them by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Nothing in the article reflects any genuine research on the part of the Times-Picayune. The three reporters repeatedly copy misleading press statements made by HUD. It appears that the Picayune’s editors have not even attempted to fact check the figures, policies and on the ground realities handed to them by the government.

At a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, December 18, law professor Bill Quigley went over HUD’s various claims point by point. The Times-Picayune chose not to report on this except for two sentences in another articles mentioning some sort of “protest” at City Hall. Only several news stations found time to cover the conference, and none reported on it in depth to correct HUD’s misleading “facts” and figures. Publishing a list of 10 “myths” HUD has fed to reporters, Quigley writes:

“MYTH #1:
"Federal officials, in partnership with developers, are pushing a plan that will demolish 4500 units of traditional public housing, replacing them with 3343 units of public housing and 900 market rate rental units." Statement in Times-Pic 12.16.2007

HUD is aggressively working to demolish 4500 units of traditional public housing. HUD and HANO's own numbers state that less than 800 units of traditional public housing will be built by the developers who demolish those 4500 apartments. In order to get to the 3343 number they trumpet, HUD is actually re-counting over 2000 old public housing apartments (in Iberville, Guste, etc) which they have not yet scheduled to demolish. Thus, they are not telling the truth – they are not replacing the 4500 with 3343 at all, they are replacing the 4500 with less than 800 – a 82% reduction in public housing apartments.”

One day after the Council’s vote the Times Picayune ran an editorial (at least this time on the editorial page) entitled, “Public housing, plot or paradise.” The piece by staff writer Jarvis Deberry, accuses opponents of public housing demolition of clinging to a “foolish inconsistency” and chalks this up to their “small brains” and penchant for conspiracy theories; “do you believe that the American government's hatred for black people is evident in its decision to tear down huge apartment complexes that were occupied exclusively by the poor?” What’s the foolish inconsistency he identifies you might ask? According to Deberry, the activists and residents opposing demolitions were the same people, before Katrina, denouncing the “projects” as segregated, over-policed, under-funded – in short, difficult places to live. Why, he asks, would these same people want to save the projects? Deberry concludes that, “The object ought to be what is best for the residents.” As an essay to rationalize the pro-demolition vote, Deberry’s piece works well. Unfortunately, he completely mischaracterizes the position of the Coalition to Stop Demolition. The Times Picayunes overall coverage has served this very function since June 2006 when HUD announced their intentions to tear down public housing. Never having bothered to ask the Coalition’s leadership – public housing residents such as Stefanie Mingo, Sam Jackson, Sharon Jasper, or their legal council – the Times Picayune instead chose to spend a lot of ink on portraying the Coalition as “foolish.”

The Times-Picayune’s bias against public housing goes much deeper than just their lax journalistic standards and willingness to uncritically report HUD’s claims. From present and past coverage it is clear that the paper’s reporters and editors assigned to the story believe strongly in several erroneous, pseudo-scientific theories concerning housing, architecture, poverty and crime. Their favorable treatment of HUD is partly due to their affinity with the agency’s ideological biases. For example, in the Dec. 15 Times Picayune article the reporters state authoritatively that, “[b]lending different income classes helps break the poverty cycle associated with public housing for decades, federal officials and many others argue.” Unfortunately, the T-P’s reporters have never sought out other expert opinions on the matter besides HUD’s. There is nothing close to consensus amongst sociologist that would support the theory that “blending” classes through real estate redevelopment alone “breaks the cycle of poverty.” In this instance the reporters are the ones who ignore realities in favor of abstract ideas.

Their desire to believe in real estate redevelopment’s power to “break the cycle of poverty” by “deconcentrating” the poor leads the Picayune’s editors and reporters to ignore some realities.

For instance, once the developments are torn down, it will take at least 1-3 years for the “mixed income” housing to be built on site. What are residents supposed to do in these intervening years? This is in addition to the fact that they’ve been locked out of their former homes for more than 2 years now. The highest priority for most residents has been simply to come home to New Orleans, not to pursue grandiose redevelopment plans in a time of crisis. Furthermore, New Orleans has several past examples of mixed income public housing redevelopment that serve as examples of what will likely happen this time around: the St. Thomas, Florida/Desire, and Fischer homes. Instead of seeking out authoritative numbers or independent studies on how many former residents were able to return to these demolished and rebuilt neighborhoods, the Picayune and its reporters have chosen instead to interview current residents of these developments (already a flawed sample that by its very method omits those who were permanently displaced), and report their anecdotal experiences. For example, in their Dec. 15 attack-article the Times Picayune chose to run a picture of a tenant sitting on her porch at the newly redeveloped Guste homes (formerly a low-rise series of buildings housing hundreds of families, now a series of town houses and single homes housing dozens) with the accompanying caption: “[Gwnell] Morgan did live in one of the old sections of the development and said she is much happier in the newly constructed home.” No need to track down displaced residents and explore their experiences, no need to read any of the social scientific literature on public housing redevelopment, no need to listen to what the Coalition to Stop Demolition is actually saying: one current resident privileged enough to move back likes her new apartment, case closed.

On Wednesday, December 19, 2007 the Times-Picayune reported in an article entitled, “Housing officials claim surplus,” that contended, “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.” Again parroting statements from HUD alongside disputations of activists, the paper uncritically supports HUD’s “surplus” housing figures. The reporters make no attempt to tally available units on their own or judge the veracity of either HUD or the Coalition’s tallies. Nor do they dare link the overall housing situation with the crisis of homelessness that has overtaken the city.

An accompanying photograph to the piece shows former St. Bernard public housing development tenant Sharon Jasper sitting in the narrow living room of her new Section 8 rental home. The story’s online version collected a phenomenal 181+ comments in under 18 hours. The vast majority of comments are directed at Ms. Jasper, calling her a “welfare queen,” “typical moocher,” “waist [sic] of a person,” “crap,” and telling her to “get a job,” and stop “leeching” of the taxpayers. What is amazing is that virtually all of these commentators make these objections in response to her possession of a big screen TV which is visible in the photo, or else to the fact that her home has hardwood floors (hardly a luxury in New Orleans, most homes have wood floors). The Times-Picayune published the photo in full color in its print version.

Misquoting Jasper several times, the Times Picayune failed to contextualize her interview and ran the piece even after Jasper called the reporter to ask that the photo not be run. “I had a feeling,” explained Jasper afterwards, “that they would do something like this.” Talking about the general situation for renters in New Orleans and past experiences friends family members have had with section 8 housing and the rental market, Jasper attempted to explain that many properties are slummed by landlords who simply exploit their tenants and the government voucher programs. The Times Picayune ran the quotes in a manner implying that Jasper was talking directly about her own landlord and the rental home shown in the photo. Jasper’s main contention with the government’s section 8 voucher program went unreported, however. According the Jasper, the biggest problem for her with section 8 is that no matter how nice a place she can find, the market is volatile and often forces tenants to move if prices increase or if there is a conflict between landlords and tenants (conflicts that are almost always won by landlords in New Orleans). “I can’t move. I’m tired and old. I just can’t move every year, it’s too much,” explains Jasper.

What is unreported by the paper is just as important. Ms. Jasper is elderly, disabled, and worked the majority of her adult life. She is now a retired grandmother living on a fixed income. The photograph and erroneous quotes quickly drifted into the blogosphere and have been seized upon by all sorts of opponents of welfare and public housing including pundit Michelle Malkin.

The Times Picayune could not have done a better job to smear Ms. Jasper or fan the flames of hostility against working class blacks in New Orleans, especially public housing residents. Days after the photo was published I visited Jasper in her home. Her two daughters had come to visit, one driving all the way from Dallas along with her two children. Jasper’s modest little home, located in a black working class neighborhood in New Orleans’ 6th Ward is unassuming from the outside. It looks like any of the other little shotgun houses on this street. Several of the houses on each block are still empty from the heavy floods that devastated this neighborhood. Most of her neighbors are families crowded into several little rooms, struggling to pay rent. The inside of Jasper’s home belies the gritty neighborhood outside with leaking water pipes, pot-holes, and tattered homes. Jasper might be working class and black, but she likes nice things and has worked hard for what she owns. This is what much of the public housing debate in New Orleans boils down to: a hostility against public housing residents who have been demonized for decades as burdens to society. They have been locked out of their homes for more than 2 years and now stand to lose their communities to bulldozers and dubious mixed income schemes. The vast majority of residents oppose these plans and have never been asked by the federal government what they need and want.

But you wouldn’t know this from reading the Times Picayune.

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