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Category: Environment

Una’s Story

February 5, 2007

The home is a way to move a trapped segment of the population out of poverty. The home is a way to move ahead post Katrina. —Una Anderson

Days after Una Anderson and her husband evacuated safely to their second home across Lake Pontchartrain, they were back in New Orleans. Anderson had heard an official on TV announcing over and over again that the city needed buses and gas to evacuate residents trapped by the rising water. The words echoing in her head, Anderson realized that there was something she and her husband could do.

So they found a bus and filled it with gas. As they approached the city, a state police officer told her to get in a line of 300 buses. She responded that people needed help right away. The officer asked for her FEMA paperwork. Once again, she insisted on going in. Finally the officer said, “You won’t have an escort, but I’ll turn the other way.” He literally turned his head as he told them to deliver the trapped residents to the airport.

Anderson and her husband collected 60 people under the interstate bridge at Causeway and I-10. When they tried to drop people off at the airport, however, they were waved away by a man with an M-16. Another police officer was so intent that they not leave passengers in his nearby suburban community that he personally escorted them to the interstate.

Ultimately, Anderson offered the group shelter in her sister’s church north of Baton Rouge. Along the way, a man on the bus cried out, “God is good!” And, Anderson said, “Every single person responded in chorus ‘All the time!’ After all these people had been through—sitting out in the sun, taking boats, leaving animals and people they cared about—each one was hopeful. We have a great capacity for resiliency, which is good. But it means that we tolerate a lot.”

NONDC: Building Homes in the Wake of Katrina

Give Una Anderson three or four weeks, and she’ll give you an affordable modular home, complete with distinctively New Orleans architectural touches. She is executive director of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative (NONDC), a coalition of non-profit, private, and public community-based organizations created in 1996. Its mission, to work collectively with neighborhoods to reenergize the social, physical, political, and economic landscapes of New Orleans. They advocate for improved housing policies and expanded production of quality, affordable homes.

After Katrina, Anderson set up a NONDC office in Baton Rouge and gathered back most of her staff, which had scattered around the country. The question before them was, “What addresses this that is real?” The answer: actual homes. They sold their first post Katrina home five months after the storm to a mother of two, who worked at the local Winn Dixie grocery store and was living next to the new home site in a substandard rental property. NONDC then turned to buy, renovate and re-sell the substandard property.

After reviewing data on demographics, home ownership, and vacant lots for ten neighborhoods, the NONDC staff determined that an area known as Central City would be the best place to start their work. Not far from the gracious homes and aged oak trees of St. Charles Avenue and the Garden District, the perennially blighted area was certain to be within the footprint of the city. Anderson calls it “a challenging and wonderful neighborhood that is very driven by its residents.” Before Katrina, the neighborhood had formed the Central City Renaissance Alliance, which was prepared to lead the charge.

NONDC quickly built five Central City homes and created a kind of reverse domino effect. “Because we build them, others renovate,” Anderson comments, referring to rebuilding projects by neighboring homeowners. Recently, the NONDC Board decided to expand their reach beyond single-family homes in Central City. They will now broker larger developments and work in other neighborhoods by invitation.

Life post-Katrina

Anderson speaks frankly about the problems for residents caused by the absence of clear plans post Katrina. Prior to the storm, she says, access to land was a huge issue, and the process for dealing with blighted property needed to change. She believes issues of race and class must be addressed through policies that facilitate home ownership. “We don’t have a choice here—the old dynamics have to change,” she says. “I’m hopeful. We have a new conversation in the community. The old way was not good for families, and not good for children. It wasn’t moving people out of poverty. It was trapping them in poverty.”

NONDC has worked with six partner organizations to acquire properties available in Central City. “It is a real working collaborative that didn’t exist pre-Katrina,” she says. “The territorialism is dissolving.”

Part of the new conversation—involving residents, city council members and the state legislature—says Anderson, is about “inclusionary zoning that mandates a mix of incomes that wouldn’t have happened pre-Katrina.” NONDC looks to successful models around the country for workable plans mixing public, subsidized and market rate housing.

Anderson also notes that, since Katrina, the neighborhoods have “risen up.” Officials “greatly underestimated what people were thinking,” she says. “Neighborhoods want mixed incomes. Now neighborhood voices will be heard in the planning process.” Anderson finds her motivation in having “even one family move from substandard housing to home ownership. I want to urge the people across the country to stick with us. If we can change the dynamics, if we can change this city over time to a place where residents have avenues to opportunity so that our children aren’t trapped, I’ll die happy.” Home equity is the key. “If you can get a single mom with kids into home ownership, the children do better in school, there is more stability, and the mother is better able to hold a job.”