Why They Can’t Go Home
February 5, 2007While Senators Barack Obama and Joe Lieberman made headlines last week for their high-profile visits to New Orleans, we heard precious little about the ongoing battle public housing residents have been waging in that city as they struggle unsuccessfully to return to their homes. Defying “no trespassing” signs, the battle has heated up for former residents since Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when activists entered unoccupied units in an effort to prevent the destruction of these largely undamaged buildings. Last week two protesters at the St. Bernard Housing Development were arrested for their actions. But many of New Orleans’s low-income African American residents wonder why the city is so set on destroying the buildings, if they are largely undamaged. Yes, undamaged. In fact, the St. Bernard, along with four other complexes scheduled for demolition, is among the sturdiest in the city. “The former residents of housing projects need to adapt and find other means of habitation,” writes one local in a letter to the editor. “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that people who want to come home and have perfectly suitable homes to return to should be able to. The big deal is that the storm should not be seen as the “lucky break” that developers have been waiting for. Most troubling is what doesn’t get said—the unspoken justification for razing the complexes—that the public housing residents are criminals anyway and should stay gone. But the majority of 4,000 former residents—namely, the elderly and women and children—are not criminals. In fact, many of those who can’t afford to pay market rates for other apartments even have jobs waiting for them, with employers desperate to fill them. Last fall, when 30,000 members of the National Association of Realtors were in New Orleans for their annual convention, the mood was optimistic. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush regaled the crowd with hopeful sentiments, as fluttering purple flags lining downtown streets welcomed everyone “home to the dome.” The realtors even donned hard hats to help construct dozens of bright turquoise and tangerine colored houses in the Upper 9th Ward’s new “Musicians Village,” a Habitat for Humanity project conceived by Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis. But just a few miles away from the cheery scene, is the St. Bernard, along with the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper and Lifette housing projects—all of them mostly empty—with former residents still scattered throughout Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. A home is more than a roof and a floor. It is a place that offers stability after so much chaos. Who among us can blame New Orleans residents for wanting that?