Big Easy gets harder for the poor

Activists in front of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., call on the agency not to tear down some 4,600 public housing apartments in New Orleans for a redevelopment project with about 700 new units.

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KAI RYSSDAL: There were protests this week in New Orleans. The city's planning to demolish four huge public housing developments. They're being torn down to make way for new, more expensive buildings. Activists say the new New Orleans may not be making enough room for the poor.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports.


JEFF TYLER: To get a sense of just how extreme the situation is, consider how much New Orleans resident Gloria Stevenson pays for rent now, compared to before Hurricane Katrina.

GLORIA STEVENSON: I was paying $295 rent. When I returned back home it went from 295 to 1,600.

She used to live in public housing. Right now in New Orleans, that's not an option. Most of the public housing has been shuttered, but not yet replaced. On top of that the storm took thousands of apartments off the market. That leaves renters paying double, triple, even quadruple for housing. Bill Quigley is a Loyola University law professor who represents former public housing tenants.

BILL QUIGLEY: We in our area are facing what most experts call the worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War.

The housing crisis brought activists to city hall earlier this week, trying to block the demolition of four public housing complexes. Before Katrina, they were home to more than 20,000 people. Bill Quigley says many of those residents will never be able to return because the new mixed-income developments that replace public housing won't have enough apartments for the poor.

QUIGLEY: They reduce the number of these heavily subsidized units by 82 percent. At the end, even if you count even the market rate ones, the city ends up with a loss of 2,700 apartments after HUD has spent three-quarters of a billion dollars.

The department of Housing and Urban Development disputes those numbers.

DONNA WHITE: The total number of housing that we are bringing back is the same number of housing that was occupied prior to Katrina.

That's Donna White, spokeswoman for HUD. She says after the old public housing complexes are torn down, most of the former tenants will get new low-income units, and those who don't will have their rent subsidized by HUD.

WHITE: It's a much more cost-effective way for HUD to demolish the old housing, and give these families better housing in newer, safe neighborhoods.

But what if the newer, safer housing is in a different neighborhood, far from friends, family and the local church?

Gloria Stevenson has been coming to St. Jude's for 35 years. It provides spiritual support, and now that she's paying so much for rent Stevenson also relies on the church for canned goods and charity.

STEVENSON: Half the time I don't know whether we're going to make it from one day or another.

Everyone agrees that the situation for renters in New Orleans is bleak, and it's going to get worse now that FEMA has begun to evict thousands of Katrina victims who have been living in emergency trailers. The homeless population is already double what it was before Katrina. Gloria Stevenson says she'd like to get one of the new apartments in the future mixed-income communities, but . . .

STEVENSON: The thing of it is I'm not promised to get one. They constantly say that they want us to come back home, but out of all reality they don't want us to come back home because if they did, they wouldn't make life so hard for us here.

Activists have pledged to fight the demolition of the old public housing buildings right up to the end. Stevenson's former home could come down as early as this Saturday.

In New Orleans, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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