After Katrina, New Orleans' Public Housing Is A Mix Of Pastel And Promises

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Bobbie Jennings, 69, stands outside her home in the Harmony Oaks housing development in New Orleans. Jennings says that she misses the sense of community of the Magnolia projects, the nickname of the C.J. Peete projects that Harmony Oaks replaced. (Edmund D. Fountain for NPR)
Bobbie Jennings, 69, stands outside her home in the Harmony Oaks housing development in New Orleans. Jennings says that she misses the sense of community of the Magnolia projects, the nickname of the C.J. Peete projects that Harmony Oaks replaced. (Edmund D. Fountain for NPR)

Correction: A previous version of the graphic misstated the number of households living in Columbia Parc (incorrect: 223 total and 116 returning; correct: 229 total and 107 returning) and Faubourg Lafitte (incorrect: 193 total and 123 returning; correct: 141 total and 123 returning).

Hurricane Katrina caused widespread devastation and loss of life, and many of those whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged fled New Orleans.

In the months that followed, many of the city's poorest families got even more bad news: The public housing units they called home would be knocked down, even if undamaged by the storm.

The destruction had given the government an opening to speed up its pre-Katrina plans to tear down old public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments. The goal was to deconcentrate poverty and give lower-income residents a better place to live — a goal that has been met with only partial success.

Angry residents sued and protested the city's plans. But today, the projects — known as "the bricks" — are gone, replaced with rows of pastel-colored cottages and garden apartments. Many of them have balconies and porches. There are pools, playgrounds and community centers with job placement services and activities for residents.

At the time of Katrina, more than 5,000 families lived in public housing; today, there are only 1,900. Other poor families have relocated to places like Houston and Atlanta, or moved elsewhere within New Orleans.

The Faubourg Lafitte housing development in New Orleans was built on the site of a former public housing project. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the government sped up its plan to demolish old public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments such as Faubourg Lafitte.
The Faubourg Lafitte housing development in New Orleans was built on the site of a former public housing project. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the government sped up its plan to demolish old public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments such as Faubourg Lafitte.

"We were like confetti, just snatched out of our comfort zone, and just thrown, scattered wherever we fell," says 81-year-old Emelda Paul, who was evacuated to Arizona.

While she was gone, she was upset to find out that the Lafitte public housing project that had been her home for decades was sealed up and slated for demolition. But today, after years of working with the redevelopers on the new site, she's back and very happy.

"It's like in another world. It's like Alice in Wonderland," Paul says. "I just, just love it, period."

Paul lives in a spacious one-bedroom apartment at what's now called Faubourg Lafitte. All the projects have new names, like Harmony Oaks and Columbia Parc. Her unit has wide closets, wood floors and an up-to-date kitchen.

Her old unit wasn't as big, she says, and residents had to buy their own appliances, such as washers, dryers and stoves.

Emelda Paul, 81, loves her new one-bedroom apartment in Faubourg Lafitte. Her unit has spacious closets and wood floors and comes equipped with appliances. When completed, Faubourg Lafitte will have a mix of public housing — about one-third of the total number of units — affordable housing and market-rate units.
Emelda Paul, 81, loves her new one-bedroom apartment in Faubourg Lafitte. Her unit has spacious closets and wood floors and comes equipped with appliances. When completed, Faubourg Lafitte will have a mix of public housing — about one-third of the total number of units — affordable housing and market-rate units.

But other former residents aren't so pleased. Bobbie Jennings, 69, lives in a two-story townhouse at Harmony Oaks, the site of the former C.J. Peete housing project, where she lived at the time of Katrina. The new housing is prettier and safer, she says.

"You don't hear all the gunshots you used to hear. You don't see all the drugs you used to see," she acknowledges.

But it's not home.

"It's hard to explain," Jennings says. "There's something missing, and you miss it every day. You miss your neighbors for one. Like we used to sit on the steps and conversate with our neighbors, and it's not like that anymore."

Jennings says there are so many new rules. She can't plant a vegetable garden out front, like she used to, or use a hose to spray the kids on a hot summer day. Big barbecues — with music, everyone hanging out, talking — aren't allowed.

A view of the Lafitte public housing project prior to demolition.
A view of the Lafitte public housing project prior to demolition.

"We can have a party, but it's more like a secret. You have a secret party," she says. "That's not fun."

The new rules do make it a nicer place to live, some residents say. But others complain about the loss of community and the sky-high utility bills that residents have to pay, along with one-third of their income on rent.

And even though every resident at the time of Katrina was told they could return, it didn't always work out that way, says Laura Tuggle, executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which provides civil legal aid for low-income clients involved in housing and other disputes.

"Some folks weren't able to, or either felt they weren't able to, go back home to public housing," she says.

Tuggle says some residents couldn't pass tougher criminal background and credit checks at the new developments, or lacked the money they needed to move back.

Bobbie Jennings' new home is in the Harmony Oaks housing development in New Orleans. The 69-year-old says she misses the sense of community of the C.J. Peete projects, which Harmony Oaks replaced.
Bobbie Jennings' new home is in the Harmony Oaks housing development in New Orleans. The 69-year-old says she misses the sense of community of the C.J. Peete projects, which Harmony Oaks replaced.

But more often than not, she says, those who didn't return, did so by choice. Most were given government housing vouchers they could use to subsidize rents elsewhere and liked that flexibility.

"If you go back to a public housing unit in a redeveloped site, you gotta give up your voucher," Tuggle says. "And a lot of folks just, they like the vouchers."

While the number of public housing units in the city has dropped, the number of vouchers has doubled — to 17,632 — more than making up the difference.

Despite the popularity of the vouchers, though, those using them often end up clustered in other high-poverty areas around the city, studies show.

"Very often it is difficult or nearly impossible for voucher holders to find housing that they can afford in areas of high opportunity," says Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

The Harmony Oaks housing development was built on the site of the former C.J. Peete housing project.
The Harmony Oaks housing development was built on the site of the former C.J. Peete housing project.

She says many of these families, most of whom are African-American, have a hard time finding landlords willing to accept the vouchers. And she says that can mean they end up with less opportunity, not more.

"They have to look at some of these neighborhoods that are further away from the city and again they are segregated in neighborhoods that are chronically poor and very often racially segregated," says Hill.

Still, Gregg Fortner, who has run the Housing Authority of New Orleans for the past year, says that despite trying, the city has been unable to fill all the new public housing slots with those evacuated after the storm.

"I have not heard since I've been here that anyone who wanted to go back to one of those communities was not allowed to go back," he says.

Instead, Fortner says, the city faces a different problem. Since Katrina, rents in New Orleans have soared, which means a whole new wave of people who need help. The waiting list for subsidized housing has 16,000 families on it. And that list has been closed for years.

Details of homes in the Faubourg Lafitte housing development (left) and Harmony Oaks housing development show architecture intended to reflect the charm and character of New Orleans.
Details of homes in the Faubourg Lafitte housing development (left) and Harmony Oaks housing development show architecture intended to reflect the charm and character of New Orleans.

"So if we opened that wait list today, we may have ... 50,000 households apply," he says.

And that's putting pressure on developers to finish fixing up the old public housing sites, which are years behind schedule in some cases.

Michelle Whetten of Enterprise Community Partners, the nonprofit co-developer of Faubourg Lafitte, says the group is a couple of years behind, largely because the recession dried up private funding needed for the projects. She says it could be years away, but they're still committed to replacing all 900 original affordable housing units, along with 600 market-rate apartments.

"We actually have affordable units at this end of the site and at the far end, and the market-rate units are kind of in between, so they're not totally set apart from the affordable units," she says, pointing to rows of two-story apartments on the former Lafitte public housing project site.

That's part of the goal of mixing poor families with those who are better off, and maybe providing role models for some of the kids. So far, a few police officers, security guards and offshore oil workers have moved in. Faubourg Lafitte resident Emelda Paul thinks it's great for several reasons.

Patrons of the Sojourner Truth Community Center in the Faubourg Lafitte housing development help themselves to free red beans and rice and greens. The center provides a community space for the development and programs to encourage interaction between residents.
Patrons of the Sojourner Truth Community Center in the Faubourg Lafitte housing development help themselves to free red beans and rice and greens. The center provides a community space for the development and programs to encourage interaction between residents.

"Coming together. And stop segregating ourself. Let's learn about each other, each other's culture," Paul says. "And since some of the people move in, I've seen 'em and I let them know who I am. I says 'And welcome to the neighborhood.' "

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're remembering back to a decade ago this month and Hurricane Katrina. Amid all the loss of life and catastrophic damage in New Orleans, some saw opportunity. The government was able to speed up existing plans to tear down old public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments. The goal - to break up concentrations of poverty and give lower-income residents a better place to live. That was the goal. NPR's Pam Fessler reports on whether it was achieved.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Among the many insults suffered by New Orleans' poorest families was news shortly after Katrina that their public housing units would be knocked down, even those undamaged by the storm. Angry residents sued, protested, even confronted top housing officials at a hearing in Washington, D.C.

BOBBIE JENNINGS: Well, why can't we go back home? They say they going to do this and do that and don't do nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We want you to go back - we want you to go back home to another unit, to a better unit.

FESSLER: And for the most part, the government prevailed. Today, the projects, known as the bricks, are gone, replaced with rows of pastel-colored cottages and garden apartments, many with balconies and porches. There are pools, playgrounds, community centers with job placement services and activities for residents.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Under the O, 71.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Bingo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There you go.

FESSLER: But while 5,000 families lived in public housing at the time of Katrina, today, there are only 1,900. Other poor families have relocated to places like Houston and Atlanta, or moved elsewhere within New Orleans.

EMELDA PAUL: We were like confetti, just snatched out of our comfort zone, and just thrown, scattered wherever we fell. That was it.

FESSLER: Eighty-one-year-old Emelda Paul evacuated to Arizona and was upset to learn while she was gone that the Lafitte public housing project that had been her home for decades was sealed up and slated for demolition. But after years of working with redevelopers on the new site, she's back and very happy.

PAUL: It's like in another world. It's like "Alice In Wonderland." I just love it, period.

FESSLER: Paul shows me around her spacious one-bedroom apartment at what's now called Faubourg Lafitte. All the projects have fancy, new names like Harmony Oaks and Columbia Parc. Her unit has wide closets, wood floors, an up-to-date kitchen.

PAUL: The old one wasn't this big. No, you had to buy your own appliances. Yes, I bought my own washer, dryer, my stove. Yeah. No, we didn't have this.

FESSLER: But other former residents aren't so pleased. That woman you heard earlier asking government officials, why can't we go back home? That's Bobbie Jennings, who now lives in a two-story townhouse at Harmony Oaks, the site of the former C.J. Peete housing project. Sure, she says, it's prettier and safer.

JENNINGS: You don't hear all the gunshots you used to hear. You don't see all the drugs you used to see.

FESSLER: But it's not home.

JENNINGS: It's hard to explain. There's something missing, and you miss it every day. You miss your neighbors for one. Like, we used to sit on the steps and conversate with our neighbors, and it's not like that anymore.

FESSLER: Jennings says there are so many new rules. She can't plant a vegetable garden out front like she used to or use a hose to spray off the kids on a hot summer day. No big barbecues with music, everyone hanging out, talking.

JENNINGS: We can have a party, but it's more like a secret. You have a secret party. That's not fun.

FESSLER: And while some residents say they do like the new rules - it makes it a nicer place to live - others complain about the loss of community and sky-high utility bills that residents pay along with a third of their income on rent. And even though every resident at the time of Katrina was told they could return, it didn't always work that way.

LAURA TUGGLE: Some folks weren't able to or either felt they weren't able to go back home to public housing.

FESSLER: Laura Tuggle runs Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which helps low-income clients. She says some couldn't pass tougher criminal background and credit checks at the new developments or lacked the money they needed to move back. But Tuggle says more often than not, those who didn't return did so by choice. Most were given housing vouchers to subsidize the rents elsewhere and liked that flexibility.

TUGGLE: If you go back to a public housing unit in a redeveloped site, you got to give up your voucher. And a lot of folks just - they liked the vouchers.

FESSLER: And while public housing units have become more scarce, the number of vouchers in the city has doubled, more than making up the difference. Gregg Fortner has run the Housing Authority of New Orleans for the past year. He says the city has tried, but it's been unable to fill all the new public housing slots with those evacuated after the storm.

GREGG FORTNER: I have not heard since I've been here that anyone who wanted to go back to one of those communities was not allowed to go back.

FESSLER: He says instead, the city faces a different problem. Since Katrina, rents here have soared, which means a whole new wave of people who need help. The waiting list for subsidized housing has 16,000 families on it. And that list has been closed for several years.

FORTNER: So if we open that waitlist today, we may have 50,000 households apply.

FESSLER: Which is putting pressure on developers to finish fixing up the old public housing sites, which in some cases are years behind schedule.

MICHELLE WHETTEN: Just a couple blocks away here, you can see our current phase of construction, which is a hundred units of senior housing.

FESSLER: Michelle Whetten is with Enterprise Community Partners, the nonprofit co-developer of Faubourg Lafitte. Whetten says they're a couple of years behind largely because the recession dried up private funding needed for the projects. She says it could still be years away, but they're committed to replacing all 900 affordable housing units along with 600 market-rate apartments.

WHETTEN: We actually have affordable units at this end of the site and at the far end. And the market-rate units are kind of in between, so they're not totally set apart from the affordable units.

FESSLER: Which is part of the goal of mixing poor families with those who are better off, maybe providing role models for kids. So far, a few police officers, security guards and offshore oil workers have moved in. Emelda Paul thinks it's great.

What's so great about it?

PAUL: Coming together and stop segregating ourself. Let's learn about each other - each other's culture. And since some of the people move in, I've seen them and I let them know who I am. I says, and welcome to the neighborhood.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.