New Orleans public housing debate

The Times-Picayune summarizes the New Orleans public housing debate:

Seven months after Hurricane Katrina, federal housing officials say they still haven't decided what to do with thousands of government-subsidized apartments in New Orleans that have remained shuttered since the storm, leaving former residents in a quandary about whether to return.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the more than 7,000 public apartments in New Orleans, said it is holding off on decisions until its gets plans from Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- both of whom say they are looking to HUD for some signal.

This raises, again, the question of "who's in charge?" There appears to be a leadership vacuum as residents wait for answers. There are other problems, as the article notes:

The lack of answers has stoked frustration among former residents, who want to come back and rebuild their lives but are unable to afford what has suddenly become a high-rent market in the New Orleans area.

There are also concerns that proposed solutions such as HOPE IV mixed-use/mixed-income development to replace public housing are "a way to tear down public housing and displace low-income residents." Others are concerned about "re-creating pockets of poverty."

Then there are practical issues:

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the six closed complexes are rife with mold and the agency is working on abatement. Brown said the apartments are uninhabitable although housing advocates said that some of the units, which sustained limited damage, could be reopened in fairly short order.

"There is no doubt that many of the units could be habitable in a short amount of time with a little work," said Doug Rice of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which works at the federal and state levels on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals.

But Cabrera, the HUD assistant secretary, said rehabilitating the apartments is a 12- to 18-month undertaking. Besides, he said, fixing them up isn't the only issue. He said that until there is an adequate community infrastructure -- such as hospitals, schools and dependable utilities -- they won't be reopened.

And of course, political issues:

Neither Nagin nor Blanco are as adamant as [Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, who is urging HUD to step up their efforts] about reopening public housing. The future of public housing has become a loaded political issue: What some say is an opportunity to tear down the complexes that nobody liked, others interpret as an attempt to keep low-income residents out of the city.

In such an atmosphere, most politicians are treading lightly, especially with the New Orleans mayoral election a month away.

Economists are concerned about the housing shortage, and say that solving it is a key to recovery:

Yet another report released Monday identified additional housing as the key to the region's economic revitalization.

James Richardson, an economist at Louisiana State University, unveiled the report, saying that even with modest economic growth, the New Orleans area will have a housing shortage of more than 100,000 houses and apartments by 2008.

"The employment structure is up and running if the people have a place to live," Richardson said. "If you get the housing, schools will come back. If you get the housing, the health care sector will come back."

It would be hard for anyone to argue with that. Except the HUD official who said that some units won't reopen until there is infrastructure such as schools and hospitals in place. There appears to be a serious breakdown in communication and no clear strategy. Someone is going to have to step up to the plate and take charge before any of this gets solved. The question of the day is, who?