Charging that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has "hijacked" billions of dollars of federal reconstruction money, a coalition of groups representing Hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors plans to hold a mass protest march in Baton Rouge this Saturday, Nov. 18.
Organized by the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, a grassroots organization established after last year's storms to facilitate the return and rebuilding process, the "We Want Our Money Rally" targets the state's Road Home Program. The largest single housing recovery effort in U.S. history, the program was created by Blanco, the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the Office of Community Development with the state legislature's approval.
The Road Home has been full of obstacles, however. Blanco herself criticized the program's pace in a press conference yesterday, the Baton Rouge Advocate reports:
The governor wants to know why only 27 families have received money from the program to restore the estimated 123,000 homes damaged or destroyed by last year's hurricanes.
Blanco said money should be in the hands of at least 1,500 families by this point.
Blanco hopes to get answers during a meeting today with ICF International, the company in charge of dispensing $7.5 billion in federal funds to repair the owner-occupied houses.
ICF is a Fairfax, Va.-based public company that provides technology and consulting services to governments. Last week it announced that its third-quarter net income more than doubled to $3 million on increased revenue related to a "recently awarded contract" related to "housing program management services." In all, the company expects to make $756 million off the Road Home contract, it reported in a recent press release.
Not surprisingly, PHRF is far harsher than Blanco in its criticism of Road Home. In a media advisory announcing Saturday's march, it calls the program "a fraud and an attempt for developers to permanently displace working class and poor New Orleanians." The program, it says,
prevents those with modest means from rebuilding because the maximum grant of $150,000 is based on the pre-Katrina value of one's home ... minus any insurance proceeds ... minus any FEMA grants ... minus penalties for not having flood insurance ... minus penalties for moving out of the state if the homeowner sells her/his property; thus leaving homeowners with not enough funds to rebuild.
The marchers are also protesting the lack of assistance for renters and plans to demolish 5,100 units of public housing in New Orleans. As law professor Bill Quigley of New Orleans' Loyola University writes:
U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which has taken over the local Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) is seeking millions in hurricane relief tax credits to demolish over 5,000 apartments. Since Katrina, HUD and HANO have barred thousands of families from returning to their apartments. All the renters are African American, most are mothers and grandmothers. Some are elderly and disabled. Private apartments are out of the question as rent in the New Orleans area is up nearly 80 percent over last year.
These apartments are safe and could have already been repaired, but almost all the maintenance workers were fired. A professor from MIT recently inspected the apartments and declared they are structurally sound and in better shape than most of the rest of the housing in New Orleans.
On a hopeful note, Quigley reports that the human-rights group Amnesty International USA is shining a light on the city's housing problem, mounting a campaign calling on people across the country to "stand with Katrina survivors and call for HUD to stop the destruction of housing for low-income residents."
At the same time the federal government is seeking to tear down affordable housing in New Orleans, a new study finds that U.S. housing policies -- particularly its funding priorities -- are deepening the homelessness crisis. The San Francisco-based Western Regional Advocacy Project yesterday released "Without Housing," a report that documents how decades of federal housing cutbacks correlate with the massive homelessness problem that emerged in the United States in the 1980s and continues to this day.
WRAP's report caught the attention of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which has a story about it in today's paper:
Since 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has spent nothing directly on construction of new public housing while more than 100,000 public housing units have been demolished, sold off or redeveloped during the same time period, the report found.
Instead, HUD has relied on the Hope VI grant program that it administers to transform distressed public housing, such as the St. Thomas and Desire complexes in New Orleans, into mixed-income neighborhoods that invariably deliver fewer subsidized homes.
The PHRF march hopes to draw attention to Louisiana's post-hurricane housing crisis before it adds to the nation's chronic homelessness problem. To that end, the organization is calling for the business-dominated Louisiana Recovery Authority to be disbanded and replaced with a more representative body, as well as compensation for renters, the immediate reopening of public housing, the building of more affordable housing, and total replacement of privately owned homes where mortgages were paid in full.
"A resident return program with the guiding principles of justice and equity is needed," says PHRF's Malcolm Suber. "This includes renters along with homeowners. Renters should be able to return to a city where there is affordable housing, not housing priced out of the range of the majority of New Orleans' working people."