Grassroots efforts to address the Gulf Coast's housing crisis are growing just as a federal judge has ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to resume rental aid to Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon this week ruled that the Bush administration treated tens of thousands of storm victims unconstitutionally by beginning to cut off rental aid in February without providing clear reasons and by hindering applicants' due-process rights to appeal government mistakes, the Washington Post reports:
"It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights," Leon, a D.C. federal judge, wrote in a 19-page opinion.
"Free these evacuees from the 'Kafkaesque' application process they have had to endure," he wrote.
FEMA says that of the 720,590 households that have received rental assistance, only 33,889 families remained eligible for aid as of Oct. 19, the Post reports. An additional 108,088 families, most headed by homeowners, are still in FEMA trailers and mobile homes. Each household includes about three people, according to analyst estimates.
At the same time the Bush administration was unconstitutionally denying rental aid to storm victims, it was also moving ahead with plans to tear down 5,000 public housing units that suffered little storm-related damage. This week it was reported that the almost 900 families that used to live in the Lafitte Housing Development in the city's Treme community will be allowed to return to retrieve their belongings before the complex is torn down to make way for single-family homes.
Meanwhile, outrage is building against the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which oversees the city's public housing complexes. Tension deepened this week as public housing residents and community leaders fought to be heard at the HANO Resident Advisory Board consultation meeting. Common Ground, the New Orleans-based nonprofit that provides volunteer relief aid to hurricane victims, has posted to its Web site sound clips of residents' and community leaders' comments as well as a brief report on the meeting:
People chanting "People First!" tried to amend the agenda to have the residents heard before HANO's presentations. C. Donald Babers, Chairman of the HANO board, then took control of the microphone and demanded that the HANO-approved agenda be continued as scheduled.
The chanting continues over the voice of Judith Moran, Director of Development, who reads a power point presentation entitled "Vision for Redevelopment." When the slides on demolition were read, Moran had to contend with chanting of "No Demolitions!" by more than one hundred members of the packed crowd in John McDonogh Senior High School Auditorium.
There was a small bit of good news this week for New Orleans area residents in need of affordable housing, as tenants of the Woodlands Apartment complex in Algiers won a legal battle that will allow them to remain in their homes rent-free until the new year. Shortly before Thanksgiving, the tenants received eviction notices after the complex was sold, leaving many fearful they would be left homeless for the holidays. Common Ground manages the complex.
The tenants -- with help from the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corp. and the support of Common Ground and the Louisiana NAACP -- challenged the evictions in court. More than 140 residents and supporters showed up at the Algiers Courthouse on Tuesday, holding signs and voicing anger over the threatened evictions. The two sides reached an agreement that will allow the families to remain in their homes without paying rent until Jan. 4. However, the deal required Common Ground to sacrifice some of its interest in the complex; as of yesterday, only Common Ground volunteers who live at the Woodlands will be allowed on the property.
The agreement gives Woodlands residents a little more than a month to find new affordable housing in a market where rents are estimated to be as much as 70 percent higher than they were before Hurricane Katrina.
Photo courtesy of Common Ground. For more pictures of the protest, visit the organization's Woodlands anti-eviction campaign photo album.