Bush administration OKs demolition of New Orleans public housing complexes

Despite the severe shortage of housing affordable to low-income residents of the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday approved a plan by the Housing Authority of New Orleans to raze four public housing complexes with a total of 4,500 units and redevelop them as mixed-income housing, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.

The developments targeted for tear-downs are C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte. The demolition work is expected to begin in the next two or three months, according to the paper.

Among those raising concerns about the plan are U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), the sponsors of the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act (S. 1668), which guarantees that any demolished public housing in the hurricane-affected region is replaced. That bill is under consideration in the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which Dodd chairs. Reports the Times-Picayune:

"HUD is moving forward with the demolition of its public housing without adequate plans to ensure that replacement housing is developed in its place," Landrieu wrote in a letter dated Friday to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson. "To do so in the midst of an affordable housing crisis in the area is shortsighted and undermines comprehensive congressional efforts to solve this issue."

Landrieu is among those scheduled to testify tomorrow before that committee in a hearing titled "Two Years After the Storm: Housing Needs in the Gulf Coast." Also scheduled to testify are Orlando Cabrera, HUD's assistant secretary for public and Indian housing; James Perry of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center; and Emelda Paul, president of the Lafitte Resident Council.

The tear-down plans resulted in a federal class-action lawsuit against HANO and HUD that accused the agencies of violating tenants' rights by refusing to restore the complexes to their pre-Katrina state. But in February, U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled that HANO could move ahead with the demolition. And last week, Lemelle limited the case to those public-housing tenants who've been forced to pay utility bills since being displaced from their homes after Katrina, because public housing residents pay only rent. The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Bill Quigley of Loyola Law School, said appeals from both sides are likely, which will probably push a trial originally scheduled for November into next year, the Times-Picayune reports.