Gulf Watch: NOLA public housing demolition OK'd while HUD corruption probe continues

More than 40 human rights organizations sent a letter last week to federal officials protesting the planned demolition of some 3,000 public housing units in New Orleans. The letter -- which went to U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson -- came less than a week after a federal judge refused to stop the Housing Authority of New Orleans from razing the city's four largest public housing developments. The tear-downs are set to begin as soon as next month.

The protesters charge that demolishing the complexes without replacement affordable housing stock violates international human rights standards protecting people displaced by disasters. They report that contractors have already begun emptying apartments and discarding residents' personal property -- including photographs, letters and Social Security cards -- without their knowledge or consent. Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor and attorney for some former public housing residents, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he plans to appeal the judge's ruling.

The advocates' letter is part of a national campaign to press for passage of the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act, sponsored by Rep. Waters and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Though Vitter and HUD officials were initially supportive of the legislation, which passed the House earlier this year by a vote of 302 to 125, they have since come out against the bill over a provision that requires the replacement of any affordable units that are torn down.

Also as part of that campaign, leaders of more than two dozen political action, faith-based and human rights organizations marched to Vitter's office in Metairie, La. last week to deliver more than 130,000 petition signatures calling on him to drop his objections to the housing bill, which has also been endorsed by the New Orleans City Council, Mayor Ray Nagin and more than 100 business groups, non-profits and religious organizations.

Further complicating the politics surrounding affordable housing in New Orleans is the ongoing FBI probe of HUD chief Jackson over revelations that Jackson's friend and golfing partner -- South Carolina-based construction contractor William Hairston -- got $485,000 worth of no-bid work at the Housing Authority of New Orleans in 2006 with Jackson's help. HANO is currently under HUD receivership. The probe is reportedly focusing on whether Jackson lied when he told a Senate panel in May that he never intervened in awarding department contracts.

Hairston and his wife, Starletta, together have donated at least $3,500 to Republican politicians and party committees exclusively since 2005, after previously supporting Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's about the same time the Hairstons' annual income plunged from $500,000 to $70,000 after the undocumented immigrants William Hairston previously hired for his stucco business started their own companies and began undercutting their former boss with lower bids, the Wall Street Journal reported last December:

To stay afloat, the Hairstons remortgaged their house twice and sold a condominium and a plot of land. Mr. Hairston now hustles for jobs in Charlotte, N.C., and beyond, looking for better opportunities. Meanwhile, Starletta Hairston, 53, won election to the Beaufort County Council, where she has joined a wave of local officials around the country trying to pass new laws cracking down on illegal immigrants.

The FBI's probe of Jackson comes on the heels of an April 2006 incident in which the HUD secretary was speaking before a group of minority real estate executives and discussed quashing a contract award because the contractor had spoken unfavorably of President Bush. A subsequent investigation by the HUD inspector general found that while Jackson ordered aides to consider the partisan political views of contractors in awarding department business, there was no evidence they complied. Awarding contracts on the basis of party affiliation violates federal law.

In another development that raises questions about HUD's and HANO's commitment to helping New Orleans' low-income residents with affordable housing, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center recently filed a motion to enforce a consent degree and for contempt sanctions against the housing authority. The motion comes in response to HANO's failure to provide updated contact information for former residents of the St. Thomas Public Housing Development, which was shuttered in 2001 and later torn down. St. Thomas residents were supposed to be given preference for units at the replacement River Garden mixed-income development. HANO initially updated the mailing information for only 378 names out of a total of 1,132 -- even though HANO has access to HUD and FEMA databases of displaced people receiving housing assistance. Said GNOFHAC Executive Director James Perry:

"HANO's duty and purpose is to provide housing for indigent New Orleanians. The failure by HANO to provide updated contact information for these residents is a clear abdication of that duty, as well as its obligations under the Consent Decree. HANO's failure is of grave concern because it calls into question HANO's claim that it has open units at other developments and that it is unable to fill these units with HANO clients. The failure also frustrates New Orleans' attempt to conduct an equitable and open rebuilding process inclusive of all New Orleanians.

(Photo by Craig Morse courtesy of Survivors' Village Web site.)