Gulf Watch: Public housing demolition decision handed to New Orleans City Council

The plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit to block demolition of public housing complexes in New Orleans reached an agreement in court Friday with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-controlled Housing Authority of New Orleans that the teardowns won't proceed unless the City Council grants permits for the work. Council members are expected to take up the matter in their regular meeting this Thursday.

The agreement allows HANO to proceed with demolition work that was approved before Hurricane Katrina at the B.W. Cooper complex, while halting work at the C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard developments. It also gives HANO a deadline of 5 p.m. today to provide the plaintiffs with legal proof that the agency has complied with Louisiana law in hiring companies for the demolition work. The lawsuit charges that HANO has ignored a statute requiring public bids for contractor selection.

Also on Friday, Congressional leaders weighed in on the planned teardowns, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sending a letter to President Bush asking for an immediate 60-day moratorium on the demolitions, which are being pushed by HUD despite the city's urgent shortage of affordable housing. Pelosi and Reid offered to work with the administration to craft a plan for replacement housing, writing:

Given the City's housing needs and the current availability of these affordable housing resources, we are extremely disappointed by the Department's insistence on moving ahead with this demolition despite insufficient resources to make up the clear loss of affordable housing. For the Federal government to reduce affordable housing units at a time when the City is desperate for this very type of housing is a misuse of taxpayer funds and runs counter to the mission of the Department, not to mention the core values that we share. Additionally, HANO has not completed a promised survey of displaced residents and has indicated that this important document now will not be ready until late January at the earliest. HANO has also not provided meaningful opportunity for residents to collect their belongings. The additional sixty days would allow for the resolution of these and other essential issues, including the completion of a comprehensive plan for HANO redevelopment of all affordable units, and replacement of any units proposed for demolition.

More than 100 organizations across the Gulf Coast and the nation have voiced opposition to the demolition plans; for a complete list, visit the website of Defend New Orleans Public Housing. Among those opposing demolition is Bishop Charles Jenkins of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, who in an open letter to the New Orleans City Council called on members to "reclaim and renew existing Federal Housing Projects as temporary and dignified homes" until replacement housing is developed.

Demolition opponents are also battling HUD over the facts behind the teardown. For example, a story in yesterday's New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that "[f]ederal officials, in partnership with developers, are pushing a plan that will demolish 4,500 units of traditional public housing, replacing them with 3,343 units of public housing and 900 market rate rental units." But the plan's opponents point out that HUD's and HANO's own numbers state that fewer than 800 units of traditional public housing will be built to replace what's torn down. To get the 3,343 figure, HUD is apparently counting over 2,000 existing public housing units that are not yet slated for demolition.

A new PolicyLink analysis [PDF] of HUD's progress in restoring subsidized homes in New Orleans since Katrina found that the agency has approved resources to rebuild just over a third of those homes, leaving few affordable options for senior citizens, people with disabilities and the working poor. At the same time, the analysis notes, the agency has put forth no comprehensive plan for addressing the loss of affordable units.

Meanwhile, a federal criminal probe continues into HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson's role in awarding contracts for the redevelopment of New Orleans public housing. The National Journal reports that investigators appear to be focusing on Jackson's ties to William Hairston, a stucco contractor from Hilton Head Island, S.C., where Jackson has a vacation home. Hairston was paid more than $485,000 for working as a construction manager at HANO over an 18-month period that ended in June.

In interviews earlier this year, Hairston told National Journal that Jackson had helped him land the work in January 2006. But in testimony before Congress and in statements to the HUD Inspector General, Jackson said that he had no role in department contracting decisions. Concerns have also been raised over the award of one HANO redevelopment contract to Atlanta-based Columbia Residential, which owes Jackson somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 for past work.