Drowned city cuts its poor adrift
The waters have receded but the mainly black, low-income citizens of New Orleans are now the victims of rising rents, forced evictions and plans that favour the better off, reports Peter Beaumont
Sunday December 11, 2005
Miss Mildred's piano lies where the water knocked it down three months ago, amid ruined photographs and clothes. Her favourite chair is jammed in a corner; the wooden tiles of her tiny clapboard house muddy and peeled loose. There is nothing to salvage from a thrifty, industrious life, so she has come to see her home in New Orleans' devastated Ninth Ward for one last time.
'I don't have anything to come home to. No food, no water or electricity,' said the 74-year-old, whose family has been scattered. 'I can't afford to live in the French Quarter and there is nowhere else to rent. I have three more years on the mortgage to pay for this.' She will not sell the property, she says, but she also will not return. And Mildred W Franklin is angry. In a city where the wealthy areas are buzzing with reconstruction, her neighbourhood, one of the worst affected, is silent and ghostly. 'They want us to be disgusted. They don't want us to return.'
She is not alone in thinking this. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans it was the city's poor - almost exclusively African Americans - who were left to fend for themselves as the city drowned in a lake of toxic sludge. Now, three months on, the same people have been abandoned once again by a reconstruction effort that seems determined to prevent them from returning. They are the victims of a devastating combination of forced evictions, a failure to reopen the city's public house projects, rent gouging and - as in the case of Mildred - a decision to write off whole neighbourhoods.
They are victims too of a reconstruction effort that, while its funding remains stalled in Congress, and lacking proper leadership, has been left to the care of the private sector with little interest in the city's poor. As a rapacious free market has come to dominate the rebuilding of the Louisiana city, it has seen spiralling prices and the influx of property speculators keen to cash in on the disaster. The result is one of the most shocking pieces of urban planning that black and poor America has seen: reconstruction as survival of the wealthiest.
Sitting in the back of the pick-up truck of union activist Jim Prickett, Aaron is on fire with anger. A young black man in his twenties in dreadlocks and a Veterans for Peace T-shirt, he flares out at all around him. 'My grandpa died at the airport [during the evacuation]. Now me and my mama can't get into our home. There is a notice on the door. If we try, we are looting. Do you understand how that must feel?' he shouts. 'Do you understand? I live how I can. It has jumbled me up here,' he points to his head. 'It is genocide and ethnic cleansing. It's the return of Jim Crow.'
Aaron's anger is not unique, although a crushed sense of depression is more common. It is fuelled by the suspicion among the city's dispersed poor that what is happening is nothing short of an attempt to redraw the city's demographics and gentrify it. It is a suspicion fuelled by widely reported comments from senior administration and city officials that in the future New Orleans, which once had a population that was 65 per cent black, will no longer look that way. Alphonso Jackson, President George Bush's Housing and Urban Development Secretary, is one of those who has predicted a change in the ethnic mix of the Big Easy. 'Whether we like it or not,' he told the Houston Chronicle, 'New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time ... New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.'
Jackson is not alone in holding that view.'As a practical matter, these poor folks don't have the resources to go back to our city, just like they didn't have the resources to get out of our city,' said Joseph Canizaro, once one of the city's biggest developers and a member of New Orleans' rebuilding commission. 'So we won't get all those folks back. That's just a fact. It's not what I want, it's just a fact.'
While some in the city are overtly racist, what is happening in New Orleans is only racist by default. The discrimination is against the poor, who once made up an unusually high percentage of the population for a US city. It just happens that the vast majority of them are African Americans.
One who is not is Sonia Fabiola, 54, a house cleaner from Guatemala whose story is typical in a city where thousands are being evicted by private landlords keen to cash in on doubled monthly rentals after the loss of 200,000 homes to the storm. And it is being fuelled by a property boom. 'We were one of the 25 most underpriced markets in the United States,' Arthur Sterbcow, president of the region's Latter & Blum estate agents, told Reuters recently. 'We were as far away from what they called a housing bubble as you get. Now we've had three record-breaking months in a row.'
It is a boom that has fuelled unscrupulous practices of which Sonia has been a victim. A resident in a low cost private complex in the Terrytown district, Ms Fabiola, who was evicted from her apartment last Wednesday after a struggle to remain, had been the victim of constant harassment since her return home, allegedly with the connivance of some members of the police. It is a story of pure Rachmanism. She had been threatened, had her rent cheque refused, her electricity cut off and seen her absent neighbours' flats cleared of all their possessions, while rubbish was dumped outside her door.
But in a state with some of the poorest tenants' protection laws in the US, her fight to remain was hopeless. And that is likely to be a massive problem in a city whose rents have doubled and trebled in some instances. 'I came here from my own country to get away from corruption and this kind of behaviour,' said Ms Fabiola, 'and now I am treated like this in the United States. It is terrible. No one sees how the poor people here are being treated. I have never missed my rent in the 20 years I have lived here, and now I am being treated like this.'
'The racial issues are real,' said Miles Granderson, an activist lawyer who grew up in New Orleans and returned after the storm to campaign on housing issues. He adds a caveat: 'It is socio-economic more than anything, but in many cases black and poor and black and criminal are seen as the same thing - consciously or subconsciously. The main issue here is housing - and it is utterly incomprehensible that we don't have large numbers of emergency trailers here, or that we haven't finished or significantly progressed in rehabilitating the areas with only modest damage, or opened more public housing units.'
A case in point is the Iberville Project on the edge of the French Quarter, an area now bustling with out-of-state contractors spending their money in the restaurants and bars off Bourbon Street. Despite the project suffering minimal damage, like the vast majority of the city's projects its residents remain shut out. Public housing campaigners in the city believe that 3,750, or about half of the public housing units, are either ready for occupation now or can easily be made so. Yet only a few dozen have been reopened.
The net effect is a city that is not only too expensive for its low-income families to return to, but a city that many are not sure they want to reclaim. And as a consequence, the longer that people are kept away the less likely they are to return. 'There is a real concern that we will lose the nation's attention the longer this takes,' Bobby Jindal, a Republican from Metairie, just west of New Orleans, recently told the New York Times. 'People are making decisions now about whether to come back. And every day that passes, it will be a little harder to get things done.'
They are all problems that are unlikely to have been noticed by the former Presidents George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton when they came to New Orleans last week. The places that they visited were a bustle of activity, including one city worker set pointlessly to work with a tree pruner neatly clipping the branch ends of a tree.
It was a different story just 15 minutes' drive across the city in the flood-devastated neighbourhoods of the Ninth and Lower Ninth and in the city's east. For if there is busy reconstruction work in New Orleans, it has largely been following the money to households that can afford thousands of dollars to put them right.
On an official level there appears too to be a danger that the same assumptions are emerging. A report commissioned from the Urban Land Institute by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been equally controversial in suggesting that resources be focused on rebuilding New Orleans' less damaged neighbourhoods first - which also happen to be the wealthier ones - while studying whether it makes sense to repopulate areas that saw the worst flooding. And while Nagin has sought to calm critics by stressing that 'every section of the city will be rebuilt', the long delays in the poorest and worst-affected districts have effectively condemned vast areas of largely wooden housing to rapid disintegration.
Which makes such men as Newell Jack doubly courageous in trying to come back. Last week he had returned to his flood-damaged house on Abundance Street in the Ninth Ward to clear the debris prior to renovation. Mr Jack is fortunate in one sense: his house, like several in his street, is made of brick. For those few like him who have returned and are trying to rebuild it is a massive gamble. If no one else comes back, the inheritance of their effort will be a house in a blighted ghost town.
'I was lucky,' he says amid the acrid smell of 200lb of rotting shrimps the restaurateur was forced to abandon to Katrina. 'I was well insured. But a lot of people are going to have problems coming back. I own four chicken places. I lost two of them. Another is open and I'm working on the fourth. I can't leave what I had here. But the authorities have left it too long to come in and clear up this neighbourhood. They picked up some trash, but not much else. Now the mould has got into all the houses.'
For all his anger at the way he feels his neighbourhood has been abandoned, Newell Jack, however, is an optimist. 'New Orleans'll come back,' he says. 'It might take a while, but it will come back.'
The Legacy of disaster
Population of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina: 500,000
Present population: 60-70,000
Black population pre-Katrina: 65 per cent; post-Katrina it is predicted by the US Secretary for Housing and Urban Development to be 35-40 per cent
Concentration of poverty pre-Katrina: 18.4 per cent, making it the second highest concentration in a US metropolitan area. For African-Americans, the rate pre-Katrina was 35 per cent
Car ownership pre-Katrina: 75 per cent
Number of people who have applied for federal aid following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: 2.5 million
People in New Orleans suffering 'significant distress or dysfunction' 45 per cent; 25 per cent have an even 'higher degree of dysfunction'
There were 15,800 subsidised homes for poorer families before the storm. Now only a few score are occupied
The sum needed to rebuild homes in New Orleans: more than $20 billion
114,000 buildings have been inspected - around half of those in the city. Only 28 per cent of them are deemed to be habitable
The number of houses now receiving electricity from New Orleans power company Entergy: 55,000 out of 190,000
Estimated cost of repairing damaged levees: from $4bn to more than $30bn
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