Tuesday, March 4, 2008

St. Bernard Resident Comments on Demolition

Click here to see a video of comments made by a St. Bernard resident on demolitions currently taking place.

U.N. experts, HUD disagree on housing

by The Times-Picayune
Thursday February 28, 2008, 10:10 AM

Two experts from the United Nations said thousands of black families would continue to suffer displacement and homelessness if the demolition of 4,500 public housing units is not halted, but federal housing officials in New Orleans countered that they have units available immediately for former public housing residents displaced by Katrina.

U.N.-appointed experts Miloon Kothari, the U.N. Human Rights Council's investigator for housing, and Gay McDougall, an expert on minority issues, urged U.S. and local government leaders to further include current and former residents in discussions that would help them return home.

"I think this is vindication of what public housing advocates have been saying from day one," said Monique Harden, co-director of the public interest law firm Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, who testified before Geneva-based U.N. experts.

"Recovery must mean the end of displacement for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast," added Harden, who returned to New Orleans last week. "What we have instead is recovery that demolishes affordable housing."

"The spiraling costs of private housing and rental units, and in particular the demolition of public housing, puts these communities in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness," said a joint statement by the experts. "We therefore call on the federal government and state and local authorities to immediately halt the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans."

But local officials said the U.N. experts were too detached from the complexities of the post-Katrina city to claim that razing of the buildings was racist. For example, while the U.N. experts called for residents to be included in discussions about public housing, many of those residents appeared at a New Orleans City Council meeting in December to commend architects and developers for meeting with them regularly to solicit their thoughts on the design of modernized public housing.

City officials were riled, but mostly they planned to ignore the finding.

"The past model of public housing in New Orleans has been a failed one. Years of neglect and mismanagement left our public housing developments in ruin," said a joint statement issued by the City Council Thursday. "These are critical times in our city's history. We can choose to continue on the path of progress and positive change, or we can choose to maintain the status quo."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also weighed in, calling the U.N. expert findings "misinformed."

"We do not want to relegate thousands of minority and low-income families back into the substandard conditions of New Orleans' public housing, conditions only made worse by Hurricane Katrina," said a statement issued by HUD's press offices.

Officials from the Housing Authority of New Orleans said the agency has 253 traditional units available in public complexes. Eligibility for those units is limited to people who were public housing residents in New Orleans when Katrina struck. HANO has been renovating some units in complexes across the city to provide housing for former residents until the rebuilding of public housing and mixed-income neighborhoods is complete.

The experts' comments did not entail an official U.N. resolution, but they came a day before a larger U.N. racism panel planned to discuss Katrina recovery efforts and public housing in New Orleans. Neither opinion carries legal or regulatory power.

The demolition of the housing developments appears all but assured. Early stages have begun at some developments, and only demolition permits remain for others. The council voted unanimously in December to raze the units.

. . . . . . .

Staff writer Gwen Filosa contributed to this report.

Read Thursday's statement by UN human rights officials

by The Times-Picayune
Thursday February 28, 2008, 11:05 AM

On Thursday, two United Nations human rights officials, Miloon Kothari, an Indian architect, and Gay McDougall, former executive director of Washington-based GlobalRights.org, issued a statement from Geneva, Switzerland that expressed concern about availability of affordable housing in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Kothari is the UN Special Rapporteur "on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living," while McDougall is the UN "Independent Expert on minority issues."

Here's their statement:

"We are deeply concerned about information we continue to receive about the housing situation of people in New Orleans , Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region. African-American communities were badly affected by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The spiraling costs of private housing and rental units, and in particular the demolition of public housing, puts these communities in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness. There are reports that more than 12,000 people are homeless in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area alone.

A number of reports suggest that federal, led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and local government decisions concerning public housing in New Orleans would lead to the demolition of thousands of public housing units affecting approximately 5,000 families who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The demolition of the St. Bernard public housing development apparently commenced the week of 18 February 2008 and others are planned for the Lafitte, B.W. Cooper, and C.J. Peete public housing developments.

Meaningful consultation and participation in decision-making of communities and families affected by these demolitions and related redevelopment proposals appears not to have taken place. While we understand the intention to replace the demolished housing, we understand that only a portion of the new housing units will be for residents in need of subsidized housing and the remainder will be offered at the market rate. Further, we understand that the new housing will not be available for a significant period of time nor will there be one for one replacement for housing units destroyed. These demolitions, therefore, could effectively deny thousands of African-American residents their right to return to housing from which they were displaced by the hurricane.

The authorities claim that the demolition of public housing is not intentionally discriminatory. Notwithstanding the validity of these claims, the lack of consultation with those affected and the disproportionate impact on poorer and predominantly African-American residents and former residents would result in the denial of internationally recognized human rights.

The right to an adequate standard of living enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to adequate housing. The international community has made it clear that those displaced from their place of residence, whether by conflict or natural disaster, should have their rights particularly protected in reconstruction efforts. The inability of former residents of public housing to return to the homes they occupied prior to Hurricane Katrina would in practice amount to an eviction for those who returned or wish to return. International human rights law prohibits evictions from taking place without due process, including the right of those evicted to be given due notice and opportunity to appeal eviction decisions. It also requires the authorities to ensure that large-scale evictions do not result in massive homelessness and to consult those affected on relocation or alternative housing solutions.

International human rights law, including relevant provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, also clearly prohibits actions that result in a discriminatory impact denying individuals or group's equal enjoyment of human rights because of their race, ethnicity, social or other status.

We therefore call on the Federal Government and State and local authorities to immediately halt the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans . This measure should be accompanied by all measures ensuring genuine consultation and participation of current residents - or former residents wishing to return - in all relevant decisions. We also call on the authorities to ensure that redevelopment plans do not discriminate against former residents and that every effort is made to consider alternatives to demolition or redevelopment proposals, so as to protect the rights of the poorer and predominantly African-American communities displaced by Hurricane Katrina".

The above mentioned UN independent experts sent a letter to the United States Government on 17 December 2007 in regard to this situation noting their concern about allegations received and asking for further information. They encourage the authorities to give urgent attention to this issue and consider alternative proposals, such as those reflected in the provisions of draft Senate Bill 1668, which would be more protective of the rights of the more vulnerable groups affected by the Hurricane.

For further information on the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing and the Independent Expert on minority issues, please consult respectively the following websites:

http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/housing/index.htm http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/expert/index.htm

Thursday, February 21, 2008

New Orleans' Wrecking Ball Levels Healthy Homes

NPR.org, January 22, 2008 · The Rev. Louis Adams had a dream. His church in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward was going to be a beacon for struggling single mothers, alcoholics and the destitute.

But what used to be Holy Ground Baptist Church is now an empty, muddy lot.

It's on a block in which only one house remains standing. Empty lots stretch for blocks in every direction. The muddy, post-urban landscape is broken only by weeds, piles of debris or the occasional shell of a house or a FEMA trailer.

"We was ready to move back in here. We was ready to move back in here," Adams says.

Adams spent most of 2006 trying to get a building permit to repair his church. In October, while he was still negotiating with officials at city hall, a demolition permit was issued and contractors bulldozed his sanctuary.

"Someone was supposed to meet us out here. No one came. We came two days later, our church was completely demolished," Adams says.

Like most buildings in the Lower Ninth Ward, the Holy Ground Baptist Church was damaged by Katrina and the extensive flooding that followed. Adams says the damage to his church was minor compared with many of his neighbors' homes.

Adams says he followed the process set up by the city to deal with properties severely damaged by Katrina. He had the building gutted and boarded up as required. He got city inspectors to re-characterize his damage as being less than 50 percent. He submitted pictures, plans and proof of ownership.

City council member Stacey Head says on paper, the procedure set up by the city is a good one. It requires public notice and a hearing before a demolition takes place.

But, she says, the procedure "doesn't work this way, at all."

'Destroying a Treasure'

In 2006 and 2007, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers demolished thousands of severely damaged homes. Now almost two and a half years later, the city has taken over the task. Officials estimate that roughly 20,000 derelict structures remain. Of that group, more than 1,000 are on a list for potential demolition.

Head acknowledges that abandoned, blighted properties remain a huge problem in New Orleans, but she says the process to deal with them right now is too rushed and too chaotic.

For example, a number of properties were put on the list for demolition on the Thursday or Friday before New Year's Eve, which was a Monday. A public hearing was scheduled for New Year's Eve day.

"I don't think that's very good notice, when you're talking about demolishing someone's house and also destroying a treasure that you can never get back," Head says.

Chanel Debose almost lost such a treasure. Chanel grew up in the Calliope Housing Projects of New Orleans. She went on to Louisiana State University and became a lawyer. In 2001, Chanel and her husband, Stanley, bought a rambling old Victorian in Mid-City for $15,000.

Stanley restored the pine floors, the leaded glass windows and the carved wooden mantels. He built the kitchen cabinets, which now have granite counter tops, from scratch.

Then last year, contractors hired by the city showed up at their house, shut off the gas, clipped the power lines and were getting ready to knock it down.

"What I don't understand is how do you not inquire? How do you not knock on the door? I just don't get it. I just don't get it," Chanel says.

Chanel convinced the contractors to go away and got her power restored, but their house remains on the city's demolition list.

Their house flooded during Katrina. They escaped in Stanley's boat, and their house did suffer some damage. But you'd never know it now. Stanley painted the outside bright yellow and restored the 100-year-old woodwork inside. Bold Afro-centric art adorns their walls.

Understanding the Process

Chanel and Stanley Debose were lucky. They were in their house and were able to stop the demolition.

But more than 100,000 former New Orleaneans who fled after Katrina still haven't returned. And 10,000 of them are still waiting for state compensation so they can afford to rebuild.

Davida Finger, a staff attorney at the Katrina Clinic at Loyola Law School, has sued the city of New Orleans over the demolition process. Currently, individual adjudication hearings are legally required before demolition, but in practice, they don't always take place. The suit seeks to bolster compliance with the law to avoid the types of bureaucratic mistakes that nearly cost the Debose family their home.

"Those mistakes were not caught and homes were demolished — structurally sound homes, homes that were being rebuilt," Finger says.

One common complaint from people who are trying to stop demolitions is that they are unable to get information or help from city hall about the entire process.

Repeated phone calls by NPR to the city's code enforcement department, which is responsible for demolitions, went unanswered.

--Jason Beaubien, All Things Considered

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

CDC Urges Hurricane Victims to Leave Trailers

NPR.org, February 14, 2008 · Federal health officials on Thursday urged hurricane victims to move out of trailers supplied by FEMA after tests showed dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes.

Tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on more than 500 trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi showed formaldehyde levels that were five times higher than levels in a normal house. The levels in some trailers were nearly 40 times what is normal.

The CDC said people should move out quickly — especially children, the elderly and anyone with asthma or another chronic condition. Warmer temperatures can increase formaldehyde levels, and CDC officials said they want residents to move out of the trailers before summer.

Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical used to manufacture mobile homes. A CDC director said the high levels can cause burning eyes and breathing problems for people with asthma and those sensitive to air pollutants.

FEMA provided about 120,000 trailers in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. By 2006, many people were complaining of nosebleeds, headaches and other illnesses. Some of them testified before Congress last summer, and at least 1,000 families have asked FEMA to move them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Katrina's Effects on Mental Health Finally Being Addressed

This overlooked aspect of hurricane survivors' experiences is now being given a little bit of press in the Health Research section of the New York Times. But what are we going to do about it?

More People in NO Facing Homelessness for the Holidays

Starting last month, FEMA has begun evicting hurricane survivors in New Orleans from the temporary trailers that were provided after the storm. FEMA states that the evictions are a part of the process of moving residents to permanent housing and that they are working to assist all residents with the move.

The residents themselves, however, have a different story to tell. Many said that they had not been able to contact a FEMA caseworker in weeks, even though their evictions are scheduled for the next few days. Those who have spoken with caseworkers often report that the information they gained was useless. The apartments FEMA has found for residents are either far above any conceivable price range, or they are not in suitable living condition. As for the 4,000 public housing units in which many of these people used to live, they are being demolished to make way for mixed-income projects which will not be affordable to previous residents, and will not be finished until 2010. To make matters worse, jobs are scant, and many residents now are facing the possiblity of becoming homeless.

There are already twice as many homeless people in the city than before the storm. Today the number of people living under bridges and in parks is at around 12,000.

“'FEMA and the federal bureaucracy seem oblivious to the fact that virtually no new affordable rental housing has yet appeared in New Orleans to replace what was lost,' said Martha J. Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, a group of 60 agencies that house and feed the homeless. 'It will take a long time for enough replacement affordable housing to be built. To withdraw housing assistance to the neediest people is a shirking of federal responsibility for the design failure of the federal levees in New Orleans, which was the cause of most of the destruction of affordable housing here.'
In the past several months, a homeless encampment has sprung up on the steps of City Hall — partly because it is a safe open space and partly because it is a political statement. Tents and sleeping bags are aligned in rows. The crowd of hundreds is a mix of young and old, white and black."

Via The New York Times