The Bush administration has proposed to demolish New Orleans’s four largest public-housing projects, shuttered since Katrina, and replace at least some of their nearly 5,000 apartment units with the “mixed-income” housing popular today with the subsidized-housing crowd. But if New Orleans really hopes to become a thriving city again someday, it won’t let the federal government knock down valuable, and much-needed, housing. Instead, Mayor Ray Nagin and the feds should open the perfectly decent project apartments to new middle-class homeowners.
On Thursday, California congresswoman Maxine Waters, who opposes the planned demolition and wants the federally run New Orleans housing authority to reopen the buildings to their now-displaced tenants, took lawmakers through Lafitte, one of the four targeted complexes. Like its three counterparts, the Lafitte projects aren’t the huge, isolated scars of tower-in-the-park architecture that residents of cities like New York associate with public housing. Instead, they’re low-rise brick buildings, spaced with modest grassy courtyards and walkways and located not far from the main streets. “These are townhouses,” Waters said, according to the Times-Picayune. “These can be reopened.”
New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff notes that the 1940s-era buildings’ “pitched slate roofs, elegant brickwork, and low-rise construction reflect a subtle understanding of the city’s historical context without slavishly mimicking it.” When I lived in New Orleans, I rode through one project slated for demolition, Central City’s C. J. Peete, nearly every day, and always appreciated its elegance.
Further, the buildings are basically in good shape structurally, says MIT architecture professor John Fernandez, who has visited each complex since Katrina. While they do need full-scale renovations, it seems folly to tear them down, especially since they withstood Katrina so well, when many of the city’s newer single-family private homes did not.
The feds’ impulse to replace such perfectly good housing takes root in the flawed notion that the buildings are the problem with blighted public housing, not the dependent underclass people who live in it. Most residents of New Orleans’s housing projects paid less than $100 in monthly rent. Even if they weren’t on welfare, in other words, they were essentially dependent on government. Also, the complexes teemed with long-term tenants’ sons and grandsons, who terrorized the projects through violent crime. The failure of the city’s elected leaders to police and incarcerate these criminals long ago turned the projects into killing grounds with their own system of murderous street justice.
And nearly 18 months after Katrina, New Orleans certainly isn’t lacking for an underclass. In fact, the city’s murder rate is once again out of control, mainly due to unparented, impulsive young men shooting other unparented, impulsive young men.
What New Orleans is lacking is enough middle-class and working-class residents, who began leaving the city long before Katrina. Without such citizens, the Big Easy won’t have the committed voters and tax dollars it needs to become a functional, healthy city—something it hasn’t been for decades.
To attract a new middle class, the feds and New Orleans should do a full-scale renovation of the apartments, hiring contractors who agree in writing to do the work quickly (and who face penalties if they don’t). Then the government should get out of the way, selling the newly renovated apartments as condos or co-ops to returning middle-class New Orleanians or newcomers who want to make a go of it in the city. It’s likely the market rate for each apartment would be below $150,000, making them accessible to families who earn $30,000 annually or so.
The federal and city governments, as sponsors, could certainly draw up rules about ownership, like those that other condo and co-op residents live by. They could mandate, for example, that purchasers actually live in their apartments most of the time, rather than rent them out long-term to tenants, and that buyers have decent credit records and work histories. New residents would take over the administration of the rules once the federal government had sold off a majority of the units.
With tight on-site security, perhaps paid for by the new owners through condo fees, New Orleans could turn what’s always been a liability—a government-subsidized encampment for an underclass mired in crime and pathology—into an asset: a new anchor neighborhood full of committed homeowners.
Selling “the bricks” (slang for the housing complexes) to homeowners would transform the projects into what city and federal policy-makers meant to create when they built them 60 years ago: decent, safe, modest homes for aspirational citizens.
And this transformation wouldn’t just ensure truly decent, safe housing for nearly 5,000 families. It would also show the more than 200,000 Katrina evacuees still living far from home, and the rest of the nation too, that New Orleans is trying not to fall back into being what it was long before the storm—a city that had passively surrendered many of its working-class neighborhoods to violence and underclass poverty.