The St. Bernard neighborhood was a close-knit community centered around a development that housed approximately 900 families. They took care of each other’s children and pitched in when times were hard. St. Bernard was home.
Like all New Orleans residents, what most families longed for following Katrina was the opportunity to return home. But they were thwarted, first by locked fences, then demolition of their homes. In the past two years, federal and city housing authorities have demolished 4,000 units of public housing in New Orleans.
The story of the New Orleans “recovery”—and too often U.S. housing policy—is a story of profits before people. Private contractors, often with personal connections, get tax credits and other publicly-funded financial incentives to demolish and then rebuild “mixed income” units, many of which rent at full market value.
Plans for the “new St. Bernard” include only about 160 public housing units, thus permanently displacing more than 700 families. After some time, developers can legally convert all the units into full price without penalty. The supply of affordable housing shrinks while well-positioned private contractors’ pockets expand.
In an earlier era, public housing was built to provide subsidized housing for those, especially women and children, who could not otherwise afford it. Many residents, including more than 70 percent of St. Bernard residents, work low-wage jobs. In New Orleans, many service sector jobs pay annual salaries of less than $20,000 to full-time, year round workers. They work hard, but given these wages, 41 percent of New Orleans renters pay more than half of their pre-tax income on housing.
Now we are demolishing public housing, imagining that somehow if we “deconcentrate” poverty, people will miraculously find a way to work their way out of a need for housing support. May God have mercy on our souls.
Pam Nath works with MCC Central States in New Orleans.