This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship, sponsored by the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism, a project of Tides Center.
Four years after Katrina, the city of New Orleans can still break your heart. Not with the raw suffering of the hurricane and its aftermath, but with the stark exposure of an economic apartheid that keeps poor people of color locked out of the city’s political process, as well as its prospects for restored housing and renewed economic growth.
By some accounts, New Orleans’s recovery has made progress. The city’s population level reached 73.7 percent of its pre-Katrina number by the end of 2008, according to the January 2009 New Orleans Index released by the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. (Updated figures will be available in August.) Because the region had already been literally “under water,” New Orleans pretty much bypassed the foreclosure crisis that is engulfing many parts of the country. And compared to the national unemployment rate, at 8.5 percent in March, New Orleans unemployment has hovered at about 5 percent since November 2008.
But this more prosperous picture may be the result of cropping out many of the city’s poor former residents—most of whom are Black—who have been blocked from returning.
The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center’s demographic analysis, based on the latest available 2007 Census population estimates, concludes that the city’s lower poverty rate is a result of the “net outmigration of individuals with fewer resources.” This economically better-off population is also a little more white (going from 26.6 percent in 2000 to 31.2 percent in 2007) and a little less Black (from 66.7 percent to 60.2 percent), according to the Center.
There are still more than 4,600 displaced families living in FEMA trailers and another 17,000 families depending on vouchers from the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, according to March 2009 data from the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency.
With its housing crisis, New Orleans functions as a magnified microcosm for what is happening now to other cities that are facing a rise in homelessness—the arrival of tent cities in some places and heightened pressures on tenants with high rents, evictions and increased demand for affordable housing.
Despite the obstacles, many former residents are still trying to return.
“The recovery is not happening in the interests of low-income people, but they are coming back because of ties to culture and family,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
Those who are returning are living with relatives or staying in shelters, abandoned homes or on the streets, according to Tamar McFarlane, who organized in New Orleans’s tent cities and shelters with the Workers’ Center.
Before Katrina, New Orleans was a city with a majority of renters and low-income residents. With more than half of rental units destroyed in the storm and rents doubling quickly, lack of affordable housing remains one of the main challenges for residents struggling with the “high rent-low wage squeeze,” as McFarlane put it.
It took William Perry, who is 36, a year of living in Baton Rouge with relatives before he landed a job at Wal-Mart and was able to find a place with his girlfriend and five children. They pay $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, which would have rented for about $600 before Katrina.
“We’re just getting to above water now,” Perry said. “I’m used to making a way out of no way, but if it happens again, I don’t have it in me to come back. Just gonna make my bed where I land next time. It’s too hard.”
Rents increased 4 percent between 2008 and 2009, and overall, rents are now 52-percent higher than before Hurricane Katrina, according to the New Orleans Index. A typical one-bedroom apartment now rents for about $881, compared to $578 in 2005.
Migrant workers are acutely affected by the housing crisis. According to local advocates, migrant workers usually live eight to 10 in an apartment, often in substandard conditions without utilities. When bosses don’t pay on time or withhold wages outright, an entire household of workers at a time can end up evicted and living under the bridge, out of cars or facing deportation.
The Census estimates a small rise in the population of Latinos, from 3 percent in 2000 to 4.5 percent in 2007, but this fails to account for many people who are afraid of identifying themselves to authorities or who live in transient and informal housing arrangements.
Despite the critical shortage of housing, city officials moved ahead in late 2007 with plans to demolish New Orleans’s remaining “Big Four” public housing projects. Residents and community activists had fought the decision for more than a year, arguing that rehabbing and opening up the 5,100 units of public housing would allow people to come home right away instead of waiting for years for the projects to be turned into new mixed-income homes with fewer subsidized units available. In December 2007, with a new city council voted in by an electorate reduced by half and consisting of mostly homeowners and those well-off enough to return, council members unanimously approved the demolition of public housing.
“What we saw after the storm was an emphasis on property owners all around, treating renters as second-class citizens,” said Davida Finger, a staff attorney at the Loyola Law Clinic who works on housing issues. “To be forward-thinking, we have to take into account all that’s happened to renters. There’s no quick-fix policy, but there has been…a recognition that so much of what determines a family’s outcomes turns on housing.”
In March 2007, New Orleans’s homelessness had doubled to 12,000 people. A tent city of more than 200 arose quickly in Duncan Plaza, across from city hall. Hundreds more found shelter under “The Bridge,” the freeway overpass by Claiborne Avenue. The homeless population included displaced Katrina survivors, former public housing residents and migrant workers. In 2009, the estimated number of homeless people remained at about 12,000 at any given time, though not always the same individuals, according to UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the largest homeless services organization in the city.
Today in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, signs of the housing crisis can be observed in darkened streets and windows, dilapidated houses with the Katrina dates still scrawled on the doors and vast empty lots where several of the big public housing developments used to stand. Many of the displaced are not visibly homeless because they are living with extended family, as well as an increasing number of people squatting in the city’s 71,000 abandoned buildings.
Talbert Haywood, who is 38, became homeless after the storm, and its subsequent upheavals disrupted his family’s life in the Lower Ninth Ward. Haywood had been living in his mother’s house and was stranded on the rooftop for three days before he was rescued. He was sent to Arizona
during evacuation and eventually came back to New Orleans to work as a longshoreman.
“But the work slacked up,” he said. “My mama’s house was destroyed, and everybody split up. The impact of the storm separated many families and communities. I am still separated from both.” Haywood lived in a hotel for nine months, and when that ran out, he became homeless.
“There is a large homeless population, and it’s not by chance that most are Black,” McFarlane said. “If we redevelop areas where Blacks didn’t live or own land, then they can’t rent to their families and community. It’s the whitewashing of New Orleans, as opposed to restoring these communities that have kept it going, kept it a unique city of craft, of ironwork, bricklayers, musical expression, all of which came out of the working-class Black community.”
The tent city became a publicity nightmare for New Orleans in 2007 as it prepared to host the annual Sugar Bowl at the Superdome, and city officials ordered another dispersal of the poor, this time offering hotel vouchers that expired within a few weeks. “They were just recycling the homeless,” said McFarlane, not providing real solutions like affordable housing placement or job training.
Darnell Parker was among those camping out in Duncan Plaza. A 50-year-old Black man from Memphis, Tennessee, he had migrated to New Orleans looking for construction work. When that dried up, Parker moved out of the apartment he was sharing with roommates and into his truck. Then his truck was stolen, and he pitched a tent in the homeless camp.
Parker, along with six other men in the camp, helped found a project called STAND with Dignity in the wake of the Duncan Plaza crackdown. Their membership, which is still largely transient, has gone from 15 to 200 active participants at various times. The goal is to build solidarity between homeless people and the city’s surrounding poor community, who are also vulnerable to many of the same conditions.
In March, they were organizing their members to get access to Disaster Housing Assistance Program vouchers so they could move into apartments. They were also working to change evacuation policies so low-income residents who don’t have their own vehicles are not forced to stay in the same sub-standard shelters as during Hurricane Gustav.
Sitting on the steps outside the Workers’ Center office, Parker was a bit optimistic, at least about what political activism in New Orleans could mean for the rest of this country. “If you can change this place, then you can change the country,” he said.
Tram Nguyen is a freelance writer and former executive editor of ColorLines.