Today opponents of the demolition of public housing rallied and spoke out at the St. Bernard public housing complex. They decried the corruption driving the demolition plans, and called for resident driven rehabilitation efforts to fix up the buildings so displaced residents can come home.
New Orleans, February 16-Former residents of the 1463-unit St. Bernard pubic housing complex and their supporters rallied and spoke out in front of the development today in Gentilly, as workers removed windows and tenants’ possessions in preparation for its demolition.
After the City Council voted unanimously on December 20 to allow demolition of St. Bernard and three other public housing complexes, together comprising over 4500 low income units, Mayor Nagin issued a letter to HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson stating that demolition permits for St. Bernard and Lafitte would not be issued until HUD met a number of conditions.
But on January 31, Nagin and the City Council issued another letter, in which they said the St. Bernard demolition permit would be issued even though 4 of the 5 conditions had not yet been met.
Meanwhile, more evidence of possible corruption has come out connecting Alphonso Jackson and Columbia Residential, his former employer, which landed a big bucks contract to knock down St. Bernard and replace it with “mixed income” housing. This plan, like those for Lafitte, C.J. Peete, and B.W. Cooper would result in a net loss of over 80% of low income units. St. Bernard’s, however, calls for three golf courses as well.
At today’s rally, former St. Bernard resident Kiwana Jasper said, “We are out here to fight for public housing. Corruption has taken over the city of New Orleans. The City Council as well as the mayor have never done anything to investigate the links of Alphonso Jackson and Columbia. They plan to make St. Bernard a green space. We don’t need green space. We need housing.
“We’re going to take to the streets. Columbia, we know you owe Alphonso Jackson $250-500,000 [according to public records]. But you will not collect it off the backs of St. Bernard residents.”
Walter Gallus of the local chapter of the National Trust for Historic Preservation spoke next. “We believe it’s a waste of a valuable resource to destroy these buildings when the city clearly has a housing crisis,” he said. “It’s a foolish decision in the name of progress. These buildings have strong bones. We could never replicate them today. The redevelopment plan needs to be resident driven. If we had followed that path we’d be welcoming people back home today.”
Calvin Smallwood, who lives in the homeless encampment below I-10 at Claiborne and Canal, told the crowd, “I came back to New Orleans and now I’m out there sleeping in a tent with no bathroom. There’s a lot of people there, women and children.
“This city has got a lot of housing. Look at these projects. I can do construction. We can put it back together ourselves. Take the money the city’s made off big football games and Mardi Gras and put it to good use instead of putting it in your pockets.
“We love New Orleans so much we’re sleeping on the ground. Give us back our homes.”
Lynette Bickam, who used to live in St. Bernard before being flooded out by the storm and then locked out by HUD/HANO, followed up on Smallwood’s remarks. “Give us one building to fix up,” she said. “I used to work for HANO. Everything’s cement in these buildings, no sheet rock. A good wipedown would kill everything. I know for myself they can be revitalized.”
Bickam is a board member of the St. Bernard Housing Recovery and Development Corporation. That group, in partnership with the AFL-CIO, presented an alternative redevelopment plan for St. Bernard to HUD/HANO last October. A flyer handed out today detailed that plan, which “offers MORE housing, MORE jobs, and savings and more revenue for New Orleans than the plan from developer Columbia Residential.”
But HUD/HANO rejected the plan. Was it because it wasn’t MORE corrupt?
To city leaders, Bickam declared, “If you run for office again, do not look for us. Our backs will be turned to you.”
Loyola law professor Bill Quigley reported that on Friday public housing legal advocates filed a lawsuit claiming that the City Council violated the state’s Sunshine Law on 12-20, “saying it’s illegal to lock out people when there are empty seats in the council. The remedy is to nullify the action [the demolition vote] and have another hearing.”
Mike Howell of C3/Hands Off Iberville next declared, “On December 20 anyone who had the illusion that people have human rights had that illusion shattered. It wasn’t just against public housing residents, but also their supporters. It’s about defense of democratic rights. If we get public housing open, it will have a profound effect.
“If we can stop this, we can stop the whole program of austerity. We’re going to win, just as the Civil Rights Movement won their fight.”
Jamie “Bork” Laughner spoke next. She helped start the Common Ground Health Clinic, was tasered outside City Hall on 12-20, and is facing a felony charge of “possessing a false explosive device,” slapped on her because of a pipe she was carrying during an act of civil disobedience she carried out at B.W. Cooper on December 19 that shut down demolition work there that day.
“I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t do,” she said. “You’re all willing to fight. The police aren’t going to stop what I do. Whatever you want, I’ll do. Hopefully solidarity will come back. We lost heart after December 20. It’s time to start fighting again. My court case can help that.
“These are good buildings, in no way should they be brought down when so many are homeless, and now about to be thrown out of FEMA trailers.”
Carl Dix from New York has been active in fighting the demolitions too. He related the demolitions to efforts by ruling elites to empty the city of working class African Americans. “They want less coffee and more cream,” he said.
Former St. Bernard resident Sharon Jasper expanded on Dix’s statement. “Money was put on the table in Washington DC to get rid of working people,” she said. “They all sat around the round table and played with our homes, our lives, our city.”
“On December 20 they treated us like animals, they wouldn’t let us speak. They brought us back to segregation, they kept us separate.
“We want a right for all our people to return. We want one for one replacement. We are strong survivors and we will continue this fight.
“When we needed help, Bush was sending billions to a war in Iraq we didn’t want, while we had a a war here in New Orleans.
“We are going to fight until we get our human rights as US citizens.”
The final speaker was David Collins of Homeless Pride. “We can’t let them deny public housing,” he said. “So many who returned are living in tents under the bridge. I was in the same situation. Rebuilding begins with us. It’s the right of people to live comfortable, not come out of a tent to go to an outhouse.”
As the action ended, people decided to meet again next Saturday, at the local headquarters of Colombia Residential on Baronne Street, and then march to the State of the Black Union gathering at the Convention Center.