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U.N. advisors host town hall on forced evictions in New Orleans

July 30, 2009

by Darwin Bond-Graham

Public housing advocate and former resident Sharon Jasper rests on the steps of Iberville – still empty yet still standing – the only remaining major public housing development in New Orleans. – Photo: Eric Tars
Public housing advocate and former resident Sharon Jasper rests on the steps of Iberville – still empty yet still standing – the only remaining major public housing development in New Orleans. – Photo: Eric Tars
A group of advisors who will report to the director of the U.N. Habitat agency held a town hall meeting in New Orleans on Sunday, July 26, to hear from resident experts and other community members about housing rights violations along the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina.

The Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) is made up of leading NGO experts who gather information on housing and urban development issues internationally. As advisors to the U.N. they investigate instances of human rights violations and communicate with the U.N. Habitat agency, the official United Nations organization chartered with advancing housing justice across the globe.

Their visit to New Orleans includes several days of site visits and meetings with community members and government officials focusing on the demolition of public housing after Katrina, flawed housing voucher programs, rising homelessness rates and the prospect of eminent domain in Mid-City which will displace an entire neighborhood to build the controversial LSU-VA hospital complex.

The town hall meeting kicks off their stay. Organizers of the visit say they wanted to give grassroots activists a chance to talk with the AGFE before they meet with local officials, noting that too often national and international visitors neglect the knowledge of those working directly with working class communities in favor of high level meetings.

Naomi Burkhalter, a former renter who has been priced out of the rental market and is currently taking shelter in an abandoned home, is reclining on the floor because of a leg injury due to living in poor conditions as she is interviewed by U.N. advisors. – Photo: Eric Tars
Naomi Burkhalter, a former renter who has been priced out of the rental market and is currently taking shelter in an abandoned home, is reclining on the floor because of a leg injury due to living in poor conditions as she is interviewed by U.N. advisors. – Photo: Eric Tars
Explaining the purpose of the AGFE visit, Stephanie Mingo, a housing rights activists and public housing resident, said: “We’ve had a lot of international attention to what’s happened in New Orleans since the storm. For whatever reasons, people from Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia have a better sense of the injustices that have occurred here than our own nation’s politicians.

“We hope to leverage this international attention and clarity on the issues and turn it into political will here at home. We need our local and federal officials to start listening to our movement here and to really change up a lot of the policies so that people have an opportunity to rebuild their communities.”

The U.N. visit has been coordinated by a broad coalition of local and national nonprofits, including May Day New Orleans, Survivor’s Village, Committee to Reopen Charity Hospital, Louisiana Justice Institute, Advocates for Environmental and Human Rights, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and many others.

Today’s town hall, held in a downtown school auditorium in a neighborhood that was badly flooded by Katrina, was filled to capacity. Panelists spoke of various inequalities built into federal, state and local programs for reconstruction after Katrina.

Summing up the overall U.S. government response, Kali Akuno of the U.S. Human Rights Network judged that “they’ve failed.” Panelists took issue with everything from the allocation of federal reconstruction funds to the lack of sufficient resources and programmatic vision.

Sam Jackson of May Day New Orleans laid out his ideal federal program for New Orleans now that the Obama administration is in full swing, saying, “We need more than vouchers and good will. We need a renewed commitment to building one-for-one replacement of the public housing that was demolished after the storm. And that’s just a start.”

Public housing advocate and former resident Stephanie Mingo testifies before the New Orleans City Council in 2007. – Photo: Common Ground
Public housing advocate and former resident Stephanie Mingo testifies before the New Orleans City Council in 2007. – Photo: Common Ground
Jackson and other local leaders are also calling for a moratorium on demolitions of public housing and support a call made by Reps. Maxine Waters and Barney Frank earlier this year to extend this moratorium nationwide. “We need the Section 8 program opened up and expanded for everyone who needs it. We need everyone relying on DHAP (an emergency disaster housing assistance program) transitioned onto Section 8 today.

“But more so, we need the construction of thousands of affordable homes in the metro area. It’s the only way to drive down housing expenses for everyone – working families, the middle class, everyone.”

Jackson’s agenda goes much further. He and his colleagues have even written new Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a stepped up investigation of the Bush administration’s HUD chief Alphonso Jackson, whose financial linkages to companies involved in the demolition and redevelopment has already drawn much scrutiny. “We want a full audit of HANO (Housing Authority of New Orleans) and HUD and an investigation of all the decisions and contracts made in the wake of Katrina.”

Stephanie Mingo has taken the U.N. advisory group’s visit as an opportunity to expose what she says is the all-to-common violation of HUD Section 3 requirements by HANO, HUD and their contractors in New Orleans and beyond. Section 3, a provision of federal housing legislation, requires that federally funded work on housing and urban redevelopment utilize local small businesses and hire low-income and unemployed citizens. Job training and employment for those shut out of local labor markets and chronically underemployed is a major part of the program.

“We’ve been hammering away on this form months and months, and I hope this visit helps put that message out there. HANO needs to comply with Section 3 and hire more New Orleanians and more public housing residents at the project sites.”

Regardless of how fully HANO and their contractors comply, Mingo believes it was a crushing mistake to demolish public housing and says that the redevelopment plans remain highly flawed. She worries that many former residents will be permanently locked out.

“They destroyed our communities by displacing people. Now their plans are purposefully designed so that most former residents will not qualify for these new homes. We intend to change that. Everyone has a right to return.”

The advisory group is scheduled to tour parts of the city and meet with local officials over the next few days.

Darwin Bond-Graham, a writer, historian and ethnographer with a special interest in racist economic policies related to housing, can be reached at darwin@riseup.net or through his blog, http://darwinbondgraham.blogspot.com/.

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