By Marty Rowland
The unanimous vote by the New Orleans City Council members to approve the
demolition of the “Big Four” St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, and
Lafitte housing developments amounts to this: They are tearing down
buildings in a futile attempt to fix problems that cannot be fixed by
tearing down buildings.
I am a licensed professional engineer with a doctorate in urban studies,
who has contributed to the Unified New Orleans Plan for rebuilding the
city after Katrina. I am also a founding member of the District 6
Community Council and an advocate for New Orleans public housing
residents. I have heard many problems mentioned in connection with the
Big Four, and I am here to explain why the City Council’s approach to
solving them is all wrong.
Problem #1: There is a severe housing shortage in post-Katrina New
Orleans, especially for the poor. Well, how is tearing down 4,500 units
of affordable housing going to help? HUD and HANO propose to replace the
developments with new ones that will take years to complete. But folks
Problem #2: The Big Four developments were unhealthy, unsafe, and in
disrepair. But once, they were new, attractive, pleasant places to live.
Even now, they are structurally sound enough to withstand a major hurricane
event, and top-flight architects have pronounced them architecturally
meritorious and worth preserving and renovating. The real problem is that
HUD and HANO have a history of building housing developments and failing to
maintain them. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
Why should we believe that HUD, HANO, or their private contractors will do
any better at maintaining new developments then they did with the Big Four?
Giving HUD and HANO the go-ahead to demolish the Big Four will only begin
another cycle of buildings constructed at great cost to the taxpayers,
then allowed to deteriorate.
Problem #3: The Big Four developments concentrated poverty. The City
Council has failed to realize that the deconcentration of poverty can be
accomplished just as well with the existing buildings as with new ones.
Architect Andres Duany has created plans that show how St. Bernard can be
modified to reduce population density, restore the neighborhood street
grid, and provide affordable homes attractive enough for a mixed income
community. These plans are applicable to the other Big Four developments.
Renovation, not wholesale demolition, is the solution.
Problem #4: The Big Four developments were rife with drugs, violence, and
crime. The City Council members place the blame squarely on the buildings.
But brick and mortar are not at fault. The fault belongs to HUD and HANO
for failing to provide adequate security measures, and to the City
government for failing to provide adequate law enforcement in New Orleans.
Crime is rampant elsewhere in the city besides in public housing
developments, and in spite of the fact that the population in public
housing has been dramatically reduced since Hurricane Katrina. New
developments will not automatically be exempt from crime.
Problem #5: The Big Four developments perpetuated a life cycle of
dependency and despair for their residents. Again, the City Council
blames the brick and mortar buildings for problems that are not the
buildings’ fault. The fault lies with the mismanaged education system,
the lack of job opportunities and social services, and absence of any
comprehensive plan to raise the poor out of poverty and helplessness.
In this article I have illuminated two disturbing themes common to the
City Council members’ pronouncements in favor of approving permits to
demolish the Big Four public housing developments. One theme is the City
Council’s misdiagnosis of the causes of many social ills. Another is
the City Council’s repeated misplacement of the blame. HUD, HANO, and
the U.S. government have created a crisis in public housing, and the City
Council has made the public housing buildings the scapegoat. Attention
Council members Fielkow, Clarkson, Head, Midura, Morrell, Willard-Lewis,
and Carter: Demolition of St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, and
Lafitte is not the solution to the problems the city faces, and you will
find out all too soon that you were wrong.