The Destruction of Public Housing in New Orleans

By Nora Goddard

Fraught with problems both real and perceived, public housing is in many ways the last vestige of the WPA era, and may not exist for long.  Louisiana legislature passed the Housing Authority Act in 1936, creating HANO (Housing Authority of New Orleans).   The Federal Housing Act of 1937 provided for subsidies to be paid from the U.S. government to local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families.  The act builds on the National Housing Act of 1934, which created the Federal Housing Administration. Both the 1934 Act and the 1937 Act were influenced by housing reformers of the period, concerned with the lack of infrastructure and utilities in poor inner city neighborhoods. (Taylor 36).

The Housing Act of 1949, enacted during the Truman administration, funded “slum clearance” and the urban renewal projects. In 1965 the Public Housing Administration, the U.S. Housing Authority, and the House and Home Financing Agency were all combined into the newly formed United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Iverville Projects 1942

The topic of public housing in New Orleans is much too broad and multi-faceted to address here, so I will focus upon the history of three public housing projects, and how their destruction is related to institutionalized racism and gentrification in New Orleans.  I will focus upon the St Thomas, Desire, and Iberville projects as examples of different issues, through different eras of time until today.   St Thomas was an example of the first wave of public housing, Desire the second, and what is intended for Iberville is the third wave, in which public housing is, for all intents and purposes, nullified.  These buildings should be protected from both demolition and privatization.  They need to be preserved in their original state for preservation reasons, and should be protected by historic preservation law.  It is crucial to the historic fabric of our city that we preserve not just the impressive beautiful buildings, but those occupied by working class citizens as well.  After all it is these people that created the unique culture we have here in New Orleans.  They need to be preserved in their original function because it is a human rights violation to do otherwise.  The original purpose of public housing needs to be preserved to maintain a fair and just urban fabric, and to facilitate the rebuilding of New Orleans without disenfranchising large portions of its’ population.

In a way, public housing itself was the first government endorsed gentrification in American cities.  The original intent was to clean up perceived squalor and blight by giving the poorest of the poor housing up to a perceived national standard.  At the time, though, many urban poor, especially blacks, did not have access to things taken for granted today, such as indoor plumbing and hot water.  The intent of the WPA was to raise standards of living, and also to create jobs, which it accomplished. The Civil Works Administration, a New Deal enactment, rehabilitated or build 33,850 public buildings in 1933 alone, employing 4.2 million people, all with direct government money. (Cedric 159)  Many were grateful to move into these first generation projects in the 1930’s and 40’s, and these are the ones that are most desirable for appropriation today. After World War II whites still outnumbered blacks both in inner cities, and in government projects, but this was soon to change.

Typical Kitchen in the Magnolia Projects

Starting in the 1950’s and escalating for decades afterwards, public housing increasingly was built to house the thousands of people displaced by urban renewal projects.  This is what I think of as the second wave of public housing.  Notoriously dangerous, these are the projects that are used as models to persuade us of the impossibility of public housing, and to morally support its’ destruction.  Cabrini Green in Chicago, and the Desire Projects here in New Orleans, are both examples of this. The land purchased for these projects inevitably came from the poor and disenfranchised, and was in less desirable neighborhoods (at the time) than the first wave of public housing.  White flight had already driven many whites to the suburbs, leaving the inner cities disproportionately minority dominated.  After being displaced from the suddenly “needed” land they lived on, these people were housed in enormous public housing buildings that historian Arnold Hirsch describes as “isolated urban high rise reservations.”  Huge, aesthetically homogenous, and utterly unappealing, these complexes bred unhappiness and crime through their layouts, their locations, and their management and lack of maintenance.

Map of Desire Projects taken from Louisiana Weekly

This is not, however, what most public housing in New Orleans is like.  In New Orleans we have the original models of successful public housing and it is crucial to the fair recovery of our city that they be saved.  New Orleans public housing was built to be, in general, smaller and more architecturally integrated with the neighborhood than in other cities.  Rather than being relocated to undesirable land, most residents in the first projects such as St. Thomas, C.J.Peete, and B.W. Cooper were replaced one for one with residents from the previous neighborhood.  In some cases this rule was not followed, more obviously in the Iberville projects, built on the former site of the red light district known as Storyville, home to many African Americans.

With the exception of the Desire and Florida projects, the public housing here is on relatively high ground, and on what is now considered extremely valuable property.  The quickly escalating value of this property is what has created this heated battle in New Orleans. Though all public housing is indeed flawed in some way, what it is being replaced with is even less successful, for it is replaced with mixed-income housing that does not facilitate its’ original residents coming back, and thereby displaces them, rendering the system ineffective.

Map of Katrina Flood Depth. Red 0-3 Feet, Yellow 3-6 Feet, Green Over 6 feet. The letters indicate locations of Public Housing.

The industrial revolution forever changed the level of infrastructure available to even the poorest Americans.  The so-called technology revolution of my generation did not change the built environment as much as it changed people’s lifestyles.  It homogenized culture and lifestyle in an extreme way, and this is beginning to affect the built environment.  The ease with which property can change hands allows developers and entrepreneurs to manipulate local economies in an unprecedented way.  The increasing privatization of social services also creates an environment where those on public housing, those who are actually affected by changes, have less control over their fates than ever before.

This situation is particularly true in New Orleans, whose historically corrupt and neglectful city government left huge voids, to be filled with an explosion of 501 c 3 non-profit groups.  While well intentioned, the privatization of services such as housing, food, child care and medical care essentially institutionalized the beliefs and interests of those in charge of the groups.  And since their funding comes from the private sector, they are prone to want to please their sponsors.  And their sponsors and rarely people who live in the projects.  As radical as the names of many of these organizations sound (Make It Right, Coalition to Stop Demolition, etc.) as non-profits they essentially are just lobbyers.  New Orleans city government has been overwhelmingly black dominated since the 70’s, but increasingly corporations and developers, still controlled by an elite class, have more power.  After all, the issue is about wealthy people accumulating more wealth, not about personal prejudices.  These financial monopolies are, ironically, reminiscent of the 1930’s era economic environment in which the WPA and other relief agencies were created.  But today they are being taken away.

An award-winning kitchen in the St. Thomas Projects. City of New Orleans Annual Reports 1952-64.


St. Thomas:  The First Generation

             The “Big Four”- B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard were established for black residents, while St. Thomas and Iberville were built for white residents. Rent for the new projects ranged from $8.25 to $22 a month.

The first projects in New Orleans, and in the whole country, were the St. Thomas Development, built 1938-41.  Originally a total of 920 units, which were all two or three story buildings.  The population of St. Thomas declined and changed dramatically over time.  Originally opened as a white development, by the early 90’s it was 96% black.  (Annual Reports 1937-45).

By the 1970’s tourism was New Orleans’ main source of income- and projects such as St Thomas were a literal physical obstacle in the eyes of developers.  Efforts to revitalize New Orleans’ downtown began with construction of the Rivergate in 1968, the Superdome in 1975, and the Moonwalk in 1976.  These were the original anchoring points for the tourist district.  By the end of the decade large chain hotels had sprung up on Canal St.  Morial’s reign as mayor also saw many zoning changes to get rid of flophouses and low rent areas in and around the CBD.  These actions raised levels of visible homelessness, previously virtually unheard of in New Orleans.  This pattern of events is seen across America. Other preparations were made for the area to become tourist-oriented, including rerouting the mostly black Martin Luther King Day parade away from Canal St, though no other parades were rerouted.

Around this time the land St. Thomas is on became extremely valuable real estate.  The area was renamed the Lower Garden District, often the first step in the so-called “spatial redefinition game” (Arena 35).  The driving force behind neighborhood revitalization efforts was the Preservation Resource Center and their Operation Comeback program, both denounced by church and community leaders.  These organizations worked with the CSA (Coliseum Square Association), a neighborhood group created in 1971 that famously defeated a second Mississippi River bridge being built in the middle of the Lower Garden District.

Though the CSA undoubtedly did a service to the neighborhood by defeating the proposed river bridge, their desire for land in the area eventually drove out almost all the original residents of the neighborhood, including families who had been there for generations, as well as people made homeless by similar development in the CBD.  Increasingly frequent police beatings of the homeless, dismantling of benches and playground equipment, and even cases of arson went on during the eighties in the CSA area, and they openly worked with police to facilitate some of these actions. (Arena 38). Self-described by former president Duncan Strachan as “urban pioneers”, the group was described by a local minister as “militantly opposed to the homeless, who they felt by their very presence reduced property values”. (Knight 2). A minister who was known for organizing free meals for the homeless was excommunicated because of a PRC members connection with the Archbishop of Louisiana.

In a 1989 interview about the Lower Garden District, developer Pres Kabacoff said it was the “next major development parcel in the city.  It is the biggest piece of centrally located undeveloped ground in the city.  Its importance to he city is tremendous….the only thing that keeps it from developing, keeps it from solidifying, is the 60 acres of the St Thomas development.”  About the displacement of hundreds of residents to achieve this goal, he said in the same interview “obviously, poor people, when you start talking about de-densifying, are horrified and subject to being scared easily” (Arena 39)

A key part of the argument to demolish St Thomas was contained in the Rochon Report, a document created to assess the state of public housing in New Orleans, and to provide recommendations to the city about it. The Rochon Report was published in 1988 by Reynard Rochon, a HANO board member and friend of Press Kabacoff.  It recommended privatizing all public housing, reducing the number of units to half, and stopping rehabilitations that were already funded, and planned for St. Thomas.  The plan was opposed by current HANO director Jessie Smallwood, lawyer and activist Endesha Jukali, and STRC president Barbara Jackson.  The most vehement dissent came from the People’s Institute, an anti-racism group led by activist Jim Hayes.  Community protest eventually stopped most of the particulars of the Rochon Report from being carried out, but the city did change the project to private management, a step that ultimately weakened the formerly self-governed, self-determined tenant management group, allowing the eventual loss of the projects.

HANO director at the time Smallwood opposed downsizing of public housing.  Her approach instead was to help organize self-run tenant groups, and she also opposed the switch to privately run tenant management groups.  HANO fired Small wood, and denied funding to the St Thomas Resident’s Committee (STRC) allegedly for their ongoing relationship with the People’s Institute.  At this time maintenance was stopped at St. Thomas as well, essentially allowing a demolition by neglect.

Many of these changes to public housing management had begun in the 1970’s, and follow the model of tenant management developed by Henry Ford in his housing projects built near major factories in Detroit.  The idea of the “post-Fordian city” is modeled after this, and describes a city with industrial areas on the outskirts of the city, the inner city subsisting of entertainment districts and wealthy neighborhoods, with the poor scattered throughout the city, but eventually mostly being pushed to the outer ring suburbs.

Mayor Maurice “Moon” Landrieu sought to change the way public housing operates in New Orleans, and the first step in its’ eventual demise was to privatize the tenant groups.  He sought to “increase self-sufficiency and responsibility of tenants” (Cedric 57), and the city received a $8.5 million grant from HUD in 1976 to accomplish this.  In 1978 mayor Morial declared another campaign- to reduce developments that “isolate large numbers of people”, and to eventually wean these people off government assistance.  While these goals sound reasonable, between the lines is a self-help philosophy that is inherently contradictory to public services.  The idea of increasing “responsibility” of tenants implies that they are irresponsible, or that if their “responsibility” doesn’t increase they shall be “weaned off”.  Is welfare something that has to be earned morally? Other types of government assistance, such as food stamps, social security, and student loans don’t hinge upon moral judgments.  And most importantly, it weakens the ability of the tenants to determine their own fates, which is contradictory to the alleged intent.

Obviously the tenants of St. Thomas did not see themselves as living in the squalor that other claimed they were, for they continued to try to preserve their homes.  In 1988, through Trinity Episcopal Church, STRC began negotiating with Coliseum Square Association and other, predominantly white, business owners in the area to try to resolve the conflicts.  Various social service agencies and non-profits worked with the St. Thomas development residents, and over 8 million of funds was donated (Arena 42).  Almost all this money became unaccounted for, while St. Thomas continued to fall into disrepair.   Demolition by neglect is not unheard of- in several other cities across the country, public housing residents have filed lawsuits alleging that housing authorities have engaged in the demolition of projects with calculated disinvestment to make the demolitions seem necessary.  A successful lawsuit was filed by residents of the Henry Horner Homes against the Chicago Housing Authority after the building was intentionally allowed to decay until it could be demolished. (Goetz 4).

In 2001 HANO evicted all residents, and the St Thomas projects were demolished.  1500 units were eliminated, and the site was transformed into mixed income, privately owned, for profit housing development.  In the resulting space there were only 200 public housing units, and the removed residents were offered no right of return. (Cedric 95).  Despite all the rhetoric about “decentralizing” poverty, almost all the residents were relocated to the St. Bernard Projects

A woman sits in front of her home, to be demolished. City of New Orleans Annual Reports, 1964-70.

The newly built Florida Projects, home of the same woman shown on previous page. City of New Orleans Annual Reports, 1964-70.


Desire:  The High-Rise Reservation

            If St Thomas is a model of an appealing, well-constructed public housing project, then the Desire projects are a study in contrasts. By the 1950’s urban renewal projects had begun in New Orleans, so it’s not surprising that the later public housing developments were built on much less desirable land.  Built in 1954, the Desire projects are two story wood frame buildings with brick veneers.  At the time it was one of the largest projects in the US, with 1860 units.  The site was previously swampland that had to be drained for construction. By the 1990’s the buildings had sunk over three feet.(Annual Reports 1952-64)  They are isolated from the rest of the city by Interstate 610 to the West, train tracks to the East, and the Florida canal to the South, rendering it nearly impossible from the beginning for residents to participate in the rest of the city economically or socially.  Other public housing of this style in New Orleans includes the Florida Projects, built 1952, and the Melpomene, built 1963.

While the St. Thomas projects had a declining population over time, the Desire projects population rose dramatically in the following two decades, partially because of the shuffling around of other public housing residents by the city.  Many residents evicted from other projects were moved here.  By the 1970’s, over 60,000 people lived in public housing in New Orleans, and this included about 20% of the city’s black population (Cedric 160).  Known for being a mediator between Black Panthers and NOPD, Henry Faggen moved into Desire in 1956, and described it at that time as “a beautiful place, a live and vibrant community” (Arend 36). He describes the grounds as “manicured to the nines”, and fondly remembers the Miss Desire Beauty Pageant.   At this time they only went lakeside as far as Abundance Street- about a quarter of their eventual area.  He said the projects started declining when they became overpopulated, “got out of control because of density.  Density got thick.  Things started happening.  Drugs came in.  Panthers came in.  Single mothers trying to raise men.  It takes two to tango, and we didn’t have that in Desire.” (Arend 46).  Apparently, only single mothers were eligible for assistance, and if there was evidence of a man around their apartment they would be cut off.

Police brutality was rampant at the Desire projects.  Across the canal were the all-white Florida projects.  The white projects had white cops, the black projects black cops.  At the time, black police couldn’t arrest anyone, only detain them.  They would have to call in a white squad to arrest anyone.  According to citizens, this made the black cops in the Desire projects act extremely brutal, to try to salvage their dignity and gain respect from the citizens.

The Desire projects quickly became neglected, and became the stage by which public housing inequity in New Orleans was made public.  In June of 1970 the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers were evicted from the St. Thomas projects and moved to the Desire Projects. New Orleans Black Panthers had begun operating a free breakfast program for impoverished school children in the late 1960’s.  They also organized child care for the projects, and also helped organize the black bus drivers in New Orleans, who were not receiving union benefits.   A few months after they moved in, Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed to evict them from there.  As of November they had officially refused to pay rent, or to leave, in protest of the conditions in the projects. One participant cited their reason for this protest-”you moved us with your urban renewal programs so you can build shiny buildings we’ll never see the insides of.  You moved us to build interstates we can’t afford to buy cars to drive on.  This time we ain’t movin’.”  (Arend 20).  November 25 there was an all day standoff, twenty five people were arrested.  The next day, police disguised as priests and postal workers broke into the projects and arrested six more, charging all with attempted murder.  On August 7, 1971 a jury unanimously found all not guilty, only deliberating for 31 minutes.

Mayor Landrieu was friends with Lolis Elie, the lawyer who defended the panthers.   Elie grew up in the Black Pearl, part of the Carrollton neighborhood, and described the Desire projects as very different from other public housing in New Orleans.  “The Magnolia had nice brick houses, indoor plumbing.  They had hot and cold water.  They had a lot of things people in my neighborhood didn’t have.” (Arend 39).  The desire projects are my example of “second wave” public housing, and how this model is ineffective.  They are a perfect example of a high-rise reservation.  About Desire, Lolis Elie said, “Desire was a slave-like community…people who had suffered from levels of oppression such that they were prepared to do something about it, up to and including not to allow the police to brutalize them anymore.”  Desire was completely torn down by 2003. Two of the original buildings were preserved for historical purposes.


Urban Renewal and HOPE VI


The 1980’s and 90’s in New Orleans saw an accelerated desire for urban renewal.  Throughout this time New Orleans’ economy had gradually declined, and crime in general went up.  In 2000 New Orleans was 26% white, 67% black (Cedric 95).  With an 18% poverty rate, one of the highest in the nation, and double the poverty rate of the suburbs surrounding it.  By the 1980’s about 20% of impoverished blacks in New Orleans lived in public housing (Cedric 156), and public housing was one of the first things to be “renewed”.

1995 HANO laid out their strategy plan.  Their goal was to “transform public housing into a community asset” (HANO Strategy 7), and to “transform public housing from a last resort to a place where people choose to live, part of the seamless neighborhood fabric”  Importantly, “these changes could make HANO eligible for more HUD funding in the future.”  I find the phrase “community asset” very revealing- after all, are people’s homes supposed to be community assets?  Is someone’s home supposed to be a financial asset to other people, or a safe, sanitary shelter for them?

By transforming, of course, HANO and HUD meant demolition.  Between 1995 and 2005 HUD, with their “HOPE VI” neoliberal revitalization initiative, demolished half of New Orleans public housing- 7,000 units were left, from about 14,000.  Between 1990 and 2010 about 200,000 public housing units were demolished in the United States as a whole (San Francisco).  Playing upon an almost paranoid fear of poverty fueled by the media, HOPE VI essentially claims to improve people’s lives by displacing them.  The idea was to replace the public housing with newer, better designed buildings that people would be happier in. The literature identifies multiple ways in which neighborhoods can be changed, and these ways correspond to an

equally complex set of means by which mixed-income housing is said to improve the lives of the poor (Goetz 4).  The fairness of this plan hinges on the promise that public housing units will be replaced one for one after the original buildings are demolished.  However, the one-for-one replacement was repealed by Congress in 1998, meaning that these people were really just forced out of their homes, sometimes with police force.  The Urban Institute reported that the number of units available for the poor to live in is cut in half in developments arising from the program.


            Post-Katrina Issues and Activism


The war against public housing was already well under way when Katrina hit, but until then the community resistance had been prolific, organized, and powerful.   As early as 1941, Magnolia residents demanded a black tenant manager.  In 1942, St. Bernard residents gathered 1700 signatures to demand improved bus lines to their isolated projects (Arena xxxvi) But in the chaos following Katrina, the city immediately made their move to take over the projects once and for all.  It was easy in this time for NOPD to label any person they chose as a looter, and many were shot on sight trying to return to their homes

Over 80% of public housing in New Orleans was closed, despite the fact that these were some of the least damaged apartments in the city.  Citizens in burned out areas of the Garden District certainly didn’t return home to find bullet proof panels over their windows.   As Louisiana congressman Richard Baker candidly said in the weeks following Katrina, “we finally cleaned up public housing.  We couldn’t do it, but God did” (Cedric 160)  As much affordable housing located near the broken levees was actually uninhabitable, these displaced families often had literally no options for alternative housing, and were forced to no return to New Orleans.  And it seems this is exactly what some people intended.  Finis Shellnutt, a New Orleans real estate mogul rejoiced, saying, “The storm destroyed a great deal and made plenty of room to build houses to sell for a lot of money.  Most importantly, the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back.” (Cedric 190)

With rent increased 40% and more in the remaining rental housing across the city, it was already extremely difficult for residents to return.  When the city announced they wanted to demolish almost all the remaining public housing, there was an enormous, and immediate outcry against it.

Community, Concern, Compassion/Hands Off Iberville (C3), New Orleans Housing Emergency action Team (NO-HEAT), and others staged protests in December of 2005 forcing the city to reopen the Iberville Projects for residents to retrieve their belongings.  St. Bernard residents broke through police lines April 4 2006, the anniversary of MLK’s assassination.  Armed with mops and brooms, residents broke through police lines and went into their homes in the St. Bernard Projects to retrieve their possessions. They did not permanently occupy their project, but vowed to return.  These people were referred to as “terrorists and demagogues” on the news, and citizens were encouraged to “not watch the soap opera” (cedric 102).  These actions spurred Iberville residents to occupy HUD offices in April, demanding their residences be reopened.

The next month, a coalition of resident groups shut down the HANO meeting, resulting in arrests and police barring people from the meeting room. (Arena 167)  The tent city known as Survivor’s Village was erected in June 2006 by various residents of New Orleans public housing. It was initiated as a response to the federal government’s continued undermining of the residents’ rights to return to their homes and resume their leases.  At this time there were estimated as many as 6,000 squatters in the city. (March)  In November 2007 protesters marched on mayor Nagin’s house.  The same month, a HUD meeting was shut down, and at this time lawyer Bill Quigley was arrested.  Lafitte demolition was delayed, but go ahead was still given for C.J. Peete and B. W. Cooper.  A march to Cooper resulted in residents unfurling huge banners that said “stop the demolition”.  Solidarity protests happened in Minneapolis, New York, DC, Chicago, and Raleigh (Arena 199)

In June 2006 a class action lawsuit, Anderson et al V. Jackson was filed against HUD for failing to reopen public housing in New Orleans, and for discrimination against the tenants.  The charges were eventually dismissed after appeals by HUD.

It seemed a turning point had been reached in 2007 when Maxine Waters introduced HR1227 to reopen public housing in New Orleans, also known as the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act, by an overwhelming vote of 302-125.  The bill orders the reopening of 3,000 public housing units in New Orleans and mandates one-to-one replacement of all public housing already demolished, for a total of 7100 units.  Some key points in this bill relate to right of return, and on displacement prohibition.  The clause on right of return is such:

“(e) Right of Return- A public housing agency administering or operating public housing           dwelling units described in subsection (h) has the obligation–

(1) to use its best efforts to locate tenants displaced from such public housing as a result of Hurricane Katrina or Rita; and

(2) to provide such residents occupancy in public housing dwelling units of such agency that become available for occupancy, and to ensure such residents a means to exercise such right of return.” (HR1227)

To ensure residents a means to exercise their right of return, has certainly never been enacted.  Actually, HANO has allegedly spent $1.5 million to barricade residents from their homes.   As residents attempted to return to their homes, most of which sustained little storm damage, they were met with police harassment, armed guards, and a newly erected barbed wire fence. Bullet proof window coverings and security cameras were installed, and all repairs and mold remediation were immediately halted.

The prohibition on displacement reads as such:

“(g) Prohibition on Displacement From Habitable Units- A public housing agency may not displace a tenant from any public housing dwelling unit described in subsection (h) that is administered or operated by such agency and is habitable (including during any period of rehabilitation), unless the agency provides a suitable and comparable dwelling unit for such tenant in the same local community as such public housing dwelling unit.” (HR1227).

This clause has also been violated, as public housing units were some of the least damaged in the city.  Demolition was not carried out for the safety of residents, as claimed.

Hurricane Betsy, in 1965, was the worst hurricane to ever hit New Orleans at the time.  It devastated 5000 square miles in Louisiana, with 160mph winds.  Almost all the public housing projects in New Orleans were damaged.  The Florida projects retained over six feet of water, and Desire over five.  They all retained structural damage, including roofing materials and siding being ripped off, and all residents belongings being destroyed.  At the time federal funds were used to hire the residents to repair the buildings, and they were continued to be used for decades after. (Annual Reports 1964-70).

The Desire Projects after Betsy. City of New Orleans Annual Reports, 1964-70.


Shortly after this bill passed the House, it entered the Senate and continued to languish there as SR1668.  The city continued to keep residents away from public housing, even while promising to return the almost 30,000 residents living in FEMA trailers across the city and region.  In November 2007 large portions of this bill were dismissed by Judge Ivan Lemelle.  There were huge protests of this action in front of the courthouse, but the change went on as planned.  A class action lawsuit against HUD for discrimination in their failed Road Home Program eventually resulted in settlement money for many plaintiffs, but renters, including those in Section 8 and public housing, are not eligible for Road Home or FEMA assistance.  It has been said that Katrina facilitated the “biggest, most brutal urban renewal project black America has ever seen” (Cedric 152).

Photos of St. Bernard and Survivor’s Village Protests, from Arena


            Iberville, and the Third Wave

And this brings us to Iberville.  Built 1939-41, the Iberville Projects has 75 buildings with 858 units, all one to three bedroom. (Annual Reports 1937-41).  The population remained relatively stable here over time.  With trussed gable and hipped roofs, concrete structure with tile and plaster over brick, and ceramic tile roofs, these are some of the nicest in the city.  They were considered “structurally sound” in a HANO assessment in the late 90’s.  When improvements began on Canal Street, there was talk about the Iberville Projects damaging commerce.  As early as 1989, an Urban Land Institute report raised concerns over “large numbers of minority shoppers on canal st…and the concentration of poverty-level residents in the Iberville public housing project”

C3-Hands Off Iberville, a grassroots volunteer run group, had successfully fought attempted 2004 privatization of Iberville. Started in 2001 as an anti-war campaign against the Iraqi war, their philosophy developed to include the “war at home”- against the poor, and minorities.  Iberville was successfully occupied and reopened due to community direct action in the months following Katrina.  Despite successful reoccupation of Iberville, HANO is prepared to go forward with a redevelopment plan.  They plan to use demolition of the Iberville projects and their rebuilding as a mixed income facility as a “linchpin that interconnects to other areas of the city in every direction” (HANO App 4).  Per the Anderson Consulting,, Viability Assessment, HANO sites including Iberville “are just too dense; the site layouts tend to fragment and isolate public housing from the surrounding community; apartment layouts have rooms which are marginal in size for today’s families; the sites are plagued with large amounts of indefensible spaces;…….. Today its sturdy, externally handsome but repetitive, monotonous buildings stand in stark contrast to the rich variety of the surrounding neighborhood.” (HANO App 31)

The term “indefensible spaces” is another urban planning term that was new to me.  It basically refers to a space that is easy to commit crime in, and the eradication of indefensible spaces is a popular urban planning idea.  To me an indefensible space can also be a positive thing, too.  After all, what are the quaint narrow streets of the French Quarter, romantically lit by gas light, if not a maze of indefensible spaces?  Internationally beloved cities such as New Orleans, as well as Paris, Boston, and London, all have medieval street grids that, while not logical, have a character that lends to the sense of place that makes these places special.  After all, tourists don’t spend billions of dollars every year visiting the suburbs of Houston to admire its sensible grid plan and bask in the safety of its thoroughfares.  An indefensible space could also be any private space, which obviously is desirable for anyone inhabiting a housing development, public housing or not.

“Renovation of all existing buildings was considered but was deemed unacceptable as it would result in a significantly lower unit count (e.g., 2-bedroom apartments would be converted to 1-bedroom apartments) as larger, modern residences are required to meet the housing needs of current residents;…. would not result in a truly mixed-income community as renovation alone would not appeal to market rate residents” (HANO App 15)

Photographic evidence was recorded by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, as well as Christine Parenti of the Nation, that both the Iberville and Lafitte projects were undamaged after Katrina. (Arena 160)

”Restoring the street grid will require deconstruction of 17 existing buildings developed circa 1940 on top of the previously existing streets. An additional 33 buildings that don’t relate to the recreated streets will also be deconstructed. The remaining 24 structures lining Marais Street and defining the borders of the site, will be completely rehabilitated with full abatement of environmental hazards, replacement of all electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems, new roofing, and restored exterior envelope. ….. The deconstruction of many of the existing structures on the Iberville site allows the IRC team to develop 830 modern and spacious mixed-income units on-site with dedicated and proximate parking. 300 of these units will be public housing…The remaining 530 units on-site will be split evenly between market rate and Section 42 affordable units. (HANO App 34)

And most importantly:  “To reinvent Iberville/Tremé as a successful mixed-income neighborhood, it will be critical to capture the employees of the Biomedical District as new residents. Affluent, educated, and professionally dedicated, they will be attracted to the low-maintenance, convenient, amenity-rich housing and neighborhoods. IRC will shape its rental housing in the area to those features.” (HANO App 36)

“Although Iberville/Tremé is currently distressed, it possesses significant assets with enormous potential. It has rich cultural history as the home of free people of color before the Civil War and as the birthplace of Jazz. The housing stock includes signature New Orleans historic residential styles. North of Iberville, the Lafitte public housing project is being redeveloped, although its demolition temporarily reduced the availability of affordable housing. (HANO App 42)

It’s not surprising that this development will tie in with the illogical closing of Charity hospital despite concrete evidence that it was not damaged by Katrina.  Now billions of dollars are tied up in completely transforming a huge area of New Orleans, in ways that many residents of said area seriously question.  An entire historic, middle class neighborhood has been obliterated to build the new VA hospital, despite the availability of Charity, and many studies proving it could have easily been reused.  Now Iberville will be demolished, replaced by shiny new housing to entice the desired new residents of the Treme.

In Iberville, as in other projects, the buildings are blithely refered to as “decimated”, “uninhabitable”, and “obsolete”, yet all physical evidence contradicts this.  The third wave of public housing is its’ demolition and/or conversion to mixed-income.  The third wave is when it essentially ceases to exist.  And why is this allowed to happen?  The public has such a biased, inaccurate viewpoint of public housing that any negative analysis is usually considered acceptable, and the building is torn down. By the 1990s, visions of the ‘‘other America’’ were common fare for the media.  In 2003, a single CBS story on Cabrini Green noted that they had ‘‘been a blot on the skyline’’ of the city, ‘‘synonymous with gangs, drugs, misery and murder,’’

‘‘cinderblock dinosaurs,’’ ‘‘a disaster’’ where children were ‘‘raised in squalor’’ (Goetz 2) This is what people are taught to believe about poverty, even when the buildings can easily be renovated, and the residents are literally chaining themselves to their homes, elderly men and women are squatting their own homes, and lawsuits are being filed because they want to stay so badly.

HANO has essentially found a loophole in the one-for-one rule.  They are relocating residents one-for-one, but they are being spread across the entire Treme neighborhood- technically from Tulane to St. Bernard, and from Rampart to just past Broad.  The residents will be scattered across the whole district, many of them directly across the street from OPP (Attachment 9).  What I find most foul about this is that there has been absolutely no publicity about this, ever, yet demolition could begin as early as December 2012.  “This is a government-sanctioned diaspora of New Orleans’s poorest African American citizens,” said Bill Quigley, a lawyer for displaced residents.  “They are destroying perfectly habitable apartments when they are more rare than any time since the Civil War.” (March)



            What has happened to public housing in America is a shame.  But what has been done to public housing in New Orleans is a violation of human rights, and a travesty to historic preservation.  Though the fight for public housing in New Orleans has already been a human rights battle, the destruction of Iberville will not only be this, but a complete transformation of the Treme, one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in America.  While mixed income housing has worked in other cities such as Chicago and New York, New Orleans is unique geographically and culturally, and the situation here after Katrina is extremely unique as well.  New Orleans is small, and our built environment in many cases is very fragile.  Larger cities have not experience extreme, involuntary resident displacement like we have, so mixed income housing does not have the same effect on their neighborhoods as it will on the Iberville/Treme.

I do believe that highly isolated public housing is unhealthy, as a short study of the Desire Projects illustrates.  But it mixed income the answer?  Of the 5000 public housing units demolished since Katrina to build mixed income housing, less than 800 of those units have been replaced.   Obviously the organizations responsible for these demolitions are not being held accountable for their actions.  The evidence, and the amount of community protest to these actions, tells me that mixed income housing absolutely does not have the interests of the poor in mind.  Neoliberal multiculturalism that labels this process as “integration” are ignoring the glaring material inequities that result from it.  After all, it is a process forced upon the poor by the rich, and only against their will.  The privatization of public housing has transformed it from a social service, to an amalgamation of the real estate, construction, and investment industries, and is designed to enhance the resources of these industries, not to serve citizens.

What is the motivation for these travesties? New Orleans had 8.3 million visitors in 2010, the most since 2005.  Those people spent $5.3 billion, the highest in the city’s history, according to a 2010  survey by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center.  The tourism industry employs more than any other business in the city, according to the New Orleans CVB. (Baran 4).  New Orleans, as a port city, has always gotten a large percentage of its business from visitors and immigrants, but in the past the services were provided by local economies, and the local population was relatively unchanging.  Tourists coming to experience the culture today, as opposed to yesteryear, demand more convenience, safety, and predictability in their visit.  The city’s attempts to make the city safer and more welcoming will eventually render the city a hollow shell of itself, making it unappealing to all but the most pedestrian of tastes.  The elimination of public housing is a key element of this, for it removes people that are perceived to be dangerous to tourists, but this is the same demographic of people who made the city’s culture famous.  Louis Armstrong grew up where the Iberville projects currently stand.  Countless rap and bounce artists grew up in the projects here.  If the city wants to maintain its’ lucrative identity, it should cater to residents, not tourists and wealthy newcomers.  The mass closing of public schools, firing of teachers, and closing of health care facilities such as Charity Hospital have also contributed to an atmosphere of extreme hardship for New Orleans’ poor trying to return from Katrina.

The litigation that created public housing in the first place should still be a starting point for us to prove that it still deserves to exist.  The federal Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended) has the dual mission to eliminate housing discrimination and promote residential integration.  Since the population of New Orleans’s public housing was so overwhelmingly black before Katrina, it seems the elimination of public housing after Katrina could easily be labeled as discrimination.  Before Katrina, the Census Bureau pegged the city’s racial breakdown at about 67 percent black and 28 percent white. A more recent study conducted for the Louisiana Recovery Authority estimates that the city, still well under half its pre-storm population, is 47 percent black and 43 percent white (LRA).  The UN called on officials to “protect the human rights of African Americans affected by Hurricane Katrina” by “immediately halting the demolition of public housing in New Orleans” (arena 210).

Besides human rights issues, the public housing here should be preserved, as should its’ original use, for historic preservation reasons.  Its original intent was to provide decent housing for the poor.  Its intent was not to isolate them.  If the buildings were preserved for this purpose, the model could work, and mixed income dwellings could work if they were not set up as for profit businesses with a handful of developers and their political cronies pocketing all the money.  The buildings should also be preserved, as they are simply beautiful buildings, praised by architects as well as the people who live in them. The hous­ing developments were praised nationwide when they were built for their solid construction and communal type design. Bricks and tile from the locally-owned Schneider Brick and Tile Company were used during construc­tion, and almost all materials and labor were also locally procured. (Times picayune)  The projects built in the 1930’s and 40’s are solid and well-constructed, and have withstood many hurricanes since then.  They may not be luxurious enough to appeal to market rate buyers, but that is not what their original intent was.  If a shotgun house is worth preserving, then so is a project.

Architect Andrew Duany praises the simple architecture of New Orleans in its current state with all its flaw.  “It’s a sophisticated Byzantine society in full passive resistance against change.” he says.  Instead of the dirtiest, most dangerous, most corrupt city in America, Duany asserts that it is “the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, most competently governed of the Caribbean cities.”



Victory garden in the Magnolia Projects. City of New Orleans Annual Reports, 1937-45.



2010 Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Application for Iberville December 3, 2010.  Grant   Application, Attachment 9.

American-Made:  The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work.  Taylor,             Nick.  Bantam, NY, 2008.

City of New Orleans Annual Reports, published by HANO.  Years 1937-1945, 1946-1951, 1952-1964, and         1964-1970.

Driven From New Orleans.  Arena, John.  University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

HANO Strategy Plan. May 26th 1995, laid out by Tucket and Associates, Inc.

HOPE VI in San Francisco”. San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. March 2005.

“HUD Awards $30.5 Million to New Orleans to Redevelop Iberville” Jacob Bor.  March 27, 2007.         Associated Press.

“H.R. 1227–110th Congress: Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007.” 2007.   November 5, 2012 <>

Louisiana Recovery Authority. No. 11-186 FOR RELEASE.  Donna     White.  September 1, 2011

”March on New Orleans City council member’s home to protest demolitions” CityBusiness Staff      Report. New Orleans CityBusiness.  March 3, 2007.

“New Orleans Tourism Enjoys Best Year since Katrina” Travel Weekly. April 15, 2011.  Michelle          Baran.

Showdown in Desire: People, Panthers, Piety and Police.  1970. Orissa Arend.  Self-published.

“The Audacity of HOPE VI: Discourse and the Dismantling of Public Housing.”  E.G. Goetz. J.          Cities. 2012. University of Minnesota.

The Neoliberal Deluge.  Edited by Cedric Johnson.  University of Minnesota Press.  2011.

“Urban Pioneers” Carleton Knight III.  Preservation News. 1973 Volume XIII, No 7.

“Urban Planner Andrew Duany shows off his Bywater house prototypes” January 31 2009 Doug      Mac Cash TP








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6 thoughts on “The Destruction of Public Housing in New Orleans

  1. Please, how can I find out more about the St. Thomas Projects in New Orleans (basically during the 1940’s – 1960’s) Any info or sources would be so helpful.

    Thank you,

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