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Misdiagnosed Cause, Misplaced Blame

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 cannot wait!

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.
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