Williams and her twin sister Bobbie Jennings are 60 years old. They
are two of the over 4,000 families who lived in public housing in New
Orleans before Katrina struck who are still locked out of their
apartments since Katrina. Their apartments are two of 4,534 apartments
that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has
announced plans to demolish. Demolition is planned even though it will
cost more to demolish and rebuild many fewer units than it does to fix
them up and open them. Ms. Williams and Ms. Jennings, and thousands of
families like them, are fighting HUD, they want to return.
Gloria and Bobbie started working early.
As children they picked cotton, strawberries, snap beans and pecans
before and after grade school every day in rural Louisiana. "We were
raised up to work," they said.
They moved to New Orleans after their father drowned. Their home was
marked by regular domestic violence. A few years later, their mother
was murdered by a boyfriend.
As teens they moved in with an abusive relative. They ran away, came
back, and stayed with other relatives. They can even remember nights
when they slept under their aunt's bed in a hospital while waiting for
her to recuperate.
As young women they continued working. They worked in restaurants
before starting careers as Certified Nursing Assistants. Then they
worked for years in nursing homes and in private homes caring for the
elderly and disabled. They fed people, cleaned people, bathed people,
cared for people. Each married and raised children and grandchildren.
Like 25% of the households in New Orleans, neither owned a car.
Both sisters are now 60. In the past few years, their years of
physical work took its toil and they could not longer work. Ms.
Jennings had back surgery and suffers with high blood pressure. Ms.
Williams has heart and lung problems, high blood pressure, and clots
in her legs that prevent her from standing or walking for long
periods. Each lives solely on about $600 a month from disability. No
When Katrina hit, they had been living in the C.J. Peete apartments
for years. Ms. Bobbie Jennings had been there for 34 years. Her twin
sister, Ms. Gloria Williams lived there for over 18 years.
Their combined families, 18 in all, evacuated to Baton Rouge to ride
out the storm. When it was clear they would not be going home any time
soon, their host family told them it was time to move on. In
September 2005, the family of 18 moved into one daughter's damaged
home in Slidell, about 30 miles away from New Orleans -- all sleeping
on the first floor because the roof was still damaged.
One of their sisters, Annie, was in the hospital with cancer when
Katrina hit. It took the family weeks before the finally found her in
a hospital in Macon, Georgia.
When the city opened, they got rides into town and checked on their
apartments. No water had entered their apartments at all. But their
doors had been kicked down and all their furnishings were gone. The
housing authority told them they could not move back in for a couple
more months while their apartments were secured and fixed up. The
housing authority started fixing up and painting apartments in her
complex, but abruptly stopped after a few weeks.
Slidell was getting tight, so they accepted an offer to relocate to
California. After a month, they returned. Being 3,000 miles apart from
family was too heartbreaking. A four day bus ride brought them back to
Slidell in January 2006. After hitching rides into New Orleans, Ms.
Williams found a subsidized apartment. The only way the landlord
would accept her, though, was if she paid him an extra $400 under the
table. Otherwise, he would rent it to someone else who would.
So Ms. Williams paid the extra money and moved in with her
grandchildren while she waited for her old apartment to reopen. She
used FEMA money to buy new furniture.
In late February 2005, Ms. Williams was
hospitalized for three weeks for surgeries on her legs.
In June 2005, HUD announced they were not going to let any residents
back in her apartment complex and three others (Lafitte, St. Bernard
and BW Cooper) because they were going to be demolished. Over one
hundred maintenance and security workers for the housing authority
were let go. HUD took over the local housing authority years ago and
all these decisions are being made in Washington DC.
The demolished buildings would make way for much newer and many fewer
apartments which would be built by private developers. The demolition
and private development would be financed by federal funds and federal
tax breaks designed to help Katrina victims!
Nearly $100 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds
were designated for the private developers. Another $34 million in
Katrina Go-Zone tax credits were also donated to the developers.
In July 2005, Ms. Williams apartment caught fire and again she lost
everything. Her landlord did not want to let her out of her lease. He
told her that she and her grandson could still live there, all they
had to do was clean the soot off the walls and ceilings.
At this, Ms. Williams broke down and went back into the hospital.
Ms. Jennings got an apartment and allowed her daughter and her
grandchildren to live there because they have no place to stay. She
also took her in her little sister, Annie, who was dying of
cancer. Annie died on August 17, 2005.
Both sisters have severe problems every month making ends meet.
Utility bills eat up most of their monthly checks. With no car and
their apartments across the river from New Orleans, they cannot get to
Christmas was very tough. Ms. Williams said "We didn't have a
Christmas. We didn't have food to put on the table." Her grandson went
to her sister's house to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Ms. Jennings cried as she said "Behind Katrina and my little sister
dying, my life just stopped. This is the second year we didn't have a
Christmas. It is so hard to try to start over. I let my daughter and
her two grandchildren sleep on the bed. I sleep on a pallet on the
floor. Before Katrina, I was on blood pressure medicine once a day.
Now I take 4 blood pressure pills three times a day. I also take pills
for depression, nerves and stress."
"We just want to go home," Ms. Williams said. "People knew us in our
neighborhood. They never messed with us. I could leave my back door
open when I went to the grocery. People don't understand that was our
home. We want to go home."
Why would people want to go back into public housing? Aren't the
developments dangerous and crime-ridden? Isn't this an opportunity to
start over and make something better?
Public housing residents know full well the problems of public
housing, but still they want to return.
Why? Start with the fact that New Orleans is in the worst affordable
housing crisis since the Civil War. Tens of thousands of houses still
remain in ruins after Katrina. Rents for the rest have gone up 70-80
percent since Katrina. Even before Katrina, there was a waiting list
of 18,000 families seeking to get into public housing; now it is much,
HUD's demolition plans target 4,534
apartments of public housing in the community. They plan to demolish
1,546 apartments in BW Cooper, 723 in C.J. Peete, 1,400 in St.
Bernard, and 865 in Lafitte.
These are not the dense high-rise towers. Public housing in New
Orleans is made up of development clusters of mostly two and three
story buildings with six to eight apartments in each.
New York Times
architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, criticized plans to demolish
these apartments, saying on November 19, 2006: "Modestly scaled, they
include some of the best public housing built in the United States . .
. Solidly built, the buildings' detailed brickwork, tile roofs and
wrought-iron balustrades represent a level of craft more likely found
on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public housing
Most of the public housing apartments rented for very modest rents
tied to the resident's incomes. Most did not pay separate utility
charges. Leases were essentially for life, unless someone in the
family was caught breaking the law.
HUD initially said they had to demolish because the buildings were so
damaged they were dangerous to the residents.
That was not true.
John Fernandez, an Associate Professor of Architecture at MIT,
inspected 140 of these apartments and concluded in papers filed in
court that "no structural or nonstructural damage was found that could
reasonably warrant any cost-effective building demolition . . .
Therefore, the general conclusions are: demolition of any of the
buildings of these four projects is not supported by the evidence of
the survey, replacement of these buildings with contemporary
construction would yield buildings of lower quality and shorter
lifetime duration; the original construction methods and materials of
these projects are far superior in their resistance to hurricane
conditions than typical new construction and with renovation and
regular maintenance, the lifetimes of the buildings in all four
projects promise decades of continued service that may be extended
Residents promise to fix up their apartments themselves if given the
chance. "I clean for a living," said one young woman resident at a
recent public hearing where 100% of the residents opposed demolition.
"I clean for a living and I am proud of it. I clean every body else's
houses, I will sure clean up my own house; just let me back in to do
After it the public understood that the buildings were not actually in
such bad shape, the authorities then said it would cost much more to
repair the buildings than to demolish and start over.
That too was not true.
The housing authority's own documents show that Lafitte could be
repaired for $20 million, even completely overhauled for $85 million
while the estimate for demolition and rebuilding many fewer units will
cost over $100 million. St. Bernard could be repaired for $41 million,
substantially modernized for $130 million while demolition and
rebuilding less units will cost $197 million. BW Cooper could be
substantially renovated for $135 million compared to $221 million to
demolish and rebuild less units. Their own insurance company reported
that it would take less than $5,000 each to repair each of the CJ
HUD suggests that less-dense "mixed income" communities are the way to
But residents and the community knows that if HUD has its way, only
about 20% of the families who lived in these developments will be
allowed to return.
New Orleans has suffered through the experience of HUD's "mixed
income" policies before. The St. Thomas housing development, once home
to 1,510 families, was demolished with promises that people would be
returning to a beautiful redeveloped community. Instead, there is now
a Wal-Mart on the site and hundreds of cute gingerbread pastel houses.
How many of the 1,510 families who used to live in St. Thomas have
been allowed to move back in? About a hundred. A few of these families
have had to force their way in with litigation by the Greater New
Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. The demolition of St. Thomas is
hailed as a mostly-good outcome by nearby developers and some of the
young professionals who moved into the surrounding neighborhood
knowing what was coming. What do the 1400+ families who were moved out
and not allowed to return think? Don't ask -- no one else is.
HUD has the same plans for the neighborhoods where they are trying to
demolish housing. According to documents filed with the Louisiana
Housing Finance Agency:
St. Bernard will go from 1,400
apartments to 595 apartments, only 160 of which will be for low-income
public housing residents. There will be 160 tax credit mixed income
and 145 market rate units;
CJ Peete will go from 723 units to 410,
154 will be public housing eligible, 133 mixed income and 123 market
BW Cooper will go from 1546 to 410, 154
public housing eligible, 133 tax-credit mixed income, and 123 market;
And Lafitte will downsized in the same
As a result HUD plans to spend tens of millions of Katrina assistance
funds to end up with far fewer affordable apartments.
The new Congress is looking into this. Representatives Barney Frank
and Maxine Waters chair the committee and subcommittee with oversight
of HUD. There is also a federal class action lawsuit filed by the
Advancement Project, Jenner & Block, and local attorneys.
Residents of the St. Bernard housing development and their allies plan
are not waiting any more. On Martin Luther King day, January 15, 2007,
they are going in with or without permission. "What better way to
celebrate Martin Luther King day than to risk going to jail for
justice?" says Endesha Jukali, a neighbor who lived and worked in St.
Bernard for years.
But the clock is still ticking. HUD, who has not "officially approved"
its own announcement, says the demolition needs to get started to take
advantage of the Katrina tax credits. Neither the Congress nor the
federal courts have yet stepped in to stop the demolitions.
What do the sisters think about this? Ms. Jennings says: "I lived
there for 34 years. That is my home. I just cannot afford to live
outside the development. I don't know how else to explain it. I have
the tears, but I do not have the words." Her twin sister, Ms. Williams
cries and says: "That was my home for over 18 years. I never gave
them no trouble. My home never flooded. I will clean it myself, just
please let me back in. I wish I could make people understand. I just
want to go home."
For more information about this matter see
www.justiceforneworleans.org or contact the Advancement
Project at (202) 728-9557.
is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New
Orleans. Bill is one of the lawyers representing thousands of families
who want to return to their apartments in New Orleans. You can contact
him at: Quigley@loyno.edu.
Other Articles by Bill
A Grandmother’s “Sacrament in
Solidarity with the Poor”
Blood-Pouring Anti-Nuke Clowns Sent to Prison: Weapons of Mass
Hood in Reverse: Corporate and Government Looting of the Gulf Coast
Convictions: The Trial of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Here
to Make It Home: New Orleans One Year After Katrina
of Mass Destruction Discovered Here
Months After Katrina: Gutting New Orleans
* HUD to
New Orleans Poor: “Go F(ind) Yourself (Housing)!”
Come Back to New Orleans Unless You Intend to Join the Fight for
Months After Katrina: Tales of Lunacy and Hope from New Orleans
* 6 Months
After Katrina: Who Was Left Behind Then and Who is Being Left Behind
Meeting with Pere Jean-Juste (12.13.05)
Leaders Call for Freedom for Jean-Juste, Neptune and Haitian Political
for the Holidays: Stop Evictions of Katrina Evacuees
Are They Making New Orleans a Ghost Town?
Orleans: Leaving the Poor Behind Again!