Paying the bills in post-Katrina New Orleans
By Lyndsey Lyman
Sixty-seven-year-old Audrey Armour of the Uptown area of New Orleans knows from experience how helpful income-based housing can be. Earlier in life, she lived in the St. Bernard projects in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans for 23 years while raising her six children. She also stayed in her daughter’s third-floor apartment in the projects during Hurricane Katrina in order to avoid rising water.
Audrey is still struggling to rebuild her own severely damaged home in the Uptown area five years after Katrina because of construction scams and lack of funds. She now lives in an apartment she’s renting two houses down from her original home, on which she is still paying mortgage. Her pastor, New Orleans native Bruce Davenport of St. John #5 Faith Church in New Orleans, has hosted Ithaca College students working on Audrey’s home for the past few years through working with the college’s Alternative Spring Break program.
Previously, the St. Bernard projects required monthly rent based on income so that families weren’t paying more than they could afford. Programs like this help families in need as well as allow some to save money to eventually own later on in life, like Audrey was able to, instead of renting. Generally, rent was anywhere from $25 to $200 a month in the projects, and residents were not required to pay for utilities, said Bruce, whose wife, Deb, grew up there. Now, rent will be about $600 a month plus utilities because the apartments are no longer government-sponsored and income-based.
“The families that used to live there won’t be able to afford it and can’t move back in,” Bruce said.
This translates to not only a lost opportunity for low-income families, but a community that will be completely changed, Bruce said. Many of the families who once lived in the old development will never be able to return because of their inability to pay rent on the new type of housing.
Still, those living in the new housing erected for families with greater income won’t even be protected. The new apartments are made of wood, some bricks, and regular siding, while the old projects were made entirely of bricks. While they look much more attractive than the old standard brick buildings, with their white pillars and cement front porch on each individual apartment, many believe their structure will leave something to be desired come hurricane season. Now, Audrey said, the people who will live in the new development won’t be as lucky as Audrey and her family were if another hurricane like Katrina hits.
“I said, ‘Well I know these apartments went through every storm I could remember, and nothing happened to them,’ said Audrey of the projects during Katrina. “The ones they’re building now, they’re not made of real bricks. If another Katrina hits, there’s going be a lot of damage to a lot of those apartments.”
The destruction of the St. Bernard projects are emblematic of the property issues and poor decisions still affecting New Orleans nearly five years after the storms of 2005. It is decisions such as these that are keeping New Orleans residents from getting their own land back and from getting out of their FEMA trailers and back in their houses. Some never will.
The city took land from those who could not afford to come back to either rebuild or deconstruct their houses, sometimes because of fees piling up that were charged by the city, Bruce said. Beginning in 2006, the city charged residents $100 per day for the tasks such as grass cutting, which the city performed for residents when they weren’t able to return to take care of their own property.
Many families also were charged for water and utilities for the entire time they were away from their homes.
“Utilities and all that stuff, a lot of people had thousands of dollars to pay. Most times their stuff wasn’t turned off,” Audrey said.
Audrey’s daughter, with whom she shared her home, a side-by-side apartment, before the storm, originally had a charge of over $1,000 for water while she was away. The fee was eventually, after much debate with the city, cut down to about $500. Audrey said she suspects it was perhaps a broken pipe that caused such a high bill, because no one else was at the house using the water.
For the people who already found it hard to return after being dispersed to family across the country when their homes were damaged or destroyed, having an added fee of this magnitude only decreased hope of returning. In many cases, these fees adding onto other financial troubles after the storm meant many people could no longer afford their property, and it was taken up by the city. Once city officials found out families weren’t coming back or owed too much on their house, they claimed it.
“This acquisition of land by the city presented itself as a prime opportunity for some who had been waiting for land availability,” Bruce said.
One example of this is the Holy Cross preparatory school for boys and young men grades 5 through 12 of the Seventh Ward, which used to be in the Ninth Ward. There had been talk of moving the school out of the Ninth Ward for a while, Bruce said, and the availability of land in the Seventh Ward was a prospect they could not refuse. Houses and churches once occupied the land Holy Cross now sits on, Bruce said.
Administrators had wanted to move the school out of the Ninth Ward because it was a well-known fact that no one was coming back in that area, where so many homes were badly damaged or even completely wiped out. Near the Seventh Ward, however, there was much more hope of return where homes were less damaged, especially in the wealthy Lake Terrace area. Bruce said a huge draw of moving the school was easy access for the students living in Lake Terrace. “Families of potential students [there] could much more easily afford the school’s tuition,” Bruce said.
Lake Terrace is also an area of great controversy because of its position just across the London Avenue Canal from the Seventh Ward. Driving down Robert E. Lee Street, a bridge running perpendicular over the canal, the expensive Lake Terrace homes are visible to one side while the much less fortunate homes of the Seventh Ward can be seen on the other. The Lake Terrace homes are currently as beautiful and impressive as ever with expensive cars in the driveway, while half of the Seventh Ward houses remain dilapidated with entire walls missing, siding hanging off the walls that remain and views straight through to the other side of houses, showing an empty, barren wood floor and studs.
Generally, moderate to lower-middle class income families live in the Seventh Ward. When the floods of Katrina began to rise ever closer to the levee walls along the London Canal, water flow to the Lake Terrace side of the canal was shut down via the canal control center. This resulted in a much greater amount of water on the Seventh Ward side than was expected and the levee on that side eventually broke. Of course, the levee stayed intact on the Lake Terrace side.
In the Ninth Ward, a situation similar to that of the former projects in the Seventh Ward has also caused a lot of hard feelings. Brad Pitt founded Make It Right, a foundation dedicated to the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward. While this foundation has good intentions—building houses that are beautiful and green with solar panels and the reuse of water—the steep price increase of the homes is actually hurting more former residents than it is helping. Many aren’t able to buy them back. Just as the large increase in rent in the St. Bernard projects leads to an entirely new set of people as residents, Make It Right’s homes’ price of $175,000 to $200,000 is not affordable for those who used to live on land in the Lower Ninth in houses worth anywhere from $60,000 to $75,000.
As Alternative Spring Break 2010 participant Danielle Prizzi said, “More than greener living, fancy design or anything else, former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward need shelter that will protect them.”
However, any house built in that area is still threatened by storms and floods because the Industrial Canal levee still has not been heightened after its break. Rather, it has only been restored to its old height.
Louisiana has a program called “The Road Home” which gives grants to homeowners looking to rebuild or purchase a new home in Louisiana. The program’s Web site says eligible homeowners may receive a maximum of $150,000. Property owners may also apply for “forgivable loans” which will be forgiven over time to repair their small-scale rental properties through funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The program’s Web site also states that a total of $8.39 billion has been disbursed to 126,983 of the 150,556 eligible applicants.
The divide between applicants receiving funding and eligible applicants may stem from a fundamental problem occurring years before Katrina hit. The Palm Beach Post of Florida reported on Feb. 21, 2010 that many families who were eligible for the Road Home program could not get funds for rebuilding or selling their damaged houses which were “technically owned by long-dead ancestors.” Deeds to houses were sometimes in the name of this ancestor or, in some cases, didn’t even exist, the Palm Beach Post reported. Because of the relatively relaxed atmosphere of New Orleans, many families possess homes to which they do not possess the documentation to prove their ownership. In the cases of dead ancestors, especially, younger family members simply moved in, assumedly without changing the documents to state new names.
In many cases in New Orleans, it is neighbors or outside volunteers who come in to help in situations where government solutions have ceased to suffice. It seems as though officials have forgotten about an entire group of people who happen to need help the most. Sure, there are signs posted throughout the city to boast the re-paving of roads or the rebuilding of apartments in the Seventh Ward. But when these new apartments leave the previous inhabitants on their own, one can only imagine the fate of those who were less fortunate than Audrey and couldn’t make it out of the projects.
Lyndsey Lyman is a freshman journalism major who had the opportunity to see the disparity of the Seventh Ward through the Alternative Spring Break program. E-mail her at [email protected]