In an open letter Friday to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said HUD must produce hard evidence of redevelopment plans before the city will grant demolition permits for two of its largest public housing developments.
After a dramatic, 5-hour public hearing Thursday, the City Council unanimously agreed that the Housing Authority of New Orleans may dismantle the city’s four largest developments — St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and B.W. Cooper — to make way for mixed-income neighborhoods.
But the council added conditions to the demolition approval, such as expanding the HANO board of commissioners to three members instead of the one-man board it has had since HUD took control of the troubled agency in 2002.
HANO also must provide quarterly reports to the city on the status of all redevelopment, the council said.
But Nagin’s three-page letter to Jackson went a few steps further, demanding documentation of all redevelopment financing plans and "verification" that vouchers promised for displaced public housing families are backed up by federal dollars.
Nagin said that "as a demonstration of good faith," the city would let HUD proceed "without interruption" to demolish Cooper, where razing of several buildings already is under way, and Peete, though he said the city wants written documentation "as soon as possible" of "redevelopment financing plans, executed development contracts" and other documents for those two complexes.
But Nagin said demolition permits won’t be issued for St. Bernard and Lafitte until several other conditions are met, including expansion of the HANO board, "verification of full funding for the Tenant Protection Program," documentation of financing plans and executed development contracts, and promises that at least 75 units at St. Bernard and 94 units at Lafitte will be retained and restored for occupancy within six months.
The Tenant Protection Program will give public housing residents vouchers allowing them to live elsewhere after demolition begins.
Nagin said the conditions should all be satisfied by Feb. 28 at the latest.
Letter demands more
HANO spokesman David Jackson said Friday that it could be a "couple weeks" before wrecking crews are ready to start work at Lafitte and C.J. Peete and that contracts to demolish St. Bernard haven’t been signed.
Demolition began Dec. 13 on a portion of Cooper that already had been approved for elimination before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
HANO plans to demolish 4,500 units of aging, mostly barracks-style public housing, much of it built in the 1940s and poorly maintained over the past several decades, and replace them with a much less dense mixture of market-rate and subsidized apartments and homes for purchase.
"Many residents are distrustful that HUD will not move forward as promised and want assurances that there won’t be delays in redeveloping the demolished complexes," Nagin wrote to Jackson. "Many also are concerned that they will not have a ‘voice’ in the redevelopment processes and ultimately that they will be alienated from the communities that they love."
HANO officials said Thursday that they had agreed to all the conditions outlined by the council in its motion approving the demolitions, but that motion did not set any deadlines or require much of the written documentation Nagin’s letter demands.
Nagin didn’t attend the marathon council meeting Thursday, but shortly after the council’s unanimous vote he held a news conference with its members and commended them, saying they had made the right decision.
Although the council gave HUD its blessing to redevelop the four complexes, the demolition permits must be issued by the Department of Safety and Permits, an arm of the city’s executive branch and thus under the control of the mayor.
HUD spokeswoman Donna White said Friday evening that she hadn’t seen Nagin’s letter and couldn’t comment on his demands.
Council President Arnie Fielkow couldn’t be reached.
A right to return
Nagin’s letter was copied to the full council, the Louisiana congressional delegation, HANO, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. Pelosi had called for a 60-day moratorium on demolitions, and Waters has been a frequent critic of HUD’s plans.
Nagin wrote that as mayor it is his responsibility to uphold "the principle established weeks after the storm that every public housing resident has the right to return to better housing … and that they indeed will have a ‘voice’ in the redevelopment processes."
He asked Jackson to make federal money available to the city to help rebuild 10,000 homes, acquired by the Louisiana Recovery Authority through the state’s Road Home program, that are due to be released to the city in the near future.
HUD had planned to begin widespread demolition of the four complexes Dec. 15, but lawyers representing public housing residents appealed to a state judge to force HUD and HANO to follow a city ordinance requiring the agencies to go before the City Council before demolishing any public housing.