Monday, October 24, 2005

Evictions the first skirmish in Third Battle of New Orleans

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, Governor-in-waiting Kathleen Blanco's order preventing evictions will expire, allowing landlords to evict tens of thousands of Hurricane survivors, who will have their belongings dumped on the curb.

Late Monday, BizNewOrleans.com reported that Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Kern Reese, Acting on a suit filed by community activist groups, issued a temporary order blocking eviction hearings from taking place at the New Orleans' post-hurricane court headquarters in Gonzales.

These renters--who occupied an estimated by 10,000 and 20,00 units, according to a local landlords group--are disbursed to all across Louisiana, Texas, and states all across the nation, and will not be able to contest their evictions or claim their belongings.

Now, with city officials eager to begin rebuilding, those tenants' belongings are keeping precious apartment space out of the market, landlords said. That's space where imported workers could live.


Many of these workers, are reported here and elsewhere, are imported from across the country and include few Katrina survivors. Many are illegal aliens.

At the same time, many of these tenants have been disbursed to shelters and hotels all over the United States, and have no ready way to return to their homes or claim their belongings. With clean up and reconstruction contracts going to out-of-state companies brining in out of state workers, most have no immediate employment prospects in NOLA {even as fast-food restaurants in town are offering $6,000 signing bonuses).

Some evictions have already begun. A trailer park in Jefferson Parish is threatening to evict residents--who were not flooded out--to make way for higher rents offered by FEMA, while renters without leases are facing evictions with no prospects for affordable housing.

Everyone knows the story of the first Battle of New Orleans. Some consider the melee over the riverfront expressway in the 1960s the second battle of New Orleans, while others have used that term for desegregation.

The third Battle of is going to be over whether the free market will do to the historic character of the city's population. Will it affect what amounts to the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans called for by some leaders of the city, such as RTA Commission Jimmy Riess? Or could it leave to a massive upgrade of the city's housing stock for it's poorest workers?

If the latter is to take place, the housing will need to be affordable. Early indications are that, without some outside interference, it will not be. Mayor Nagin caused a stir when, in the above city T-P interview, he suggested that New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward were liable to be uninhabitable for some time to come due to infrastructure damage.

When asked about setting priorities for reconstruction and demolition, he hinted that the future of the Ninth Ward came down to who precisely would take responsibility for its leveling: the local officials or the Corps of Engineers.

The workers of the owner-occupied homes of the Ninth Ward and the tens of thousands of damaged appartments were a key part of the economic engine of New Orleans. These are the people who make the beds and mix the drinks of the tourists and conventioneers the city has come to depnd so heavily on.

For these people--many of whom earned wages just above the poverty line--there is no place to come home to. Scattered across the country, they have no way to contact their landlords and their landlords have no way to contact them. The only way to get into and repair their flooded apartments is by the eviction process.

Part of that process will mean that whatever they did not carry with them when they fled the city will be lost, their belongings added to the growing middens of Katrina rubble and waste. This seems an unavoidable tragedy.

There is third act to this drama, and it will determine whether the ending is tragic or hopeful for these tens of thousands of the dispossed. When the apartments and shotgun homes they rent are cleaned up and returned to the market, will they will be at rents these workers can afford?

If New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward are off limits for the forseeable future, the demand for housing will be tremendous. Left to it's own devices, markets will soar and the people who make the French Quarter and the Convention Center and the Casino work will have no place to live, and so no way to come back to be a part of the rebuliding of the city.

Some have publicly gloated about his, most notably RTA chair and Nagin protoge' Jimmy Reiss, who suggested that a whiter, less poor New Orleans should be the goal. No one can argue with the second half of that. The first half--the suggestion that poverty and crime are an endemic condition of the black population of New Orleans, as if it were a variant of sickle cell disears--is not a view that should be welcome in the new New Orleans.

Mayor Nagin, in a long interview with the Times-Picayune posted online, said landlords were looking at being able to triple their rents post-Katrina, and called for rent controls.

"That is going to be a firestorm. The landlords are going to go out and evict all these people and they’re not here, and put all their stuff out on the streets. Because the economic pressures are so strong for the land owners, that instead of getting 500 a month rent, they can get 1,500 dollars. If the governor would do anything, I’d like to see some type of rent controls going forward," Nagin said.


Nagain also spoke of Katrina as "a great cleansing", not in the sense Mr. Riess means, but in an opportunity to put aside some of the ways of the past. He was speaking of the poor services and corruption thas has plagued local government. I couldn't agree with him more, and would extend it to the views of those like Mr. Riess.

If the people of New Orleans are going to have the ability to return, the city is going to need action. The malign neglect of the federal government cannot be allowed to continue. Deliberate inaction in provoding immediate housing relief inside the city of New Orleans, in my view, differs from the ethnic cleansing campaigns of tribal Africa or central Europe only by degree of ruthlessness, and not by kind.

Currently, tens of thousands of Katrina survivors are scattered around the country in emergency housing programs that can fairly be considered a failure and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Many were quickly moved into hotels and out of shelters, most likely to ease any unrest as the malign neglect and federal corruption in the rebuilding process. Others have been placed out into apartments, some in areas where the FEMA housing assistance payment doesn't make the rent payment.

These resources need to be spent on immediate housing aid inside the city, so that people can return and begin to take the jobs in reconstruction and in re-opened industries at home in New Orleans. Until the federal government takes action to correct this, one can fairly assume that this is not malign neglect but a deliberate program to try to redistribute people away from the city, in exactly the way Mr. Riess and his co-conspirators outlined in the Wall Street Journal
For information about laws regarding landlords and tenants in Louisiana, the Times-Picayune recommended readers go to www.lawhelp.org/la.

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