|Plans to raze the B.W. Cooper housing development in New Orleans were OK'd in 2003. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)|
NEW ORLEANS - Demolition of three public housing complexes, slated to start this weekend, was halted yesterday amid complaints about the scarcity of housing for the poor after Hurricane Katrina.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is run by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, agreed to postpone the start of demolition pending a hearing Thursday before City Council.
Opponents of the plan to raze the units had filed a lawsuit contending that the council's consent was required by the city charter.
Work crews had been expected to start demolition today under the housing authority's plan to replace about 4,500 federally administered public housing units with mixed-income, mixed-use development. Demolition at a fourth complex, B.W. Cooper, can continue because the City Council approved demolishing 14 buildings there four years ago, lawyers said.
"We knew the law, HANO knew the law, maybe they forgot it," said Tracie Washington, a civil rights lawyer who filed the suit.
Rachel Wisdom, a lawyer hired by the housing authority, said that because the city ordinance was vague the agency agreed that the City Council should take the matter up.
Getting the City Council involved could put HUD's demolition plan in jeopardy. On Nov. 1, the City Council passed a resolution to support a congressional bill that calls for phased redevelopment and one-for-one replacement of public housing units.
By comparison, the HUD plan envisioned quicker redevelopment and a reduction in the number of public housing units.
It is premature to say what HUD would do if the City Council rejected its plan, said Donna White, a department spokeswoman in Washington.
The proposal has sparked lawsuits, congressional legislation, and street demonstrations in a city where housing for the poor has been scarce and homelessness has soared since Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, and more than two years later, the city's public housing residents, most of whom are black, are still scattered throughout the country. Rental prices have risen sharply for private housing that remains in the city.
Advocates for current and former residents of public housing say the redevelopment plan won't make available enough housing to allow the thousands of exiled residents to return.
HUD says about 3,000 families who once lived in New Orleans public housing remain scattered across the country, and social workers say the number of homeless people in the area has doubled to about 12,000.
There is no consensus on what is best for New Orleans's poor, even among public housing residents. Redevelopment would diminish the public housing stock and drive many into less stable voucher programs. Repair of brick and barracks-style projects badly damaged by Katrina would keep intact poor but close-knit neighborhoods.
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson criticized the protesters in an interview aired yesterday om WWL-TV, saying many of them have never lived in public housing.
He said he has spoken to about 400 displaced public housing residents "and almost to a person they want to come back to something better than what they left."