By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
The Housing Authority of New Orleans approved a deal today to demolish 233 empty scattered public housing units moldering since Hurricane Katrina. But while neighbors applauded progress in the battle against blight, questions remain about what HANO will do with its properties once the 99 doomed buildings are cleared.
“These things have been a scourge for a long time,” HANO Administrative Receiver David Gilmore said after the meeting held at HANO’s Gentilly headquarters. “Everyone is happy the demolitions are moving forward but the big issue is yet to come – how to reuse these properties.”
The 99 properties are largely concentrated in the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans, most of them in low-income neighborhoods.
One or two-story with only a few apartments per building, these properties were developed in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a federal policy shift away from the larger public housing developments built earlier. Like traditional public housing, these smaller developments were managed by housing authorities and occupied exclusively by low-income tenants with heavily subsidized rents.
While some of the scattered sites consist of a single building, many span several lots and or entire blocks, making HANO’s next step important to people living nearby.
In eastern New Orleans, for instance, one of the teardown sites covers a five-block swath of America Street between Dwyer Road and Chef Menteur Highway, east of Interstate 10. The conditions in the HANO-managed area bothered neighbors before the storm, said Deborah Gordon, secretary for Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission, a coalition of nonprofits and neighborhood associations representing homeowners in the east. The group opposes multi-family development in the east and is fighting several proposed projects in court.
“If HANO demolishes and then tries to rebuild something similar, or even multi-family at all, there will be opposition,” Gordon said.
Before Katrina, HANO counted 773 scattered site units in its public housing inventory. These days, only 38 of these units are occupied with the remaining awaiting demolition or rehabilitation, HANO records from October show. After demolishing the 233 units to be torn down under the deal approved Tuesday, HANO plans to move forward with a second round of teardowns likely to include about the same amount of units, Gilmore said. He expects the demolitions to begin in the first half of 2011, and around June, plans to have a strategic plan for reuse of the sites complete.
The teardowns come at a time when federal housing policy is again shifting, moving away from low-income housing that is managed by a public agency to a model dependent on Section 8 vouchers used by tenants on the open market, and mixed-income housing operated by a private company on property leased from a housing authority.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, the trend is very much evident with 17,000 tenants using vouchers compared to 1,841 households living in public housing, including the 38 in scattered site developments.
For comparison, before Hurricane Katrina, HANO had 5,100 occupied housing-development units and 8,500 vouchers, for a total of 13,600 units, 6,000 less than the current total.
Gilmore said Tuesday that more outreach to the community and analysis of need must be done before the authority can decide how to best use its vacant land. He said that the redevelopment is just a piece of an agencywide strategic plan that must be complete in 2011 under order of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Everything we do needs to fit into a larger scheme for what this agency is going to be doing in the future in terms of development,” he said. “We have to decide whether we want to be in the scattered-site business. Are we good at it? Do we know how to manage these properties and if this housing authority is going to be providing an increasing amount of affordable housing, is this the best way to do it?”
Gilmore said that there is “no way” HANO won’t be expanding its Section 8 program further.
HUD appointed Gilmore — a well-respected housing bureaucrat from Washington, D.C. — in 2008 as part of a federally enforced reform of the long-troubled agency. He has in recent months focused much energy on streamlining the authority’s voucher program. In the next few months, he plans to unveil an online registration system to make it simpler for voucher users and landlords to find each other, he said.
“We don’t have a sexy name yet, but you wait,” Gilmore said.