Massive Bywater public housing proposal would be a big step backwards

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Nearly a block in size, the 138-unit complex would be a throwback to massive HANO public housing projects of yore.

Like most attractive cities, New Orleans badly needs affordable housing. It needs affordable housing that will enable residents — newcomers and old-timers alike, regardless of income level — to interact easily and amicably. This calls for a scale and density that integrates public housing with the broader neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) is proposing just the opposite.  It wants to build a single massive housing fortress at Chartres and Mazant streets in Bywater, a design that will isolate low-income residents from the neighborhood and perpetuate the very pathologies that have led the federal government to tear down massive housing projects across the country, including the big New Orleans complexes that went up, starting in the 1930s, and came down after Hurricane Katrina.

I write as a neighbor of the proposed mega-structure. I strongly support affordable housing. Translating words into action, I worked closely with James Pate and his team at Habitat for Humanity to come up with a plan that would easily integrate residents of the new housing with the neighborhood and vice versa. But HANO rejected this, and turned over both design and construction to the for-profit Houston firm, ITEX.

To its credit, ITEX initially proposed a low-density plan involving only 56 units.  But then HANO and ITEX shifted ground and came up with the current proposal, which calls for a whopping 138 units, of which only 60 percent would qualify as “affordable.” Whatever the income mix, the numbers would make the massive structure proposed on Chartres Street the densest HANO development built in New Orleans since Katrina.  In fact, at other sites, the density has been reduced.

In following this course, HANO appears to have opted for an arrangement that maximizes HANO’s own income, regardless of the human costs. Whatever its motives, HANO’s posture is dramatically out of step with thinking on affordable housing nationally.  Instead of massive blocks of affordable apartments, cities everywhere are opting for public housing that matches both the scale and density of surrounding neighborhoods. While most of the country strongly favors “right-scaled” public housing that enables residents to interact easily with neighbors, HANO is stuck in pre-Katrina thinking.

Those who will suffer most from the ITEX plan will be the low-income residents of the four-story behemoth.  Encompassing almost an entire city block, the 133,000 square foot structure would loom over the surrounding owner-inhabited single- and double-shotgun houses.  Built flush with the sidewalk and with little green space, the large block will discourage interaction among residents.

On the grounds that any public housing is better than no public housing, the City Council will be asked on Thursday to approve this project. Those who question the viability of the ITEX scheme have been publicly attacked as racists. But the matter will not end there, since FEMA has demanded a Section 106 review of the project, a requirement yet to be met. And then the financing must be approved. In other words, the process is far from complete, so the Council vote and all the hoopla is premature.

Architect renderings offered by ITEX provide a street-level look at the apartment building as currently conceptualized.

When I bought my home in the lower part of Bywater a generation ago, the neighborhood was a local model of diversity, in race, religion, sexual orientation, professions, and income levels. My next-door neighbor, Marie Yang, had come from the countryside and raised two children in a shotgun, which her husband hauled in on a truck. Across the street was Minuet Pinot, a dedicated and ebullient African-American woman who was also raising two children and working a full-time job. They both knew everyone in the neighborhood and could often be seen conferring in the middle of the street. Together, these women constituted a kind of neighborhood watch program, and successfully drove drug dealers from our corner of Bywater.

What kind of human relations will HANO’s behemoth project foster?  If residents of the area thought it would lead to the kind of neighborly relations we enjoyed a generation ago, even amid poverty and crime, they’d be all for it. Based on their experience, however, they fear that HANO’s megastructure will turn out to be an isolating ghetto.

It is not too late to rethink this. HANO’s head, Gregg Fortner, who conceived this latest iteration of the project and brought ITEX into the game, is leaving at the end of July. Why not put the project on hold until his successor is in place, and until FEMA has completed its review?

The City Council should then set up a commission of local citizens and local housing experts to propose a path forward. Give the commission no more than two months to work and then have City Council members review its recommendations.

Guidelines to the commission must be firm. First, a new plan should have up to 100 percent subsidized and accessible housing, an increase over the present proposal. The affordable housing should be very long term.  And, the project must blend with the surrounding neighborhood in both scale and density.  This approach could actually increase the number of subsidized and affordable units while enabling residents of the new development to interact amicably with their neighbors.

To claim that the current HANO project is the only or best way forward is to accept responsibility for the social dysfunction to which it will likely give rise over the coming decades. Do we really need to relive the experience of Iberville, Lafitte, and St. Thomas, etc., or can New Orleanians of all backgrounds choose a better way to provide livable and affordable housing?

Frederick Starr is a New Orleans resident with a portfolio of interests that range from jazz to government service as an expert on Russia and Eurasian affairs. His numerous books about New Orleans history and culture include “Une Belle Maison,” about restoring the Lombard House, his Bywater home.  A former Tulane provost and president of Oberlin College, he is  co-founder and clarinetist with the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, which has issued numerous recordings, toured internationally, and performed at Jazz Fest annually since 1982.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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