Revolution#112, December 16, 2007

Abandoned, then Bulldozed: The System's Plan for Public Housing in New Orleans

In late October, the U.S. government, through HUD, gave the go-ahead to demolish four of the largest public housing projects in New Orleans. On November 15, a federal judge refused to block the demolitions—clearing the way for the demolition of the BW Cooper, CJ Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard developments.

These projects aren’t just structures. These were people’s communities—where thousands of people grew up, met, fell in love and raised families. These buildings suffered less damage than other housing in the floods because of their solid brick construction and could house 4,700 families. But the government plans to demolish them and build “mixed income” housing that will include less than 750 units for people with low incomes.

Much of the Black population of this city has been dispersed throughout the country since Katrina. By March 2007, it was estimated that 200,000 former residents had still not returned to New Orleans and that more than 150,000 of them are Black. The demolition of public housing is yet another way the government is discouraging and preventing people from coming back to New Orleans. In effect the message is: “You’ll never be able to come back home because there will be nowhere you can live.”

The number of homeless people in New Orleans is double what it was before Katrina. Lafitte, which could house almost 900 families but is now almost empty, sits across the street from a homeless encampment where dozens of people live under a freeway overpass. 

New Orleans desperately needs affordable housing. Yet the authorities are determined to destroy thousands of housing units that could be made suitable for people to live in. Where’s the logic in this?

To anyone concerned about the needs of the people, this is insane. But the people who run this system operate based on a cold capitalist logic. For them what matters is keeping their system in effect and as lean and mean a profit-making machine as possible. To do this, they will demolish public housing, no matter how this impacts people’s lives. For this system, a disaster that killed 1,800 people and forced 200,000 out of the city is an opportunity to rebuild a New Orleans that’s smaller and whiter and rid of those the system has no need for.

What’s Behind the Drive to Demolish?

There’s been a nationwide assault on public housing for more than a decade that reflects the changing needs of U.S. imperialism. Many of the projects in the U.S. were built after World War 2 to house Black people who were being drawn into the cities in large numbers to work in factories. These projects were a way to enforce racial segregation. In New Orleans, three of the seven projects built in this period were reserved for whites, while the others housed Black people. By the 1960s the racial composition of the projects had shifted, and the overwhelming majority of residents were Black.

In the 1970s, as part of striving to remain competitive with their imperialist rivals, U.S. corporations began to move factories from the inner cities to the suburbs and to other countries. At the same time, immigrants from Mexico and other countries began to be hired for many of the jobs on the bottom of the work force that used to be filled by Black people.

Several factors drove these developments. Many immigrants can be forced to work for super low wages and in miserable conditions because they lack legal status. At the same time, long experience with brutal oppression, and the struggle against that oppression, has led many Black people to develop an attitude of both defiance and unwillingness to take shit jobs. This is a very positive quality to anybody who wants to change the world—but it’s considered dangerous by the ruling class.

The result of all this is large numbers of Black people have been pushed out of the work force. Jobs and opportunity have been sucked out of the ghettos. And residential segregation means the places Black people live have become concentrations of poverty. So the very operations of the system have created a situation where the capitalists face the “problem” of millions of Black people they can no longer profitably exploit.

From the point of view of this system, the masses of Black people have become so much surplus population—in the way and potentially explosive. When Katrina hit, in places where many Blacks lived, like the Lower 9th Ward and Central City, half of all working age people were not in the work force! A key part of the way the system has been dealing with this is the warehousing of Black people in prison. Between 1984 and 2004, the number of Black people in jail in the U.S. skyrocketed from 98,00 to 910,000!  

(For a full discussion of this, see Crime and Punishment … & Capitalism, Revolution # 106.)

This was the context in which government plans to demolish housing projects have been developed. Between 1996 and 2002, 80,000 units of public housing were demolished nationwide. In New Orleans, the number of public housing units was reduced from 14,000 in 1988 to 6,000 in 2005. The Desire housing development was demolished in the 1990s, and St. Thomas was demolished in 2001. Fisher was partly demolished before Hurricane Katrina. The mixed income developments that replaced these projects have 75%‑90% fewer low income housing units!

The authorities seized on Hurricane Katrina to empty the projects. Everyone who came to the emergency shelters was taken out of the city. Some people who lived in the projects stayed in their homes during Katrina because they knew the projects usually suffered less damage during storms. People who didn’t live in the projects even came there to ride out the storm.

On September 6, 2005, the city issued an order authorizing law enforcement to forcibly remove people from their homes. People who refused to leave were taken from their homes and forced to leave the city. And people weren’t allowed to return to the projects. The city put a barb-wire fence around the St. Bernard project and part of BW Cooper. They put metal enclosures over the doors and windows in Lafitte. They also shut down CJ Peete and partially fenced it in, even though it had suffered NO flood damage.

The authorities consider the replacement of St. Thomas with the mixed income River Gardens development a success story which they promise to repeat with these demolitions.  St. Thomas had 1,500 units of low income housing. River Gardens has only 150 such units. Now, two years after Katrina, less than 100 former residents of St. Thomas have gotten into River Gardens. Others who applied to move back in were told they didn’t make enough money. As far as the ruling class is concerned, these people can just go somewhere and die!

The Need for Resistance

The authorities plan to begin the demolitions before the end of the year. Court cases, congressional legislation, appeals to reasonall that is being shoved aside or bottled up. If these demolitions aren’t met with determined resistance, the rulers will get away with cleansing New Orleans of much of its Black population. What’s needed now is massive resistance.

Demolishing the projects won’t provide people with decent housing. It will mean that thousands more poor people will have nowhere to live. It will mean that many of those currently exiled from New Orleans will remain unable to return. These demolitions must be stopped. But the goal in this fight isn’t to get back to how the projects used to be. Capitalism has made the projects places where poor Black people live in miserable conditions with little hope for the future.

The total inability of this system to provide people with decent housing is yet another sharp example of why we need a whole new society where power is in the hands of the people and is wielded in their interests. And we need a revolution to make this possible.

If the authorities are allowed to get away with this, people’s communities will be reduced to piles of rubble. And the killing program the rulers are enforcing on Black people will escalate.

But if people build a powerful political struggle against this attack. If the justice of fighting these demolitions is brought out to different kinds of people throughout society and many of them join the fight. If protest and resistance forces the system to stop their bulldozers. This can create a whole new ballgame. The people must derail the rulers’ plans to drive out much of the Black population of New Orleans and such resistance needs to become part of a growing revolutionary movement.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond