Sunday, June 04, 2006

Angry New Orleanians start public housing cleanup

Angry New Orleanians start public housing cleanup
By Peter Henderson

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Angry New Orleans public-housing residents on Saturday took charge of the recovery and cleanup of homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina and vandals, blaming the government for failing to act.

Acting without the approval of housing authorities, some residents took their first look at their homes since fleeing Katrina nine months ago. Many found criminals had done as much damage as the storm.

At three-year-old pastel-colored townhouses where families fled flooding by jumping from upper-story windows into boats, and at older brick units left last year by parents and children wading a mile to evacuation buses, residents and helpers began pitching lifetimes of memories into the trash.

Federal housing authorities who manage New Orleans units say 64 percent of the city's public housing base has mold and must be inspected. Former tenants are offered vouchers to pay rent elsewhere temporarily.

But many residents said have they found it difficult to find decent places to stay in the torn-up city.

Moreover, they say the time since Hurricane Katrina hit last August 29, flooding about 80 percent of the city, is more than enough for inspection and cleanup to have started.

Silvia James, 37, walked into a three-bedroom apartment she last saw when she and one of her sons waded away. Water had reached part way up the steps of the CJ Peete complex, and the storm damaged the roof and blew in some windows.

The exterior of the James apartment was generally intact, but inside furniture was strewn all about, and a television and bedroom set were gone. Other residents said thieves had stolen the complex's copper plumbing pipes.

"We could have been back here in October or November," James said, blaming the delay for the thefts. "People taken the little valuables we do have," she said. "I'm not willing to wait no more."


Residents of other complexes which were flooded said upper floors could be inhabited and lower floors could be gutted and fixed, just as private homeowners are doing.

Housing police watched the activity at the Peete complex and others without interfering. Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman Donna White said by phone that residents were being allowed to go into units but not to stay. She added that the agency was committed to letting residents return when it was safe and had set up the voucher program for the mean time.

The agency has set aside $154 million for rebuilding public housing in the city. About 5,000 families had lived in New Orleans units before Katrina and about 1,000 have returned.

Louisiana State University real estate professor Kelley Pace said that sum should be enough to do at least half, and potentially all, the rebuilding. Major complexes could not be just "thrown up," he added, but also pointed out the housing shortage was most acute at the low end.

Some residents say they feel they are being kept out by officials who want to build more expensive housing or by those who blame public housing for crime. With about half the population before the storm, the city has seen 44 murders so far this year, versus 109 last year, police say, but many residents have a growing sense of increasing crime.

Organizer and complex manager Cynthia Wiggins said the situation proved her groups were not to blame. "Public housing is closed. Last week we had five murders. The drug dealers lived in other parts," she said.

But the housing problem is going to get worse, with families returning to New Orleans now that school has ended.

"We are not going to sit on the sidelines," she said.