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Public Housing Coming Down In New Orleans

In a city with a rising homeless population, where two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita many residents are still without a roof over their heads, and where many admit there is a crisis in the availability of affordable housing, the government is knocking down houses.

It is not as simple a matter as bureaucratic bungling or poor timing, although heated comments by people on both sides of the issue reveal how raw emotions can get when bulldozers take down buildings which could be renovated to house some of the city's 12,000 homeless.

The nexus of protests this week is the B.W. Cooper public housing units, 14 buildings which had been ordered demolished two years ago, before the storm.

The demolition is part of a $750 million plan by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to tear down about 4,500 public housing units at four of the city's largest complexes and replace them with mixed-income neighborhoods.

Two thousand of the Cooper housing units have been occupied since Katrina. But those residents now ask where they will go.

Activists say the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) acted rashly to move forward with the destruction, without allowing public housing residents the option to renovate these buildings to provide new housing.

Members of HANO and some Cooper residents said the demolition was part of a plan that had been in place since before Katrina and was not the demolition that was approved after the storm.

The decision to knock down additional complexes has consistently met with protests.

"The units that are being demolished at B.W. Cooper, which is a resident-managed site, are a part of the demolition of 14 buildings that were scheduled to be eliminated before Hurricane Katrina," said Donald Jackson of HANO. "HANO approved the demolition on July 2005 to de-densify this site. Both the residents and management of B.W. Cooper were included in this process."

Demolition at both the B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete housing complexes was approved earlier this week. The city council is widely expected to give the go-ahead to demolishing one or two other complexes as well.

But passions are high in New Orleans, where homelessness has almost doubled since hurricanes ravaged the city, and citizens are desperate for affordable housing.

Opponents are suspicious of HUD because the redevelopment plans - following a model used around the country to break up concentrations of poverty - call for a reduction in subsidized housing and allow commercial development on the sites.

There is also distrust about who ultimately benefits from rebuilding, following the St. Thomas redevelopment. After that complex was torn down in 2001, fewer low-income housing units were built, and land was sold off for a Wal-Mart superstore. More than 800 families were displaced.

Tessua Faulk, a 31-year-old teacher, grew up in the St. Thomas development, and saw some of her old neighbors left homeless from its development.

"They were too slick about the whole process, the so-called 'rebuilding,'" Faulk said as she watched the protesters chant "Housing is a human right!" and stare down demolition crews at B.W. Cooper. "It needs to be a two-way street: Residents need to be involved from the beginning, every step of the way," she said.

In a statement released Wednesday evening, Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) said the he and several colleagues had called for HUD to halt all public housing demolition in the city.

Jefferson said he supports redevelopment of public housing, but wants HUD to find a place to house these residents while such redevelopment takes place.

"It is imperative that a solution to housing public housing residents be determined before demolition begins," Jefferson said. "...Without a plan that allows for complete replacement housing, HUD has completely disregarded the rights of rent-paying residents."

HANO, which is run by federal housing officials, has argued that many residents of subsidized housing favor demolishing old and crime-plagued public housing complexes so they can be replaced by new homes for the poor.

The legal fight began in June 2006 when a lawsuit was filed to force officials to reopen thousands of units closed after Katrina and guarantee former residents get affordable housing in the city.

In court documents filed last week, HANO said a poll found that 70 percent of former residents at one development liked the agency's plans. HANO added that some of the very people named as plaintiffs in the 2006 lawsuit now support the agency's efforts.

"I think it's a good thing to consider tearing down those complexes. They are no longer livable for anyone," one resident says in an affidavit, according to court documents.

The agency also contends many residents displaced by Katrina are unwilling to return to New Orleans because they have found better places to live.

Protesters have marched on Mayor Ray Nagin's home and disrupted City Council proceedings with chants. A march on the HUD offices in Washington, D.C., also was planned for Thursday.

On Wednesday, about 50 protesters temporarily halted crews from demolishing buildings at the B.W. Cooper site. CBS Affiliate WWL noted that license plates indicated that some protesters had come from Ohio, Kentucky and Massachusetts.

Norman Taylor, a community liaison for B.W. Cooper, argued that the protestors were not only interested in the well-being of tenants: "All these outside people coming here, protesting the demolition of public housing, are here because they don't want people in public housing living in their neighborhoods," he said.

Protestors vowed to continue disrupting work there and at other sites around the city.

Law professor Bill Quigley is one of the attorneys representing 4,000 people displaced from public housing after Katrina. He is leading a federal civil rights lawsuit against HUD and HANO.

"We've got people being kicked out of FEMA trailers all across the Guld Coast, we've tens of thousands of home owners who haven't gotten their Road Home [a Louisiana housing recovery fund] money yet, and so there's a big affordable housing crisis," he told WWL correspondent Susan Edwards.

"In a housing crisis, you shouldn't be tearing housing down."

Still, there are Cooper residents who approve of the demolition, if only to see new housing rise up in its place.

"We need a change for a new generation coming up," Joyce DiBartalo told Edwards. "I'm for it."

Others shouted down protestors, pointing out that the Cooper buildings were scheduled to be torn down two years ago, and any delay will only further delay the construction of more housing.

One activist could not understand the passion of those who support the demolition.

"It's unfathomable that they would say that they don't need housing when you have people sleeping in tents, sleeping under the bridges, sleeping in abandoned houses, wherever, on the street, on the curb, in front of businesses in the warehouse district, it's fully unconscionable," Roderick Dean told WWL correspondent Jill Hezeau.

Still others believed the protestors' cries for help would fall on deaf ears.

"They're not hearing us - they're rich," Rebecca Glover-Brown said.

The protesters have won the blessing of one presidential contender, John Edwards.

"There is a housing crisis in New Orleans today - the result of government policies that have failed the people of the Gulf," Edwards said in a statement this week. "Rents have doubled, families are being evicted from FEMA trailers and now the current administration is trying to make a bad situation worse."

Many more demolitions are slated to begin after Saturday.

Tests On FEMA Trailers To Begin After Months-Long Delay

Meanwhile, air-quality tests on government-issued trailers housing thousands of hurricane victims were to begin by next week, nearly two months after the Federal Emergency Management Agency postponed them.

On Nov. 2, CDC scientists were scheduled to start testing FEMA trailers in Mississippi for levels of formaldehyde, a common preservative and embalming fluid found in building materials for manufactured homes.

FEMA postponed the tests, however, saying the agency needed more time to prepare.

Harvey Johnson, FEMA's deputy administrator, disclosed the agency's latest plans for the tests during a hearing Wednesday in Washington before the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Senators pressed Johnson to explain the delays in testing 500 occupied trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana, where tens of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

"It's taken a long time in part because we have not had this problem before," Johnson said. "This is the first time we've had people be in travel trailers for this length of time - up to two years - in which case some of these symptoms and the impacts on health have become more apparent."

Officials from FEMA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were expected to outline the new testing plans Thursday at news conferences in New Orleans and Washington.

Many trailer occupants are blaming ailments on formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau and Michael Kunzelman contributed to this report.