Plan to Drive Working-Class Blacks out of New Orleans Preceded Katrina

by Randy Shaw on September 20, 2012

The story of black displacement from New Orleans typically describes a post-Katrina conspiracy of white conservative elites and ambitious black politicians to change the city’s economic, political and social character. Low-income African-Americans displaced by the flood were denied financing for home repairs, and their public housing was demolished. But as John Arena demonstrates in his passionate new book, Driven From New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization, this displacement strategy was conceived, and implementation began, in the late 1980’s, well before Hurricane Katrina. This strategy was backed not only by white Republicans, but also by the city’s African-American business and Democratic Party political leadership. Arena sees black elected officials, nonprofit organizations, and foundations as complicit in black displacement from public housing and the demolition of their homes. While many will challenge his attacks on prominent social change activists and nonprofit groups, his conclusion is beyond dispute: destroying New Orleans’ largest source of low-cost family housing was entirely unnecessary and profoundly immoral.

After spending years as a New Orleans activist fighting to save public housing, John Arena has written a book addressing some of the truly major policy and strategy issues involved in these struggles. He also aspires to, from his perspective, set the historical record straight. Arena chronicles the city’s efforts to displace low-income African- Americans nearly two decades prior to Hurricane Katrina. He castigates nonprofit groups, activists and community organizations for acting as “wolves in sheeps’ clothing, as the Trojan horse of neoliberalism.” Arena does not simply criticize the “nonprofit foundation complex” for not doing enough to save public housing in New Orleans, but argues they “played a central role in advancing” the displacement and privatization agenda.

The Failure of HOPE V1

Arena does as good a job as I have ever read detailing the political disaster known as Hope V1. HOPE V1 was embraced by Democrats as well as Republicans, and was among the key housing programs of the Clinton Administration.

The premise of HOPE V1 was that public housing “projects” had become so rundown and crime infested that they needed to be demolished and replaced with new housing. The infamous high rises like Cabrini Green or the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago symbolized where public housing had allegedly gone wrong, and even though progressives in the 1940’s and 50’s opposed high-rise public housing projects, by the 1970’s these structures became tarred as symptomatic of the larger “liberal” failure.

If HOPE V1 had replaced demolished units on a one for one basis, it would have been a great program (San Francisco may be the only major city where one for one replacement was sought and achieved). But as Arena describes in New Orleans, HOPE V1 was never about improving living conditions for the urban poor. To the contrary, the program was designed to facilitate gentrification by displacing low-income residents from areas that were seen as obstacles to such plans.

In the two struggles to stop public housing demolitions Arena describes in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, there is not even the pretense of plans for one for one replacement. How then did demolition backers get tenants to agree to their own evictions? Arena blames nonprofit groups aligned with developers and African-American politicians for helping convince tenants that there was no alternative to demolition, and that rather than fight they should work out the best relocation deal.

I found this section of the book extremely powerful, and flat out infuriating. Arena lays out the facts behind this manipulation and selling out of tenants, and it is a very depressing story.

While Arena relentlessly attacks nonprofits working with New Orleans tenants for accepting HOPE V1 with little complaint, the leading national nonprofit housing groups of the time opposed HOPE V1. And while he makes a convincing case that these New Orleans nonprofits did not well serve tenants interests in the New Orleans Hope V1 struggle, he overestimates the nonprofit sector’s ability to stop the program.

Post-Katrina Demolitions

I found the book strongest in its brilliant dissection of the pre-Katrina efforts to destroy public housing via HOPE V1. His discussion of the failed post-Katrina preservation struggles involves a much wider cast of activists, nonprofit groups and foundations, and is less successful. Arena is so angry at their collective inability to stop the massive elimination of low-cost housing for African-Americans that he sidesteps his own conclusion that the political drive for demolition coming from the White House, the Governor’s office, the Mayor and the New Orleans City Council made efforts to stop demolitions nearly impossible.

In his desire to blame local activists for what he recognizes was a very uphill fight to save public housing, Arena claims that “identity politics ideology and a political practice centered on difference undermined building a broad working-class rooted challenge to neoliberalism.” While some of his critique centers on those doubting the ability of he and other whites to “represent” the interests of low-income African-Americans, it also assumes that a “working-class” movement against public housing demolitions could have been built. The New Orleans black working class outside public housing had their own problems after Katrina, and along with their organizations should not be faulted for not joining the public housing campaign.

For example, Arena criticizes ACORN for “studiously avoiding any contact with the anti-demolition movement” and attributes this to the organization receiving funding from HUD. But Louisiana ACORN was overwhelmed with problems caused by Katrina, and the overwhelming number of their members did not live in public housing. ACORN understandably focused on its members concerns, while also promoting opposition to demolition. Arena’s frustration that a powerful player in New Orleans such as ACORN was not dropping everything to focus on public housing is understandable, but is an unfairly harsh criticism of the group.

It’s unfortunate that Arena so sharply disparages the efforts of so many groups and individuals trying to address the dysfunction of post-Katrina New Orleans, because it could turn off readers who would benefit from careful consideration of his larger arguments.

Yes, many nonprofit groups do stifle activist dissent and undermine the power of poor people to get results through disruption and protest. True, many foundations only fund “responsible” groups unwilling to engage in the “by all means necessary” approach more likely to bring success. And Arena is right to de-racialize the New Orleans narrative, properly assigning fault to the city’s African-American political leadership.

Yet a more nuanced discussion of all of these areas would have been helpful, and potentially strengthened his arguments.

This is a book that those familiar with New Orleans should read and then argue about. It is perfect for college courses where students can debate the larger themes Arena brings to the New Orleans tragedy. And while many will disagree with some of Arena’s arguments, one finishes the book even angrier that the mass demolition of low-income housing in New Orleans was allowed to occur.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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