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Inside the Iberville

Op-Ed: One Resident's Relocation Story



With its demolition fast approaching, opinion columnist Annika Mengisen talks to residents of the Iberville Housing Development about eviction and redevelopment.   

 

I met Francine “Frank” Alfred one afternoon about two weeks ago, as she walked with a neighbor down the main tree-lined corridor of the Iberville project. When I asked what her thoughts on the redevelopment process were, a wry grin spread across her face. “You want me to say something bad? Cause that I can do.”

 

Residents of the Iberville are being forced out of the project and told to find new housing because their homes are slated to be demolished as part of the Iberville redevelopment. This forced relocation has been brewing  since 2011, when HANO and the City of New Orleans were granted $30.5 million as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods Initiative.

 

Moving isn’t all bad for Frank, 51, and her older brother and caretaker Toledano Ritch, who are glad to get out of the Iberville after six years of making it their home. “When we first moved here, I called it Vietnam,” says Toledano, recounting how he’d move his mattress onto the floor at night so he wouldn’t get hit by bullets that might fly through his window. It’s gotten better, he says, because the HANO police now patrol there regularly.

 

But what Frank and her brother are livid about is that they feel like an afterthought in the redevelopment process when they were told they’d be first priority.

 

“They didn’t do us right,” says Frank of HANO, as she explains how she was often kept in the dark about much of the process, with shifting deadlines and promises. She explains it all with that same sarcastic smile that says she knows better than to believe the hype.

 

She and her brother were evicted from the Desire project in 1980 for the redevelopment. “They said if ya’ll wanna come back you can,” says Toledano. But when they came back a year later hoping to make good on that promise, someone else was living in their home.

 

“You just try to get through it yourself,” says Frank, who turned down most of the meager help offered by HANO’s “relocation services,” which included one recommendation for a residence on her eviction notice and mass bus rides to different parts of the city to look at housing.

 

What Is the Iberville?

 

The project is the last of the New Deal-era public housing left in New Orleans. It has 840 units that have withstood countless hurricanes; but now, gentrification seems to be its last stand. The 1.4 square mile area where the bulk of the redevelopment is happening is bounded by Iberville, Basin, St. Louis, and N. Roberson streets, across from the St. Louis cemeteries.

 

The project was originally built in the 1940’s over what was the red-light district, Storyville. It has been known since as the cultural epicenter that New Orleans has to thank for many of the cultural gems, such as the roots of jazz, that today keep drawing tourists back to the French Quarter and the CBD. Louis Armstrong himself delivered coal in the Storyville area as a kid.

 

The project was slated for redevelopment when HANO applied for and won a $31 million federal grant, while about $4 billion in government and private investment continues to flow into the surrounding, African-American Treme and Iberville neighborhoods.

 

According to the CNI grant application, what will stand in the Iberville’s place is 913 mixed income housing units with “supportive retail” that will include a 42,000 square foot fresh foods grocery store and 6,000 square feet of retail directly to the east of the Iberville where the former Winn Dixie grocery store and parking lots now lie.

 

Eviction Roulette

 

“We’re not promised the next second,” says Frank, who, for the last few weeks in March was combing frantically through a 37-page list of housing that accepts Section 8 Vouchers for something that, as she put it, “isn’t a shithole.”

 

Two-hundred of the 440 families at the Iberville were asked to sign agreements in January that stated they had until April 5 to move or they would be evicted. The residents who signed were promised Section 8 vouchers, without which they could not even begin to look for new housing. (Section 8 is the federal government’s program for low-income families that pays a subsidy to landlords on behalf of tenants, covering part of their rent.)

 

“They made it sound like we’d be getting vouchers in the next few days,” says Frank. But she and most of her neighbors didn’t end up getting vouchers until February 6. “That gave me just 60 days, not the 90 they promised,” she says. “That pisses me off. They didn’t do us right.”

 

Frank managed to find a house about three weeks ago in the 9th Ward, where she grew up with her brother. But watching neighbors still struggling to find Section8 housing that nearly 200 residents are all vying for at the same time, she considers herself very lucky.

 

“I can put my stuff in storage if I have to, but there are a lot of people who can’t,” she said.

 

By April 1, Frank’s house was packed and ready. It would be another two weeks or so until the new house passed mandatory Section 8 inspections, so her and her brother were planning on staying with family after they got evicted on the 5th. Everyone was expecting mayhem on that day, she tells me, with some people who hadn’t found housing braced for a stand-down with the eviction crews.

 

Then, on April 1, a woman from HANO who Frank knows as Miss Dee grabbed Frank as she was on her way to run an errand on Canal Street. “Sign this paper, she told me,” Frank says. “It said we have 30 more days to move out.” And suddenly, 3 more days turned into 30.

 

“They (HANO representatives) were giving these notices to everyone on Monday,” Frank tells me. She was relieved for people who needed more time, but frustrated because, once again, they were kept in the dark until the last minute. “It’s always like this with them,” she says. “We never know what’s going on.”

 

If they had known they have 30 more days, says Frank, she would have waited until this week to pack. “I’m not unpacking, so we’ll have to live out of boxes,” she says.

 

I called HANO on April 4 and asked their public relations officer Lesley Thomas  if they had planned on  evicting people the next day. She averted the question by saying only they were doing a “gradual” relocation of residents. I don’t think they’ve established a date for that yet,” she said. But she was curious to know whether I had spoken to any residents.

 

When I told Frank about the phone call, she laughed and handed me her copy of the original eviction notice. It said April 5, in bold letters.

 

In a follow-up email 5 days later, Ms. Thomas conceded that residents had  been given a 90-day “relocation notice” which expired on April 5, but made no mention of the new relocation notice Frank had just signed. She did, however, say that as of April 5, only 25 of the 200 families had been physically relocated.

 

The new HANO eviction notice Frank showed me put something else in bold: If residents are not out by May 1, “HANO will have to begin eviction proceedings in court to remove you.”

 

Ya’ll Don’t Come Back Now

 

HANO and HUD’s public relations people have emphasized that this redevelopment process is different than the other project redevelopments since Katrina, which were rife with criticism for tearing up communities and replacing them with mixed-income housing that, despite promises to the contrary, makes it virtually impossible for most residents to return.

 

What project residents like Frank know all to well says Bill Quigley, law professor and Director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University, is that “residents always get the short end of the stick.”

 

Despite adamant promises from HANO that all residents will be given the opportunity to return, Frank and her brother ruled that out as a possibility from the minute they got word of the planned redevelopment.  And they’re likely correct.

 

After all, the man chosen for the redevelopment, Pres Kabacoff, is the same whose company, Historic Restorations Inc (HRI) has been criticized as responsible for the biggest what some call the devastation of the St. Thomas project redevelopment and its conversion in to “River Gardens” pre-Katrina. The former residents of the St. Thomas, like residents of the post-Katrina “big four” redevelopment of the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, and Lafitte  projects, were delayed in returning by the thousands. Due to less units for lower-income families in the new developments, many former residents were sprawled out  into cheap ghetto retail housing all over the city and the suburbs.

 

“They always promise the poor people will either be able to come back or will be provided better housing,” says Quigley. “In reality, as has been demonstrated in the Big Four … they push all the poor people out and then allow about 10 percent to return.”

 

Frank and her brother believed the right of return promises once, when they left the Desire project, but they won’t be fooled a second time. “We just got new curtains and new everything for the new house,” says Toledano. They know the Iberville will never be home again.

 

This attitude is perfect for developers, who want the former residents to stay away, according to Bill Quigley.

 

“Developers use public funds to displace poor people and to make profits creating housing for middle income people,” he says. “Everyone talks about improving housing stock, etc., but 90% of the working moms and grandmothers and the disabled who have lived in Iberville will never get back.”

 

Quigley says that developers he’s spoken to have told him there is no money in repairing and renovating. Developers want to start anew and replace the low-income project housing, because mixed-income draws investment. To illustrate, he pointed me to a press release on Goldman Sachs’ website about the group’s investment in the rebuilding of the C.J. Peete Apartments. “We recognize the potential new capital can play in overlooked and underdeveloped sections of urban America,” says Lloyd C. Blankfein, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Goldman Sachs, emphasizing that the C.J. Peete project is “a compelling opportunity to invest” for an “economic return.”

 

The CNI grant application states that the project is being rebuilt into a “mixed-unit” campus with a third of the units going at market rates.

 

Kabacoff was also sharply criticized for his “big box” approach to the St Thomas redevelopment when he built a 200,000 square foot Wal-Mart Supercenter on the former St. Thomas project site. The Wal-Mart may have brought a handful of low-paying jobs to its employees, but those few jobs came at the cost of scattering the former St. Thomas residents throughout new Orleans neighborhoods and suburbs; hardly the urban transformation Kabacoff promised. Though no retailer contracts have yet been named, the grant proposals are marching forth the same Kabacoff-esque rhetoric about big box retail creating jobs and revitalizing the area.

 

The grant proposal’s reference to a “fresh foods grocery store” is cryptic, but could likely be referencing the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, which provides financing to “supermarkets, grocery stores, and other fresh food retailers” to, among other goals, provide “quality employment opportunities” and serve as a “catalyst for neighborhood revitalization.” This sort of lofty language leaves the possibilities open for anything from another Wal-Mart to a Whole Foods.

 

From Communities to Confrontation

 

Sitting at the kitchen table of Frank’s Iberville apartment while she packed, I watched as she regulated an argument that broke out between three teenage girls squabbling in the next room. She and her brother unofficially adopted one of them, Melody Lewis, 19, after she was kicked out of her house by her parents for staying out late one night. “Her parents are really old-school. She’s a really good girl,” says Toledano of Melody, who studies psychology at Delgado Community College.

 

Frank lets her brother’s daughter and their friends from the neighborhood hang out at her house because she doesn’t have to worry about them when they’re with her. But when they’re walking around on the street, there are no guarantees.

 

It might be worse when she and 440 other families has to move, she tells me, because you have people who come from different parts of the city suddenly living next to each other. “If someone’s brother gets killed in the 7th ward, they’ve got beef with everyone from the 7th ward,” she explains.

 

People claiming crime is coming from a specific housing project is a gross exaggeration, she says, because real issues happen when you mix people and force confrontations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

 

Quigley is unconvinced that crime reduction is even a consideration for developers, who, he says, “do not seem any more interested in reducing crime than any other entity which seeks to make money off the backs of poor people.”

 

Just Happy to Be Done

 

I went to see Frank last Tuesday. She was out picking up the U-Haul while an almost jubilant Toledano finished packing. Most of their larger furniture is too big to fit down the hallway stairs, he explains, so they are planning on lifting it all over the second-floor balcony and onto the roof of the U-Haul. “We’ll get it all, don’t worry about that,” he says, grinning.

 

It’s weird to be moving from a place he’s lived in for six years, he says, but he’s just glad they managed to come out on the other side with a place to live. “We’ll be living in a real house again!”

 

The uncertainty and mixed information of the last few months have been a lot to deal with, he says of his second eviction from a project due to redevelopment. But this time, he says, “We already know we’re not coming back.”

 

Occassional NoDef Columnist Annika Mengisen lives in New Orleans. She previously edited The New York Times' Freakonomics blog, and served as small business editor and staff writer at TheStreet.com.

 

Opinions contained in this column belong to Annika Mengisen alone, and do not represent the views of the NOLA Defender Editorial Board.

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