Keeping St. Bernard Parish White

Four years after Hurricane Katrina, affordable public housing still isn’t available for many New Orleans residents. How white residents in St. Bernard Parish are keeping blacks out.

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St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans, has the distinction in Louisiana of taking the most direct hit from Hurricane Katrina four years ago this week.

In the slow, painful rebuilding that followed, the parish has gone out of its way to keep low-income, working black families from living there. A federal court ruled twice this year—once in March and again last week—that St. Bernard’s attempts at deciding who could move in and who had to stay out were violations of the Fair Housing Act. According to the ruling, the parish’s ordinances were shown to have both a disparate racial impact and discriminatory intent. They wanted to keep black people from living there. A federal judge described the parish’s efforts as “camouflaged racial expressions.”

The St. Bernard debate has resurrected housing segregation concerns and highlighted the ongoing difficulty of trying to implement and prove the benefits of integration in terms of race and class. One commenter on the New Orleans Times-Picayune Web site recently wrote of the St. Bernard court ruling: “Everybody knows that St. Bernard is a white community. I just don’t understand why African Americans would want to move there.”

In the 2000 census, St. Bernard Parish was listed as being 88.29 percent white and only 7.62 percent black. The direct hit from Hurricane Katrina destroyed virtually all of the houses, buildings and other structures in the parish. Among the destruction was Village Square, a cluster of over 100 buildings inhabited mostly by low-income, African-American renters. Parish officials would like to keep Village Square, or anything that resembles it, from ever being built again.

Since Katrina, many residents and the elected leadership of St. Bernard have fought to exclude development of rental properties and multi-family housing units in the parish. After the storm, Craig Taffaro Jr., president of the St. Bernard Parish Council, introduced a “blood-relative ordinance,” which decreed that only immediate family members of local landowners could rent property there—and only from their relatives. With an 88 percent white population which owned 93 percent of the housing stock before the storm, it was pretty clear at whom that ordinance targeted: black people, particularly those dislocated from their homes, and especially those who lived in the demolished public housing projects.

Add to that the moratorium on multi-family housing development that the parish council imposed right after the storm, and you have a pretty clear policy for racial segregation, affirmed by the recent federal court rulings.

With the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, Provident took the parish to federal court to have the consent order enforced. The court found that the moratorium was a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Since African Americans in this metropolitan area are more likely than whites to be below the average median index for renting properties, the parish’s ordinance proposals unfairly discriminate against African Americans.

With that out of the way, Provident moved forward with its application for the apartment buildings. At first, they enjoyed a “harmonious working relationship” with St. Bernard’s Department of Community Development, according to court records. The department’s officials had recommended final approval for three of the apartment buildings with tentative approval of the fourth, but when it came time for a public hearing, hundreds of residents showed up jeering and heckling the Provident representatives—scenes much like we’ve seen this summer at the health care reform town halls.

When it came time for St. Bernard’s residents to have their say, out came the real reason for the blocking of the affordable housing development. One resident complained that hypothetical new neighbors in low-income units “are going to sit in the yard or on the balcony all day with the music up, screaming at their neighbors, dealing drugs.” Another, after invoking the “polite” black family in their community, said they didn’t want people who are “going to be coming up the street, gang-banging somebody or … kicking the door down every couple of days.” And another resident recalled the days of the Black Panthers, and how “militant” black men would take over apartment buildings, and then firebomb them.

Provident’s applications for affordable housing developments were denied. Meanwhile, members of the parish council were pressuring the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency to reconsider Provident’s low-income housing tax credits that they needed to finance half of the costs of the $60 million project. If Provident didn’t get its buildings placed in service before December 2010, they’d lose the tax credits. The stalling and application denials were putting the project in jeopardy. Believing they were unfairly tried by parish officials and residents who were hostile to the idea that black people were moving in, Provident and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center went back to court.