6 Steps to Save New Orleans

President Obama visits New Orleans 47 days late and a few million dollars short. What he can do to make it up to the Gulf Coast.

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President Obama's visit to New Orleans Thursday was 47 days late and a few hundred million dollars short. His presence was expected on Aug. 29, 2009, the fourth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravishing the Gulf Coast with wind and floods. The post-Katrina recovery has had a number of false starts, hiccups and clog-ups. The people of New Orleans and the greater Gulf Coast needed only to see and hear from their president that real change was coming and their lives would soon be improving.

But until Thursday, they've not seen him, except on television. It is true that President Obama has sent Cabinet members on multiple trips to New Orleans—"more Cabinet members to this region than anywhere else in the country," he said. Cabinet members, as influential as are, have limited power, though. As the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency president Milton Bailey told The Root after sitting front-row for Obama's town hall speech, "I hear him saying he's making movements, but I don't see that movement manifesting in a real way on the ground." His town hall speech at the University of New Orleans was disappointing. He spoke vaguely about broad issues, before quickly being whisked off to a fundraiser in San Francisco. It was as if he was speed-dating, and New Orleans got swiftly "next'd."

Here are six concrete actions Obama could have either acted upon or spoken into power that would help bring relief to New Orleans' communities in an immediate and meaningful way:

1. Push for urgent resolution of the Charity Hospital deadlock.

Charity Hospital served the poor and uninsured of New Orleans for hundreds of years, but was closed after damage from Katrina floods. Louisiana State University and state elected officials have used this as an opportunity to pursue plans for a new medical facility that will cost billions, and will decimate 25 city blocks of residencies and businesses—much of that for parking lot space. The original Charity Hospital building can be rehabbed and retrofitted for a new state-of-the-art facility, and for a lot less money. But while state officials fight over whether to rebuild the old, or start from scratch, an endorsement from Obama one way or the other would have gone a long way, along with a commitment of federal funds to bridge any financing gaps needed to bring the Charity system back.

2. Tell Treasury to include Gulf Opportunity Zone Tax Credits in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes a cash exchange program for low-income housing tax credits issued to developers. Some housing construction plans were halted during the financial crisis when developers couldn't find investors to buy tax credits, which were declining in value. The ARRA exchange alleviated that problem. But Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner decided earlier this year that he would make all low-income housing tax credits eligible for this provision except for Gulf Opportunity Zone tax credits. This means that thousands of units planned for low-income families will have to wait. Obama could at the very least have stated that he'd urge Geithner to reconsider his decision, or, at best, announce a reversal.

3. Declare that any community development block grant funds already purposed for housing cannot be re-purposed, especially if housing needs have not been met.

Right now, there are millions in Louisiana community development block grants that are dedicated to creating multi-family rentals. But they're bottlenecked at the state level because  Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy and State Bond Commissioner Jim Tucker would like to see those funds re-purposed to other projects (like infrastructure). But there are thousands of families throughout the state still waiting to get into a home. A similar situation played out in Mississippi when Gov. Haley Barbour redirected HUD CDBG funds away from housing and toward port expansion. Obama could've made an emphatic pronouncement that no federal housing funds can be redirected to other projects, at least not until the housing need has been met.

4. Demand a working maximum levee protection and wetland restoration plan.