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.
The federal court took the comments from the hearings into consideration, as well as the actions of council president Taffaro and council members, and ruled that “public statements are relevant both as expressing the general sentiment during the general decision-making process and also insofar as public opinion was specifically referenced by the decision-makers themselves.” The parish was found, yet again, in contempt of the consent order and told to step aside while Provident’s applications are reconsidered at the next planning commission hearing. This hearing, to be held on Tuesday night, will likely be even fierier than the last one, especially with three court decisions already handed down against the parish. If the applications are approved and the apartments are built, then the real tests will begin.
Residents have already expressed, implicitly and explicitly, that they won’t tolerate black people in their town. The Nation reported last April how Kiana Alexander’s house was burned down after she applied for rental permits. The assumptions of what low-income (read: black) residents bring to a community will be a tough challenge to overcome.
"What few people realize is that the same people we trust to perform our banking, educate our kids, police our streets and even work for us are the very people some would exclude from their neighborhoods,” says Milton Bailey, president of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, responsible for all low-income housing in the state.
For much of the nation, Hurricane Katrina exposed a deep level of poverty in the New Orleans area. But for people in Southern Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast, this was not news. What was more revealing was how such poverty was concentrated into specific areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward and other public housing projects. Such concentration was made possible, it’s now clear, because of actions like those of St. Bernard’s parish officials, residents who have worked aggressively to keep blacks and the poor out of their communities.
Brentin Mock is a freelance reporter who worked most recently as a writing fellow for The American Prospect focusing on environmental justice and policy issues. He is a 2008-09 Metcalfe Institute Diversity in Environmental Reporting Fellow, and a 2009 USC Annenberg Institute Justice and Journalism Fellow for environmental justice reporting.