NEW ORLEANS – After protesters skirmished with police inside and outside the New Orleans City Hall on Thursday, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a federal plan to demolish a vast swath of public housing.
The fate of the 4,500 units has become a symbolic flashpoint as this city struggles to piece itself back together after Hurricane Katrina damaged more than 134,000 homes, many of them in poor, mostly black neighborhoods. Tents line the Interstate 10 underpass here, and a homeless camp has settled outside City Hall.
Even before the seven council members took their seats for the public meeting, protesters were booing and pumping their fists.
“Why y’all standing behind the curtains?” called out a female protester to council members who waited at the back of the city chambers for protesters to calm down. “This ain’t no stage show! Get out from behind those curtains and tell us why you want to demolish our homes.”
The hearing was, in many ways, political theater. Protesters, who complained that many residents had been locked out of the packed public meeting, fought with the police almost immediately.
Council members – some sipping water, others leafing through file folders – looked on impassively as a man was tasered, handcuffed and dragged from the chambers.
Outside, as dozens of protesters attempted to force their way through iron gates to get into the chambers, they clashed with police, who used pepper spray and stun guns on them. One woman was taken away on a stretcher after being sprayed.
Inside, once convened, the meeting was conducted in an orderly fashion – with a SWAT team standing between the council and residents, lawyers, developers, preachers, rappers and sociologists who had come to voice their opinions on the city’s public housing.
The razing of public housing projects, part of a nationwide move away from public housing and toward mixed-income projects, has been particularly contentious in New Orleans. Activists and historic preservationists have criticized the government’s proposal to raze the city’s biggest complexes at a time when low-income housing is in short supply.
With rent costs up 45 percent and more than 3,000 former public-housing residents scattered across the country, they say officials should act quickly to renovate and reopen the sturdy, mostly 1940s-era brick buildings, some of which were barely damaged by Katrina.
Yet many residents came to the meeting to speak in favor of new mixed-income communities.
“Why can we not go into something that looks good?” asked Dana Johnigan, a resident of B.W. Coopers, her voice trembling. “It’s about being able to walk into a little house and be able to say this is a house, it ain’t a project. What we got to demand is better housing.”
The Housing Authority of New Orleans, which has been under federal control since 2002, had planned to begin demolition Dec. 15, but former tenants and activists sued the federal government, arguing that the authority had acted without council permits. A judge ruled in their favor. The hearing Thursday was in response to that ruling – and it issued the permits.