Many Poor and Black Residents Driven Out of New Orleans by Post-Katrina Recovery Policies

Posted Aug. 26, 2015

MP3 Interview with Jordon Flaherty, journalist, community organizer and author, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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August 29th marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and all the devastation and displacement it caused. The city of New Orleans, in the direct path of the storm, has been rebuilt in ways that have excluded many of its poor and black residents. One Louisiana congressman observed that Katrina enabled the power structure to do what it hadn't been able to do previously -- tear down virtually all the public housing and rebuild mixed income developments that are better for those who got to live in them, but which prevented thousands of poor African Americans from returning to their city.

Approximately 100,000 black residents are still displaced ten years after Katrina and housing prices continue to rise. According to a survey conducted by Louisiana State University's Center for Media and Public Affairs, nearly 80 percent of New Orleans' white residents say that Louisiana has "mostly recovered" since the storm, while nearly 60 percent of black people say that the state has "mostly not recovered" in their view.

Between The Lines Melinda Tuhus made several trips to New Orleans following Katrina, where she reported for this program and other media outlets, as well as volunteering in various capacities. Melinda spoke with Jordan Flaherty, a journalist, community organizer and author of the book, "Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six," about the changes that have come to the city since Katrina, and the grassroots struggles to promote the interests of people who've been marginalized by those changes. Here he begins by talking about the takeover of the public schools by the charter school movement after Katrina.

For more information, visit Jason Flaherty's website at jordanflaherty.org.

JORDAN FLAHERTY: Before the storm we did have a very problematic school system; we had some very good schools and some very bad schools. And when the storm came, I think certain powerful forces saw this as an opportunity to reshape the school system. And in doing that...breaking down roughly along lines of race, the white power structure of the city felt the problem with the school system was the school board and the teachers and the teachers' union. So they went about destroying the power of the school board, the teachers' union and the teachers. I would say overall - obviously there are differences - but many black people in the city felt the problem was lack of funding, infrastructure that was falling apart and low teacher salaries. And those problems were not really addressed. Now, there's been a lot of money that's come in because there's a lot of these foundations, including Oprah Winfrey and the Gates Foundation, that are very excited about charter schools. It's sort of a cause that unites liberals and conservatives and neo-conservatives. You recently had a couple years ago, Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton doing a tour together where they were both talking about charter schools as the one item they could agree on. So you had this unified front of money that went in to these charter schools and it did make some better, but it brings up the question, Couldn't you also have improved local schools if you put that money into them? So now there is more money being spent, too, but I think for a kid with small resources, they're not necessarily better now than they were before Katrina.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I was talking to a homeowner from New Orleans last week who said she'd never be able to afford a house in the post-Katrina market. So what caused the big jump in housing prices?

JORDAN FLAHERTY: Right, exactly. Well, home prices overall citywide have gone up 46 percent since Hurricane Katrina; that's to buy homes. And in certain neighborhoods prices are going up about ten percent per year. Rent prices have gone up even more, especially in some neighborhoods. And it's still very inexpensive when you compare it to home prices in New York or California, but we just don't have the economy of those cities. Most people are still reliant on these service economy jobs, jobs in the tourism industry, many of them being minimum wage jobs and with a minimum wage job it's very hard to afford rent or almost impossible to buy a home in the city today. So increasingly, black residents of the city are pushed further out or indeed into the suburbs; the percentage of black people in the suburbs has gone up slightly because they cannot afford to live in the city anymore.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, big picture, Jordan Flaherty, what do you see as the forces reshaping New Orleans into a whiter, wealthier city than it was before Katrina?

JORDAN FLAHERTY: When you look at it, overall it's about the direction of the recovery. There was $71 billion of federal funding that was spent, and a lot of that disproportionately went to the wealthier neighborhoods. I think the clearest example of that is the federally funded, state administered program call the Road Home program. This was probably the biggest source of money to people that wanted to rebuild. First of all, this program only went to homeowners so it completely left out renters in the funding support to be able to come back. Then, even within homeowners, the money the people would get was based on property values, so you could have two homes that had the same amount of damage, same square footage, same cost to rebuild, if one of those homes was in a white neighborhood they would get more money than a home in a black neighborhood. And overall within that program, white homeowners got about 40 percent more money than black homeowners, which added up to tens of thousands of dollars per person in difference. So that's a huge part of why it became harder for people to live here.

You also had the demolition of public housing - that's thousands of units of affordable housing that were taken off the market. And when you take thousands of low income units off the market, that raises the market for everybody.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you have any final words on the current situation?

JORDAN FLAHERTY: I would just say there's an incredibly vibrant resistance here, incredible organizing that's happening. The Congress of Day Laborers is an organization in the Latino community here that has up to 400 members coming to their weekly meetings. You have Breakout, which is an organization of LGBT youth of color who are dealing with the prison industrial complex who have won real changes in policies around policing and in the jail. You have Women with a Vision, that's an organization that's worked with indigenous women, especially drug users and sex workers, and have organized for rights for that community. So you have a really vibrant social justice tapestry here that is fighting for changes and I think what people from other cities can learn from this experience is the way that people have fought against these neo-liberal changes.

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