Natural disaster is bad enough, but in New Orleans, the clean-up operation swept away vital services, especially for low-income African-Americans. Some fear that may also happen in Houston
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many of the thousands of people who lost their homes in New Orleans went to Houston, where they now face the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which struck in late August.
The trauma of natural disaster is bad enough, but the clean-up operation poses new threats. In New Orleans, Katrina was used as a pretext to get rid of public housing and other services relied on by low-income communities, and there are fears in Houston that the same process could be under way.
Even before Katrina, as in other US cities, New Orleans public housing was the target of a decades-long assault. In 1996, the Housing Authority of New Orleans owned and managed 13,000 homes, housing 20% of the city’s African-American population. By early August 2005, this had fallen to 7,200 homes, of which 2,000 stood empty awaiting redevelopment. After Katrina, another 3,000 were demolished at the city’s four biggest public housing sites. They were replaced by 1,829 privately-owned homes, of which fewer than half were at public housing rent levels. Despite a promised “right to return”, very few former tenants now live in the so-called “mixed communities” that replaced public housing. The waiting list for public housing in the city is now so long it’s been closed.
The public housing in New Orleans had been described as some of the best in the US. And while 150,000 New Orleans homes were destroyed or seriously damaged by Katrina, of which 80% were lived in by low-income renters, damage to the city’s public housing was minimal. A professor of architecture inspected a sample of it and concluded there was no technical justification for demolition.
The fate of New Orleans’ public housing fuelled a widespread feeling that Katrina was being cynically exploited by people who wanted a different kind of city. Arnise Parker, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, told me in 2015 that 10 years earlier the message from politicians had been “Don’t come back if you’re poor or black”. This feeling was strengthened by the crass comments of one Louisiana politician, who said after Katrina: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
The impact of Katrina was disproportionately felt by poor, black people. There are fears history could repeat itself in Houston, where the Houston housing authority serves about 60,000 low-income households.
Like New Orleans, the Texas city had a significant amount of good quality public housing in central areas, some of it a legacy from communities of freed slaves. President Trump’s administration is openly hostile to affordable housing. It has already announced 14% cuts to the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees public housing and other rental assistance programmes for low-income Americans.
Developers are already eyeing post-Harvey opportunities in a city of rampant, environment-blind property speculation, where some private landlords are still charging rent for flood-ruined homes. To prevent Hurricane Harvey becoming an agent of displacement and social engineering, the president would need to allocate significant government funding to preserve Houston’s public housing. It seems very unlikely.
Naomi Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism has a particular relevance for housing. City University of New York academic Jay Arena has referred to the removal of public housing as a key part of creating a “neoliberal city” – and that can only be achieved by “clearing the ground of poor people”.
Glyn Robbins is the author of There’s No Place: The American housing crisis and what it means for the UK.
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