Rebuilding and the Right to Return

By Anna Livia Brand

While Katrina has faded from major news coverage, at least half of New Orleans residents are still displaced. The struggles for their right to return to New Orleans highlight powerful issues of social and spatial justice.

Post-disaster conditions in New Orleans are amplified by serious pre-disaster social and economic inequalities. Taken only as a population indicator, the right to return is still a critically unmet goal more than one year later. Simply re-positioning residents would do little to address pre-Katrina inequalities. This approach does not consider or thoroughly question serious environmental, political, economic, social and educational inequalities that were exacerbated by the storm and that disproportionately affected African Americans. The challenge today is to reform and heal the city within a framework of justice, where the right to return must include both the right to physically re-inhabit the city as well as a social right to a just city. Thus the right to return can be an approach that addresses both spatial and social inequality.

Spatial Dimensions of Social Inequality

In Orleans Parish, 28 percent of residents lived in poverty before Katrina and 23 percent of those in poverty lived in high-poverty neighborhoods. In Treme, a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter where 92 percent of residents were African American, 57 percent of all residents and 81 percent of children under the age of 5 lived in poverty. By way of contrast, in Lakeview, a neighborhood with a 94 percent white population, only 5 percent of all residents and 5 percent of children under the age of 5 lived in poverty. The concentration of poverty was exacerbated by a poor public education system and a labor market where African Americans were disproportionately dependent on low-wage jobs. Although evacuation for Katrina was successful for the majority of residents, those who did not have a vehicle ( 27 percent in Orleans Parish, 56 percent in Treme, 8 percent in Lakeview) or did not have the financial means to evacuate bore the brunt of the government’s failure to respond in the days following the storm.

Although poverty levels in New Orleans were high, homeownership rates did not necessarily directly correspond with racial segregation. In the predominantly African-American Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East and Gentilly neighborhoods, 46.5 percent of housing units were owner-occupied while 53.5 percent were renter-occupied. In the Lower Ninth Ward (98.3 percent African-American), owner-occupied units constituted 59 percent of total occupied units. In Milneburg, part of the Gentilly neighborhood, where 75.4 percent of residents were African-American, 71.2 percent of units were owner-occupied. And in the Little Woods area of New Orleans East, where 86.1 percent of residents were African-American, 51.4 percent of units were owner-occupied. Still, the issue of blighted and adjudicated properties was serious and these properties tended to be clustered in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

More than one year after Katrina, New Orleans is still torn apart physically and socially. In November 2006, the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) published a report estimating that over 60 percent of New Orleans residents remain displaced from the city. In the heavily flooded neighborhoods, these re-population numbers are as low as 2 percent (Lower Ninth Ward) and 19 percent (New Orleans East), and as high as 24 to 35 percent (Gentilly and Lakeview, respectively). Reports indicate a demographic shift taking place; the city, once 67 percent African-American, is now only 47 percent African-American. This shift indicates that large portions of the African-American population, who are still displaced, continue to shoulder the effects of Katrina.

The Poor and the Slow Pace of Recovery

While the areas hardest hit in New Orleans were not necessarily the poorest, it is the poor who are less able to access the resources to rebuild and to live in a city with soaring rents and fewer public amenities. T he Road Home Program, the state’s main vehicle for distributing federal funds to homeowners affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, has been strongly criticized for its slow pace. The program received over 100,000 applications, yet fewer than 1,000 homeowners have received payments. Much of the city’s public housing remains closed to residents, arguably closing the city to the poor altogether. Public schools are barely meeting the demand, and of the 274 childcare centers that operated before the storm, only 30 percent are open. The city’s hospitals are slowly reopening, but Charity Hospital, the primary place for free medical care for the uninsured and poor, remains closed.

While the population slowly returns, recent reports question whether residents who have returned will remain in the city because of crime, lack of affordable housing and increasing insurance rates. Post-disaster rebuilding continues to be plagued by real complications, contradictions and complexities, and yet the ability of residents to return hinges on these crucial factors.

Indecision and the Role of Government

Katrina exposed the inequitable landscape of the city—the concentrated poverty and decaying levees and wetlands. But it also raised questions about the role government should play in rebuilding the city and assisting its citizenry. If residents have a right to return, it has to be understood as both a spatial and social issue. Planners, communities and the nation have to ask what resources we have available to change the underlying conditions that inhibit a right to return.

The city of New Orleans faces challenges in trying to maintain its appeal as a tourist and convention destination while rebuilding its neighborhoods. There has been an attempt to cast the recovery process as legitimate and inclusive despite the continuing displacement of residents. To date, New Orleans has had three major planning processes, all with increasing degrees of resident participation, as well as a number of neighborhood-initiated planning processes that have begun to at least challenge the legitimacy of any planning visions conceived without residents’ voices.

Indecision regarding the larger environmental issues and the resettlement of the city does not promote equity and it certainly fails to incorporate a just image of the city. Making no decisions merely pretends that market forces will equitably rebuild the city on their own, that funding will be available for all rebuilding projects and that those most burdened by the disaster have the financial and emotional capacity to continue under this umbrella of ambiguity. Citizens in the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, are left to wonder whether they should rebuild at all, and, if they do, whether city services will eventually be shut off when others in their neighborhood choose not to return.

Disasters create the possibility of rebuilding cities in safer ways. In New Orleans this might include raising homes above the flood lines. But homeowners in New Orleans rushed to get rebuilding permits and have their home’s damage appraised at less than 50 percent of its value in order to avoid new FEMA flood insurance and elevation requirements. This raises the question of whether regulation really protects citizens or harms them financially. Failure to address these issues avoids the potential long-term environmental hazards that New Orleanians face. One possibility for rebuilding safely would be to further fund these efforts with a functional program, rather than the dysfunctional Road Home Program, and thus enable residents to rebuild safer rather than allowing them to effectively ignore systemic environmental issues.

Ensuring the Right to Return

Signs of hope can be seen in strengthened neighborhood organizations and individual and collective rebuilding efforts. Strong mobilization and organization can be seen in some neighborhoods in the form of protests, rallies and community festivals. The city’s resilience is further evidenced in the return of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Throughout the city, neighborhoods are organizing their own planning and visioning efforts. Signs marking the return of residents to the city are scattered throughout the neighborhoods, including those neighborhoods that remain relatively quiet and unpopulated.

But large areas of the city remain mostly untouched and unchanged since the levees broke, with individual homeowners trying to rebuild their homes amidst a sea of uncertainty. The ability of people to return to their neighborhoods hinges on the availability of affordable housing, public schools, public transit, living-wage jobs in the formal economy, health facilities and environmental protection. The right to return must encompass these issues.

What is the role of government in securing these rights and articulating the right of return in terms of urban justice? How should the city be rebuilt, whose voices should inform the process and for whom should it be rebuilt? Envisioning the rebuilding of New Orleans within a framework of justice and the right to return is perhaps one of the most complicated issues that planners face today. The right to return to New Orleans is a demand for a more thorough understanding of justice in the city, and a deepening of democracy in the physical and social spaces of the city.

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