Drop in the Bucket

The number of housing initiatives currently under way in New Orleans is impresssive, but without active federal involvement they fall well short of the urgent need.

If in late August 2005 you were fortunate enough to be well away from the path of Hurricane Katrina, you were probably watching it on TV. And what you might remember was that frustrating, infuriating sensation of seeing the city of New Orleans, especially its poorest citizens, abandoned by every level of government. There was so much anger afterward, and so many eloquent words spoken—remember President Bush in front of St. Louis Cathedral in his shirtsleeves—that you would assume that our government was now doing everything possible to make up for that catastrophic failure. As it turns out, that would be a misplaced assumption.

I was in New Orleans in December working on a happy story about Albert Ledner, an 83-year-old Modernist architect who’d brought his one-of-a-kind Katrina-damaged home back to life. Ledner was lucky. His Lakewood South neighborhood was far enough away from the breach in the 17th Street Canal that his house only filled with five feet of water instead of the ten or more farther north. And his insurance company came through.

In Ledner’s affluent part of town, it seems as if half the houses are now occupied. That’s as good as it gets in the portions of the city that were flooded. After showing me his place, Ledner drove me to Lakewood North and then across town to the Lower Ninth Ward. Closer to where the levee failed, you see more vacant lots where houses have been demolished and more FEMA trailers in front of boarded-up houses. Farther east, in the poorest neighborhoods, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, there are few signs of life. So if you weren’t well insured and creditworthy, you’re not likely to be back in your New Orleans home. Current estimates put the city’s population at about 200,000, less than half the pre-Katrina figure of 485,000. A program called the Road Home, which was supposed to issue grants of up to $150,000 to help the city’s residents make their homes habitable again, has as of late December issued grants to 104 out of a total of 91,581 applicants.

Initially I believed that rebuilding would be a tremendous opportunity for anyone who cares about innovative approaches to housing. To a limited extent, it has been. Modular-home builders from all over the country are setting up shop in the region, and nonprofits have run architectural competitions to encourage exemplary practices. Global Green USA—an environmental organization with Brad Pitt as one of its celebrity figureheads—held a sustainable-design competition for New Orleans and in August announced a winner, a stylish mixed-use development, by a New York firm called Workshop/apd, featuring modular construction techniques and green roofs. The organization has spent about $100,000 acquiring a site in the Lower Ninth Ward and is now looking for private investors to help it build this model “zero energy” development including a 12-unit multifamily building and six single-family homes.

Of the many volunteer organizations working along the Gulf Coast, Habitat for Humanity has been especially energetic. In October 2005, faced with a shortage of volunteers and infrastructure, Habitat began what it calls “Operation Home Delivery,” shipping preframed houses down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis on barges. Since then, local chapters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have stepped in to build a range of modest houses. The church-based organization recently announced the start of its 500th house in the region and plans to have 1,000 completed or under way by midyear.

While these efforts (and many more that I haven’t cited) will provide roofs for some families, it is nowhere near enough. When you drive through the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans or Mississippi towns like Waveland and see the vast empty stretches punctuated by the occasional FEMA trailer, even Habitat’s ambitious goal of 1,000 seems like the wrong order of magnitude.

You would think that the federal government would be down there, spearheading rebuilding efforts, cutting through red tape, and awarding big contracts to some of those modular-home builders. But the most ambitious initiative from the Feds so far is the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s controversial plan to demolish 4,500 units of New Orleans public housing and replace them with mixed-income developments. Parts of the demolition would be done under the auspices of HOPE VI, a Clinton-era program intended to break up the entrenched pockets of poverty in massive Chicago-style housing projects. But here it seems like a perversion of the program’s goals—if not flat out criminal—to demolish structurally sound buildings in the midst of a catastrophic housing shortage. It’s a decision that reinforces the widespread belief that the federal government’s failure to aid the city’s abandoned underclass in the days following the hurricane was due to something worse than incompetence.

And then there’s FEMA. On the Friday before Christmas, FEMA announced the recipients of awards from its Alternative Housing Pilot Program. Finally, I thought, the Feds are doing something right. But on closer examination, this oddly structured program is a study in half measures. It was set up so that the states of Alabama, Louisi-ana, Mississippi, and Texas had to compete against one another for $400 million in funding. Each state proposed pilot programs to test new types of emergency housing, and in the end Mississippi got the lion’s share of the money, some $281 million. Louisiana was allocated $74.5 million. (Politically adroit Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has generally proved better than his neighbors at securing and distributing funds. Out of 17,490 applicants for that state’s $5 billion federally funded Homeowner’s Assistance Grants, about 8,547 have been awarded.)

The real winner here appears to be architect Marianne Cusato and her endearing Katrina Cottage, which featured heavily in the successful Mississippi and Louisiana bids. It was the biggest success story to emerge from the massive Gulf Coast New Urbanist charrette held in Biloxi in October 2005. A small traditional shotgun house designed for rapid, inexpensive construction, it’s been picked up for distribution in kit form by Lowe’s.

Mississippi plans to use its money to develop improved mobile homes, including a version of Cusato’s cottage renamed the Mississippi Cottage, which can be delivered on wheels. Louisiana is planning infill development in hard-hit New Orleans neighborhoods using a version of the Katrina Cottage and something called a Carpet Cottage, designed by Andrés Duany, to answer the need for high-density single-story housing.

According to Cusato, “Both the Katrina and the Carpet Cottages that we will be building with FEMA in the state of Louisiana are permanent buildings.” Technically, FEMA doesn’t fund permanent housing, so these programs are actually intended to develop new forms of temporary housing. “This pilot program is aimed at exploring options for future disasters,” Cusato explains. “It is really a blueprint for how we react in the future.” So while some people who were made homeless by Katrina and Rita will get permanent houses out of this exercise, the goal is to find a cost-effective replacement for the ubiquitous FEMA trailer. According to Duany, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco believes the funding will build 600 units at $125,000 each.

Duany, who has set up shop in New Orleans, argues that what is needed for the city to be properly rebuilt is a work-around. He says the city’s distinct culture is a product of its low cost of living. Eliminate the mortgage-free way of life, and you eliminate the culture. “No way,” he contends, “are government grants going to put people in houses without debt.” Rather than having the government dictate guidelines to rebuild houses that were in many cases cobbled together generations ago, he suggests suspending building codes in certain parts of the city so that people can rebuild cheaply, in the same improvisatory manner as their grandparents.

Duany’s suggestion is brilliant (see “Restoring the Real New Orleans”), but his limited-zoning plan can also be read as complete lack of faith in the government to do anything useful or right. And that’s the really bad news: the Bush administration has performed so miserably that no one any longer expects anything from it. The biggest thing destroyed by Katrina was not the city of New Orleans but the notion that government exists in part to help those who can’t help themselves.

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