Hurricane Katrina was used as an excuse to demolish public housing. While the all-brick buildings suffered limited damage, they became a target for privatization. The storm opened up an opportunity to fasten the pace of gentrification. Less than one year after the levees broke, former residents of New Orleans’ “Big Four” public housing communities —with the help of Advancement Project—filed suit against federal and local authorities to prevent the demolition of their homes. Like most other New Orleanians, they wanted to return home as soon as possible, but the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) claimed that destroying the Big Four residences was cheaper than repairing them.

Amidst promises that HANO would rebuild better public housing for displaced residents, the lawsuit was lost and the houses were demolished. Now, after ten years of redevelopment, the landscape of public housing in New Orleans is unrecognizable.

That’s because HANO’s promises to rebuild public housing in New Orleans were never fulfilled. There were over 5,000 households in public housing before Katrina, and today there are less than half that number in public housing apartments. Only a small fraction of the city’s original public housing residents have returned to New Orleans, while neighborhood revitalization has taken place in other parts of the city at a rapid pace. Poor and working class families simply can’t afford to live in New Orleans any more, as median home prices and rents have gone up quickly. Publicly-owned and run housing was turned over to private developers, cutting a hole in the safety net for poor families.

And the “Big Four”? Instead of rebuilding them, the city has redeveloped those areas into much smaller, mixed-income communities. New Orleans became a model for privatizing the public good of public housing. Thousands of families who no longer have homes to return to or who simply cannot afford to return are left out of the new vision for New Orleans. Even when they try, poor and working class Black New Orleanians face discrimination in the housing market: as reported by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, African American shoppers were either denied the opportunity to rent or received less than favorable treatment than white shoppers 44% of the time.

There’s no question that Katrina’s floods broke an already weak housing infrastructure for Black New Orleanians, making it impossible to live in submerged buildings in the days and weeks after the storm. It was the policy of displacement and gentrification, however, that kept—and continues to keep—thousands of low-income Black New Orleanians from coming back to rebuild.

Key Recovery Data

11% Percentage of the families who lived in the Big Four who have returned to rebuilt complexes
4 in 10 New Orleanians paying at least half their income to rent
2,006 Public housing units now available, compared to 12,270 before Katrina
4,443 Families (99% of them African-American) on the Waiting List for Public Housing
13,013 Families (94.7% of them African American) on the Section 8 Waiting List, which has been closed since September 2009
229,823 Population of African-Americans in New Orleans as of 2014, 69% of the population of African-Americans in the city in 2005 prior to Katrina

FIND OUT MORE Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center
Louisiana Justice Institute
NOLA Public Housing’s Slow Slog Back from Hurricane Katrina (Next City, August 29, 2013)