Last time I was in New Orleans, about a year ago, I was part of an international human rights fact-finding mission, sent to assess continuing housing rights violations four years after Katrina. What we saw shocked our conscience: homeless squatters living in buildings with no running water or electricity, holes in the roof and floor, in the heart of one of America’s major cities, while perfectly habitable public housing units were fenced off and torn down with promised replacements years away from completion, and never intended to serve as many poor persons as before.
This time, I came at the invitation of the Department of Housing & Urban Development, to conduct a training for hundreds of fair housing investigators and attorneys on the very human rights standards we were using to assess the violations last year. It’s a sign of tremendous progress in the recognition of these human rights standards by the domestic branches of government that they chose to include this session as part of their conference, and promises much for the future at the state and local level as these advocates return home to implement what they’ve learned.
But though there has been progress in the hearts and minds of those at HUD, progress is slow to come for those looking for their housing rights on the ground in New Orleans. My fellow mission-mate, Sam Jackson, of May Day New Orleans, gave me a tour of the public housing sites we visited last year. Some, such as CJ Peete, have been redeveloped with some families already moved into the mixed income development. Others, like Lafitte, only had the concrete building foundations poured before the promised redevelopment money dried up. Now, where hundreds of families used to live stand only empty fields and concrete blocks, with no promise of renewal. Five years after Katrina, and still people can’t come home. And those squatters? Still thousands living in Third World conditions, right here in America.
I hope the progress we’ve made with HUD in accepting these rights means that next year, I’ll be able to write a happier reflection on how New Orleans’ residents are enjoying them.
-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director