Naomi Klein is a must-read this week, as she rakes through the racial and socioeconomic politics of the new New Orleans.
Wearing a donated pink T-shirt with an age-inappropriate slogan (“It’s the hidden little Tiki spot where the island boys are hot, hot, hot”), Nyler tells me what she is nervous about. “I think New Orleans might not ever get fixed back.” “Why not?” I ask, a little surprised to be discussing reconstruction politics with a preteen in pigtails. “Because the people who know how to fix broken houses are all gone.”
I don’t have the heart to tell Nyler that I suspect she is on to something; that many of the African-American workers from her neighborhood may never be welcomed back to rebuild their city.
Why? Because Washington is offering huge incentives — tax breaks, subsidies and relaxed regulations — to big firms for their help rebuilding the city, which will be designed by people Klein calls the “white elite.” (And considering that whites make up only 27% of people in New Orleans, she’d be correct).
So what could they do? Well, integrate neighborhoods, for one:
As for the hundreds of thousands of residents whose low-lying homes and housing projects were destroyed by the flood, [New Orleans’ top corporate lobbyist, Mark] Drennen points out that many of those neighborhoods were dysfunctional to begin with. He says the city now has an opportunity for “twenty-first-century thinking”: Rather than rebuild ghettos, New Orleans should be resettled with “mixed income” housing, with rich and poor, black and white living side by side.
What Drennen doesn’t say is that this kind of urban integration could happen tomorrow, on a massive scale. Roughly 70,000 of New Orleans’ poorest homeless evacuees could move back to the city alongside returning white homeowners, without a single new structure being built. Take the Lower Garden District, where Drennen himself lives. It has a surprisingly high vacancy rate–17.4 percent, according to the 2000 Census. At that time 702 housing units stood vacant, and since the market hasn’t improved and the district was barely flooded, they are presumably still there and still vacant. It’s much the same in the other dry areas: With landlords preferring to board up apartments rather than lower rents, the French Quarter has been half-empty for years, with a vacancy rate of 37 percent.
The citywide numbers are staggering: In the areas that sustained only minor damage and are on the mayor’s repopulation list, there are at least 11,600 empty apartments and houses. If Jefferson Parish is included, that number soars to 23,270. With three people in each unit, that means homes could be found for roughly 70,000 evacuees. With the number of permanently homeless city residents estimated at 200,000, that’s a significant dent in the housing crisis. And it’s doable.
But why do I get the feeling that it won’t be done?
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