Tenant advocates decry Jefferson Parish plan to tear down public housing
A vacant brick duplex at the Acre Road development in Marrero bears boarded-up windows and doors on Jan. 26, 2023. (Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite)
Much of Acre Road, the public housing project in Marrero, looked like a ghost town by late January. Its playgrounds were bereft of children and empty brick duplexes bearing boarded-up windows and doors lined the streets.
Then there was Elaine Savage, who had lit up the facade of her house with tinsel and fleur-de-lis accents and hung Mardi Gras masks by her front door, decorating in defiance of the vacant homes around her.
Many of Savage’s neighbors have moved out since Jefferson Parish housing officials asked federal authorities for permission to shut down the housing development in 2020. Some were eager to leave, having dealt for years with persistent mold in their six-decade-old units.
But Savage can’t envision cramming her furniture and appliances, accumulated in a life built over three decades at Acre Road, into any of the small apartments she’s viewed along the West Bank. And Savage, now 67, has so far been unable to find a landlord who will accept a Section 8 voucher, the federal housing subsidy she is to receive in lieu of her Acre Road home.
“I’m not going nowhere,” she said. “Ain’t nowhere for me to go.”
Local housing officials want to demolish the 200 low-income housing units at the historic project and turn the property into a mixed-use development, using a tool from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that allows small public housing authorities to offload the last of their public housing stock, given the lack of federal funding for maintaining such projects.
Jefferson Parish would follow the lead of larger housing agencies such as the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which oversaw the dismantling of the city’s major public housing projects in favor of privately operated developments and Section 8 vouchers after Hurricane Katrina.
The process would move Acre Road tenants into the voucher program that, officials contend, gives tenants more choice in where they live while relieving the housing authority of the burden of maintaining the physically deteriorating and chronically underfunded complex.
I’ve been working in housing in 40 years and I just don’t deal with journalists.
– Benjamin Bell, Jefferson Parish Housing Authority director, when asked by a reporter about Acre Road demolition plans
The effort, which was set in motion in 2020, has faced obstacles. The coronavirus pandemic slowed the process, as did a review that found the project had historical significance. Savage and dozens of other tenants who have struggled to navigate the Section 8 program are still living at Acre Road.
Now, there’s a new challenge from affordable housing advocates. They argue the Jefferson Parish Housing Authority, which owns and operates the development, is violating the Fair Housing Act and ignoring civil rights obligations by sending Acre Road tenants — who are almost entirely Black — into a hostile housing market that will force many into Jefferson Parish’s most impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods and push others out of the parish altogether.
Christopher Kerrigan, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, has been following the process for about two years, representing the complex’s tenant organization. He’s observed the collapse of the Acre Road community in that time, he said, as tenants have felt forced to leave.
The legal aid group, along with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, asked HUD in November to halt the plan. The advocates say their own market analysis, coupled with the experiences of Acre Road tenants and the results of “testers” posing as potential renters to assess housing discrimination in the parish, shows voucher holders who manage to stay in the parish will be limited to the poorer, Blacker West Bank and kept out of the whiter, richer east bank.
The causes for such disparity range from discrimination against voucher holders and inadequate payment standards to a lack of rental units due to exclusionary zoning practices limiting the location of affordable multi-family housing, according to the advocates. The housing authority has also failed to provide residents with the resources and counseling needed to find new homes, and has only a poorly sketched plan to redevelop Acre Road, they argue.
Scott Hudman, a HUD spokesman, told Verite in an email that both the Jefferson Parish Housing Authority’s 2020 plan to demolish Acre Road and the letter demanding HUD stop the plan are “under review.”
Approached by a reporter, Benjamin Bell, the Jefferson Parish Housing Authority’s director, declined to answer questions.
“I’ve been working in housing in 40 years and I just don’t deal with journalists,” Bell said.
“It’s just not sufficient for the federal government to bless this type of loss and to see, to permit what is entirely foreseeable,” said Kate Walz, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project, who worked on challenging a similar displacement of public housing residents in Cairo, Illinois. “Which is that Black families will be harmed, removed from their historic communities and given a wholly insufficient housing subsidy.”
A ‘wasted investment’
If all goes to plan, the parish’s housing authority itself will disappear along with Acre Road. Following years of political infighting and disarray at the authority and its board, Jefferson Parish officials opted in 2021 to move management of the authority’s more than 4,000 Section 8 vouchers to a special district overseen by the parish council, leaving the authority to oversee the shuttering of Acre Road.
Across the country, small public housing authorities like the one in Jefferson Parish are getting out of the business of public housing, using the latest in a series of tools HUD has provided to shift funding from the public housing program into vouchers that subsidize privately owned rentals.
In the last decade, HUD officials have gestured toward years of congressional underfunding when introducing those tools, according to Eric Oberdorfer, director of policy and program development at the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. The backlog of capital projects to maintain the nation’s aging public housing stock is estimated as of last year to total more than $81 billion, according to the trade group.
The process Jefferson Parish is trying to employ, called a “streamlined voluntary conversion,” is designed for small housing authorities with few units. In this process, local housing authorities can bypass some of the paperwork otherwise required of such a plan, such as the studies that assess how cost-effective the plan would be, how the plan would impact the surrounding neighborhood and how tenants would fare in the local rental market.
In place of Acre Road, local officials envision a mix of affordable and market-rate housing along with low-density commercial use properties. The redevelopment, which would be handled through a nonprofit, would act as a “catalyst for the revitalization” of the neighborhood, according to the plan submitted to HUD.
Trying to use federal funds to fix up Acre Road would be a “wasted investment,” the plan argues, given the cost of renovating the units dating to the 1960s. Mold has also pervaded nearly every unit, as a 2019 assessment commissioned by the authority showed, with families complaining of respiratory illnesses and doctors recommending children leave Acre Road.
Some remaining tenants are eager to get out, citing the crumbling conditions. “They moved me from a moldy house to another moldy house. … I got all my clothes stacked up in a bin,” said Lakrischia Wiggins, who is also itching to move after a stray bullet went through her daughter’s window a few months ago. Others, like 68-year-old Barbara Blain, are disheartened by the changes. “The way things are going, I probably will die in my apartment,” Blain said.
HUD regulations allow the authority to begin issuing vouchers to residents to voluntarily relocate even while the plan is pending approval. Nearly 150 families at Acre Road have received vouchers, according to the local tenants organization, yet about half of those families are still living at the development because they haven’t been able to find suitable housing elsewhere.
Recent HUD data show just 60 out of Acre Road’s 200 units are still leased. Since June 2021, occupancy has declined from about 78 percent to 33 percent as of January.
At two meetings held for residents on Jan. 26, Bell acknowledged some of the missteps by officials and the difficulties of the current rental market, as he committed to helping tenants through the process. “There’s enough blame to go around,” he said.
About two dozen remaining residents showed up across the meetings to express frustration over the process of applying for, receiving, and trying to use their vouchers. They told Bell that the paperwork requirements were confusing and that Section 8 staff were hard, if not impossible, to track down.
Bell asked residents to document their housing searches so officials can look into any obstacles they run into and pay out the $75 residents are getting in monthly transportation subsidies. He urged the tenants to put their best foot forward when looking for rentals.
“This is not an easy process. It’s difficult,” Bell said. “We have limited housing stock, and even if you’re the most earnest-looking individual interested in seeking housing, it’s going to be hard.”
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‘We were just blooming back then’
Bell also told residents that officials will document the history of Acre Road, where tenants played a unique role in civil rights efforts of the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the process.
Originally designed for low-income Black residents, Acre Road’s development in the 1950s and 1960s was marked by anxiety over integration and a power struggle between the housing authority and the parish council. Despite federally mandated integration in the 1960s, “ingrained racial prejudices effectually limited the racial composition of the complex almost exclusively to African-Americans,” according to a report determining the site is eligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1973, residents frustrated with living conditions formed the Marrero Tenants Organization, which proceeded to help shape HUD policy on tenant appointments to housing authority boards in the 1980s.
The tenants leveraged their collective power to push for reforms, picketing the offices of board members, threatening rent strikes and, at one point, successfully suing the housing authority over violations of the state’s open meetings law, according to news reports. In one memorable 1984 action, public housing tenants marched from Acre Road to the HUD office at Canal Street and Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, protesting federal housing policies under the Reagan administration as they crossed the Greater New Orleans Bridge.
And it was with tenant support that Acre Road resident Beverly Epps was appointed to head the agency that year. Epps made history as the country’s first public housing resident and Black woman to become executive director at a public housing authority.
Patricia Landry, another former “rabble-rousing” tenant, as The Times-Picayune dubbed her in one profile, also worked her way up to the top spot in 1988. “We were just blooming back then,” Landry told the paper in 1992, recalling the tenant activism of the prior decade. “We were hungry for anything that could help us get something better.”
Darin Collins, the current president of the Marrero Tenants Organization and the tenant representative on the housing authority’s board, carries on that legacy. Collins never vied to become a voice for the tenants — he said he fell into the role after some “older ladies” put his name down in an election a few years ago — but he’s been attending to the needs of his neighbors and studying federal housing policy ever since.
One solution Collins envisions is a pathway to homeownership for Acre Road tenants that will allow them to stay and build equity at the site, he said.
Collins is also keeping tabs on those who have left. Some tenants have had to move out of the parish altogether, Collins told Verite. Others have informed him their living conditions in their new homes are worse than those of Acre Road, and that they wish they could return.
Meanwhile, Acre Road has slipped into even greater disrepair. Damage from the December tornado that tore across the West Bank could still be seen across two buildings a month later, caution tape loosely roped around debris and gaping roofs. The streets are poorly lit, the police patrols are few, and, as Bell admitted to remaining residents at a recent meeting, the housing authority keeps having to chase out squatters who are breaking into shuttered units to do “unsavory types of things,” Bell said.
Savage, who attended one of those meetings, said recently that she was stressed thinking about her future. After she learned of the plan to close Acre Road, she began packing up her belongings. As the months passed, she grew tired of living among boxes and started unpacking, in an effort to live in the present again. “I want to be home,” Savage said.
This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.
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