More than a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, questions and confusion still reign in rebuilding plans for the city. A key sticking point: a HUD redevelopment program intended to remake public housing in the Big Easy.

In June, the agency announced that it would undertake an ambitious plan to redevelop New Orleans' public housing, including the reopening of 1,000 units within 60 days, raising the value of HUD disaster vouchers, and demolishing several housing projects. At risk: the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, Lafitte, and St. Bernard projects, which endured moderate to severe damage from Hurricane Katrina. In their place, HUD proposes to use a mix of federal public housing funding, bond funds, and low-income housing tax credits to provide mixture of public housing, affordable rental housing, and single-family homes.

A man photographs the shuttered St. Bernard low-income housing project in July 2006, almost one year after Hurricane Katrina flooded this area of the city. New Orleans public housing residents recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city's housing authority and HUD.
AFP/Getty Images A man photographs the shuttered St. Bernard low-income housing project in July 2006, almost one year after Hurricane Katrina flooded this area of the city. New Orleans public housing residents recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city's housing authority and HUD.

A skeptical group of public housing residents filed a civil rights lawsuit two weeks later, arguing that the Housing Authority of New Orleans and HUD are, thanks to the plan, essentially preventing poor families from returning to New Orleans. The suit–filed by Advancement Project, attorney Bill Quigley, attorney Tracie Washington, and the law firm of Jenner & Block–claims that HUD wants to keep low-income, black families out of New Orleans. It also says the local housing authority took no steps to repair housing units that could bring back many of the 5,146 displaced, predominantly black families. Instead, the suit claims it boarded up units and allowed only 880 families to return. Though Larry Schedler, a broker in New Orleans, admits there aren't many options for low-income families who want to return to New Orleans, he believes it would be a mistake to repair the damaged, aging public housing stock. "These are developments that were built under the [Works Progress Administration] program [during the 1930s]," Schedler says. "They're functionally obsolete. Although some of these structures look perfectly fine from the outside, there's mold and electrical issues. In the time you could retrofit these things, it's a lot better to knock this stuff down and put some nice, fresh housing up there."

But a dearth of housing may be not be the only thing keeping evacuees from returning to New Orleans, according to Lisa Blackwell, vice president of state and local strategic outreach and housing policy initiatives for the National Multi Housing Council. "If they've gotten a job, people are putting down roots in other places," she says. "That's a trend that we're seeing with the massive amounts of displaced people."

While housing remains a tremendous challenge for New Orleans' poorest residents, developers are starting to use tax credits to build workforce housing in areas near the city's central business district, which is above the flood plain. "All the activity is focused on tax-credit programs," Schedler says. "I have seen no conventional properties planned or coming out. The new construction has really been tax-credit deals."

–Les Shaver