February 9, 2011

Stronger than Before

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Last week, I traveled to New Orleans for the first time in my life.  I had such a powerful experience that I wanted to share it with you all.  Like the rest of the country, I watched in horror as the terrible power of Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the region, and as our federal government delivered a hopelessly inadequate response to the catastrophe.  Even years later, I expected to face justified skepticism and even anger from the people of New Orleans as we traveled to the region on behalf of that same government.

But what a difference an administration makes.

Instead of skepticism, my colleagues and I were greeted with open arms as we staffed Secretary Donovan’s seventh trip to the city as HUD Secretary.

Instead of anger, we found gratitude and hope among those residents who—up until last week— had been displaced by the storm, but were finally able to move back into their homes and return to normalcy.

The reason for the change in attitude is simple: President Obama and Secretary Donovan are delivering on promises made to the region, and residents are starting to see the progress for themselves.  Beautiful, mixed-income housing developments are being finished in traditional New Orleans style, but with a new, sustainable vision.  As one of our tireless partners in the region, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu put it: “We’re not just building buildings, we’re building communities, we’re building soul.”

Last Friday, Leslie Johnson and her three sons were among the first families to become a part of such a community when they received the keys to their new home in the Fauburg Lafitte housing development.  Ms. Johnson and her family lived in Lafitte before the storm but had been on the move after her home was destroyed, most recently living in a nearby housing project.  Following their long-awaited return, Ms. Johnson told WDSU: “It felt like home. I was home again. I was so happy and excited, my children were ready to leave out the projects and into something new, so for them to be happy makes me happy.”  In the coming months and years, we are committed to helping thousands more families experience what Leslie Johnson and her family felt on Friday.

Despite the encouraging progress, our team here at HUD is not taking anything for granted.  In fact, the message Secretary Donovan wanted to convey to the people of New Orleans during this most recent trip was to thank them for their extraordinary patience while the Obama Administration and HUD work to right the wrongs that occurred in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy.  There remains a long road ahead as we work to rebuild New Orleans stronger than it was before, and there will certainly be more setbacks and frustrations along the way.

Regardless, after experiencing the resilience, energy and hope of the people of New Orleans firsthand, I am certain that a stronger, more vibrant city will reemerge.  In the words of President Obama: “New Orleans [is] a place that stands for what we can do in America—not just for what we can’t do. Ultimately, that must be the legacy of Katrina: not one of neglect, but of action; not one of indifference, but of empathy; not of abandonment, but of a community working together to meet shared challenges.”

8 Responses to Stronger than Before

  1. Wonderful piece, Mr. True!

    I had a similar experience on my first visit to New Orleans, though mine had less of a professional aim.

    I can say that local developers in New Orleans and throughout the effected Gulf region are ready to invest and are excited about the administration’s vision.

    New Orleans, like so many urban centers throughout the country, need sustained investment to continue to revitalize neighborhoods and communities that have been neglected for so long.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. This is beautifully written and definitely incites a feeling of optimism and hope for finally making steps in the right direction after Hurricane Katrina. I’m glad you’re sharing your experience with a government agency and I’m glad it’s a positive one.

  3. I am so glad this sight is up to show people what programs are being offered through HUD, as well as stories such as these.The News Media does not even try and present stuff like this.It goes to the heart, you know?

    I know first hand that this administration is well into implementation phase ,beyond the vision for getting this country back on track.

    The people of New Orleans need our love and compassion after what happened to them.Keep up the good work 🙂

    Blessings to the good people in New Orleans, all the way from Washington State!!!!

    Sincerely yours,

  4. New Orleans is an amazing place, with amazing people and a soul that is unmatched. I think it embodies some of the best and also the worst in our country. Thanks for being there to share you experience Mr. True.

  5. Really great article Peter!! It warmed my heart-cicles! I love the emphasis on rebuilding the area stronger than before re: sustainability.

  6. Nice article, Peter, and I’m glad that New Orleans treated you right! One concern I have is that the model (last time I read up on these things, which admittedly was a couple of years ago) for redeveloping the projects was the River Garden development, which replaced the projects with “mixed-income housing” that was only 15% low-income units. With the census showing only 70% repopulation of New Orleans since the storm — counting an influx of non-New Orleans young professionals…like myself — the need for low-income housing to counter gentrification and preserve the culture of New Orleans (a culture that is unique in the world) is paramount.

    Whatever you encountered during your trip, my experience and conversations here have confirmed that there is still a very high level of distrust of the redevelopment projects. This is primarily rooted, I think, in the fact that the old projects (which I would never claim were fantastic places to live, but which were nonetheless “home” to many people) were torn down despite escaping Katrina with no-to-minimal storm damage. When people were kept out of their undamaged homes with barbed wire fences and armed guards, when congressman were declaring that the storm was a divine opportunity to “clean out” the projects, it is going to take a long time — and a lot of low-income housing — to rebuild that trust, if it ever existed in the first place! Anyway, interesting reflection, thanks for posting it!

  7. Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments.

    Maura I especially appreciated your response but there were a couple things that I want to point out. For starters, the actions that you rightly perceive as having caused distrust, the tearing down of the old projects and the River Garden redevelopment in particular, both took place on the watch of a previous administration.

    However, Secretary Donovan has been working tirelessly since his swearing-in to make things right for displaced residents of New Orleans. In fact, he has visited the city ten times since becoming HUD Secretary showing personal commitment that residents and stakeholders alike have noticed and appreciated. In addition, President Obama and Secretary Donovan have made it perfectly clear that anyone living in one of the “Big 4” housing developments before the storm can come back and live in affordable housing in New Orleans.

    This commitment was made possible by applying the kind of housing policy that we’ve found works best in our cities and applying that new vision to New Orleans while preserving the unique culture and history that’s so important to residents. In practice that means following the mixed-income model that has a record of success in cities around the country (the Harlem Children’s Zone for instance). Though converting to this model means there will be less affordable units in the “Big 4”, HUD is compensating for this by providing vouchers for families to live in single-family homes elsewhere in the city. In fact, there is more federally funded subsidized housing in New Orleans now than there was prior to Hurricane Katrina. These units are clean, safe and part of the promising mixed-income communities. At Lafitte, where I was with the Secretary on our recent visit, there is a commitment to replace each of the previously existing units. This concept of “one-for –one” replacement is at the heart of the Secretary’s Choice Neighborhoods proposal to Congress. This program would allow for the revitalization of communities of concentrated poverty using a mixed income model while ensuring that valuable affordable housing resources are preserved for needy families.

    We at HUD believe this is the best way to rebuild one of the greatest cities on the planet, and no one, from the Secretary on down, takes that lightly.

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