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ACORN, Public Housing & Katrina - Very important analysis.

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  • les evenchick
    ... From: howellnow@bellsouth.net Subject: [NOLA_C3_Discussion] ACORN, Public Housing & Katrina To: jarena@tulane.edu,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 5, 2008
      --- On Sun, 10/5/08, howellnow@... <howellnow@...> wrote:

      From: howellnow@... <howellnow@...> Subject: [NOLA_C3_Discussion] ACORN, Public Housing & Katrina To: jarena@..., nola_c3_discussion@yahoogroups.com Date: Sunday, October 5, 2008, 4:18 PM Footnoted edition of my ACORN article is below. I also note that the Rockefeller Redevelopment Fellowship program was announced June 18, 2007, not June 18, 2006 as I mentioned in a previous draft of the article submitted to this e-list.


      Mike Howells

      Why didn’t ACORN(the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) actively support the movement to stop the demolition of public housing in post-Katrina New Orleans? ACORN had the ability to bring important assets to the movement. It is ranks among the largest and best financed progressive organizations in the United States. The movement to stop the demolition of the Big Four(i.e. the St. Bernard, Lafitte, C.J. Peete & B.W. Cooper public housing developments) would surely have benefited from the support of the human and material resources at the disposal of ACORN. Unfortunately this did not happen. Wade Rathke, ACORN’s Chief Organizer as the public housing struggle unfolded, blames the non-participation of the progressive organization in the movement to stop the demolition of the Big Four primarily on sectarianism directed at New Orleans progressive groups in general and ACORN in particular. #1 This allegation is examined
      below. In his assessment of the public housing struggle Rathke does not mention that his organization maintained close working relationships with forces pursuing the demolition of the Big Four. These forces include the Department of Housing and Urban Development(HUD) and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Redevelopment Fellowship program. Do the ties that ACORN maintained with these organizations help explain the group’s absence from the movement? This question is addressed below. But before the matters above are discussed in greater detail a brief overview of HUD’s post-Katrina plan for public housing is in order.

      On June 16, 2006 HUD announced its plan to pursue the demolition of the Big Four. Under this plan, and in the midst of New Orleans’ worst ever shortage of affordable housing, 4,600 public housing units were chosen for demolition. Virtually all of the thousands of families who lived in these apartments were working class, African-Americans who “temporarily” vacated their homes in accordance with Mayor Ray Nagin’s Mandatory evacuation order for Hurricane Katrina. That the majority of these housing units sustained little damage or none at all in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its fallout did not save them from being targeted for the wrecking ball. Nor did HUD allow assurances by its officials testifying before Congress on December 20, 2005 that the agency would soon reopen Lafitte and C.J. Peete prevent these developments from being put on the demolition list. Residents were proscribed from living in their homes in the Big Four in
      the period prior to the actual demolition of the public housing units. In reality HUD viewed the very existence of the homes of these Katrina survivors to be obstacles to its objective of “deconcentrating” poverty in post-Katrina New Orleans. That the “mixed-income housing” replacing these homes would accommodate only a minority of the residents who lived in the pre-Katrina Big Four was precisely the point of HUD’s plan.

      HUD and its allies turned a deaf ear to charges from public housing residents and supporters that the government agency’s refusal to allow residents to return the Big Four and the subsequent demolition of these developments amounted to acts of class and ethnic cleansing. So, in response to HUD’s onslaught against the Big Four developments, public housing residents and supporters, operating in the chaotic environment of the storm devastated city, forged a grass roots movement to defend these besieged communities. Seeking a reversal of HUD’s stated policy to shutter and demolish the four housing developments the movement resorted to door to door organizing, general meetings, townhall forums, rallies, marches, pickets at the home of key politicians, interventions at HUD and City Council meetings, lawsuits, and occupations of government and public housing buildings. ACORN was conspicuous by its absence from these events.

      Anti-Acorn sectarianism within the movement to stop the demolition of the Big Four, more than anything else, is, according to Rathke, the reason why it failed to secure his organization’s active support.. From his blogsite on December 22, 2007 the Chief Organizer maintained that the anti-demolition movement did not extend a welcome to his organization. #2 This statement ignores the fact that activists in the movement, including myself, repeatedly phoned and e-mailed invitations to ACORN to participate in the meetings and actions of the movement. He goes on to accuse the movement of engaging in “vicious organizer and organization bashing”. #3 Yet Rathke refrains from providing so much as one concrete example of anti-ACORN “bashing” by the public housing movement. Despite the hundreds of fliers, emails and other public statements emanating from the movement Rathke fails to document even a single instance of it engaging in ACORN
      bashing. Another charge levied by the ACORN leader against the movement to defend the Big Four is that it did not welcome local progressive organizations . The absurdity of this charge is apparent upon examination who made up the core groups of the public housing movement. The list of core groups involved in the movement include C3/Hands Off Iberville, Survivors Village, Common Ground, the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, Pax Cristi New Orleans, and. MayDay Nola. These are all New Orleans based organizations. The actions and meetings of the movement attracted, in total, hundreds of public housing residents, local preservationists and local healthcare activists. Rathke’s comments aside, local progressive organizations and individuals were clearly welcome to join the ranks of the movement.

      While the movement to defend the Big Four developments failed to establish a working relationship with ACORN in the months following Hurricane Katrina Rathke’s organization succeeded in nurturing a close working relationship with HUD. On February 23, 2006 ACORN secured a $572,000 SHOP grant from HUD. #4 The stipulations for the grant required that the money be used for “land acquisition and infrastructure improvements” for the purpose of helping develop “low income and very low income” private housing. Two weeks later, March 6, 2006, HUD issued a $266,741 grant to the Pratt Institute, working in partnership with the ACORN Housing Corporation, “to provide community planning, design, and development expertise to support and bolster local efforts to build low-income housing in New Orleans East(NOE)”. #5 Eight months later, November 2, 2006, HUD awarded the Louisiana ACORN Fair Housing Organization a $100,000 Fair Housing Inititiatives
      Program(FHIP) grant. The terms of the FHIP grant, according to the Office of Management and Budget, require that the “Lousiana ACORN Fair Housing Organization will partner with grass roots and faith based organizations to provide fair housing education and outreach to Katrina survivors in southern Louisiana.” #6 So ACORN found itself in the position of being paid by HUD to provide fair housing information to community organizations in southern Louisiana.

      The HUD funding for ACORN noted above makes no claim to being exhaustive. What it does reveal is that while the public housing struggle unfolded in New Orleans ACORN received, at minimum, almost a million dollars in grant money from the government agency pursuing the demolition of the four housing developments. And the lion’s share of this money wound up in ACORN’s coffers just months before HUD announced its decision to demolish the Big Four. With this in mind it’s reasonable to conclude that HUD funding did factor into ACORN’s decision to keep its distance from the public housing movement.
      The post-Katrina leadership of ACORN did not limit working relations with pro-demolition forces to HUD. In
      2006 ACORN and the ACORN Housing Corporation joined the Rockefeller Foundation Redevelopment Fellows program. The guidelines for the program direct that Redevelopment Fellows be provided to “for-profit and non-profit development organizations, government agencies, financial institutions investing in affordable and mixed-income housing and other firms involved in the redevelopment process”. #7 The announcement of the Rockefeller Fellows program came while public housing residents were still awaiting a decision by the Federal District Court of Eastern Louisiana on whether a suit to stop the demolition of the Big Four would be brought to trial. That the demolition of the Big Four complexes fit into the redevelopment scenario of the Rockfeller program is evident from the fact that the list of participating organizations includes five developmental firms contracted by HUD to implement its June 16 plan. These are Columbia Residential(St.
      Bernard), the Neighborhood Development Collaborative(C.J. Peete), Enterprise Community Partners(Lafitte), Enterprise Homes(Lafitte) and Providence Community Housing.(Lafitte). Another participating organization, the AFL-CIO Investment Bank, tried but failed to secure contracts from HUD to help carry out redevelopment at the St. Bernard and Lafitte developments. So, five of the Rockefeller Redevelopment Fellows, out of a total of twenty five, were assigned to firms directly involved in the offensive against the Big Four. #8 Two Redevelopment fellows were assigned to work with ACORN. Another Redevelopment fellow was provided to the ACORN Housing Corporation. No Redevelopment Fellows were assigned to groups fighting to reopen the four developments.

      The responsibilities of the Redevelopment Fellows, according to Foundation guidelines, include helping foster good working relations between organizations participating in the program. Redevelopment Fellows are expected to “engage with partner organizations playing different roles in the redevelopment process, and resolve issues”. #9 This points to ACORN Fellows collaborating with five development firms contracted by HUD to assist with the redevelopment of three of Big Four developments: St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, & Lafitte. The thread binding these and other participating organizations, according to the Foundation, is to help “the system produce more and better housing and community projects.” #10 That the creation of this housing translated into the forced displacement of thousands of working class, African-American Katrina survivors did not hinder the willingness of the leadership of ACORN to get with the program.

      The assertion by Rathke that the movement to stop the demolition of the Big Four intentionally drove a wedge between itself and ACORN stands reality on its head. Activists repeatedly invited ACORN to participate in the movements meetings and direct actions. And the charge by the Chief Organizer that the movement shunned local, progressive organizations ignores the reality that at the heart of the struggle to stop the demolition of public housing in New Orleans were local groups acting in solidarity with public housing residents. The material stake that the leadership of ACORN had in maintaining good working relations with pro-demolition forces, i.e. HUD and the Rockefeller Foundation Redevelopment Fellowship group, certainly provided ACORN with a powerful incentive to keep its distance from the movement. And ACORN’s embrace of the Rockefeller program’s commitment to promoting “mixed-income” housing in New Orleans strongly suggests an
      ideological preference at odds with the movement’s goal of preserving traditional public housing. Finally, the failure of ACORN, a group with ample resources and a stated commitment to defending affordable housing for working class people, to launch a serious campaign of its own to defend the Big Four lend support to conclusion that the leadership of the progressive organization placed a greater importance on maintaining good relations with HUD and the Rockefeller Foundation than it did on defending the human rights of New Orleans public housing residents.

      These findings suggest that movements elsewhere in the country fighting to defend public housing should not operate on the assumption that ACORN is an actual or potential ally. At the very least, activists need to examine whether a de-facto alliance exists between ACORN and the parties seeking “redevelopment”. Not doing so can result in the movement squandering resources on trying to build bridges where no bridges can be built. Not doing so can also feed confusion into ranks of the movement and its periphery as to who has a stake in seeing the cause win and who has a stake in seeing the cause lose. Hopefully, one of the lessons that fighters for social justice elsewhere in the country will take to heart from the New Orleans public housing struggle is that opening the books of progressive non-profits is a necessary step for building a stronger movement from below.


      #1 chief organizer.org. (2007). New Orleans Public Housing Uproar. Retrieved 9/16/08, from http://www.chieforganizer.org/index.php?id=57&no_cache=1&tx_eeblog%5Bcategoryld. #2 ibid.

      #3 ibid.

      #4 HUD. (2006.) News Release: HUD Announces Nearly $25 Million In “Sweat Equity” Grants To Help Families Build Their Own American Dream. Retrieved 9/24/08, from http://www.hud.gov/news/release.cfm?content=pr06-025.cfm.

      #5 HUD. (2006). News Release: Secretary Jackson Awards Over $5 million To 16 Universities To Help Rebuild Gulf Coast. Retrieved 9/8/2008, from http://www.hud.gov/news/release.cfm?content=pr06-025.cfm.

      #6 HUD. (2006). FY 2006 Fair Housing Initiatives Program
      (FHIP) Awards. Retrieved 10/3/2008, from http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheolpartners/FHIP/FY2006FHIP.cfm.

      #7 Rockefeller Foundation. (June 18, 2007) The Rockefeller Foundation New Advisory: Rockefeller Foundation to provide $2.2 million for New Orleans “rebuilding” Fellowships.

      #8 Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence. (2007). Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship: Participating Employers. Retrieved 9/12/08, from http://www.upenn.edu/curexpenn/rockefeller/employers. htm.

      #9 Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence. (2007). Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship: The Fellows. Date retrieved 9/12/2008, http://www.upenn.edu/curexpenn/rockefeller/fellows.htm.

      #10 Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence. (2007). Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship: the Program. Date retrieved 9/12/08, from http://www.upenn.edu/rockefeller/program.htm.

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