The struggle in Katrina’s wake

Dec 7, 2005 at 12:00 am

You could see it coming.

On Sept. 21 of this year, I wrote a column about the potential fallout of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that ripped through the Gulf Coast late last summer and destroyed the lives of thousands. One of the things I was concerned about was that folks who didn’t live in the region — and the national news media — would soon tire of the story, and that’s when the shit was really going to hit the fan. Once the cameras were no longer in town to shine a light on the issue, it was a virtual guarantee that the overwhelmingly black and poor population — disproportionately affected by the hurricane — was going to get screwed under cover of darkness.

I hate to say I told you so, but it’s starting to happen. Just last week there was a story on NPR about how many of the landlords in New Orleans have raised their rents far above what they used to charge their tenants — many of them poor people — before the storm. The landlords claim that they had no choice but to raise the rents because of how much they themselves lost. They lost several months of income, and those lucky enough to have a building remaining that could be rehabilitated were stuck with massive repair bills. The money to cover all of that has to come from somewhere, they say, and the only place they can get it is from is their tenants. Since the tenants they used to have can’t afford the new rents, obviously these will be “new and improved” tenants who will now be asked to pay the “new and improved” rents. As for the previous tenants, it’s nothing personal, y’all, just business.

There’s more. Last month, FEMA announced that, as of Dec. 1, it planned to stop paying bills for the approximately 150,000 hurricane victims who remained scattered across the country in hotel and motel rooms. In short, FEMA was planning to toss these folks into the street. These folks who had already lost everything — and who didn’t have much of anything before the storm — were now being told that in a matter of weeks they would be on their own. In response to this sick-minded request, members of a group called the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association joined together with AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Linda Chavez-Thompson and others at a Nov. 22 rally in Houston demanding that FEMA and the Bush administration back away from the deadline. Other rallies followed.

So if these folks were to be kicked out of their hotel and motel rooms, but their homes back in New Orleans were destroyed — or their rent had suddenly been nearly doubled in their absence — what exactly were they supposed to do? Where were they supposed to go? It kind of reminds me of what you hear in a lot of bars after last call: “You don’t have to go home, but you gotta get the hell outta here.”

See, this is exactly what I mean about being screwed under cover of darkness. It’s easy to have compassion for those in need — even when that compassion shows up way late — so long as that compassion doesn’t have to be exercised for more than a few days or weeks. But when it looks like someone may need a significant amount of assistance for a considerable amount of time, then suddenly we start hearing about how important it is for the poor to learn to “stand on their own two feet,” and why “tough love” is the best love in circumstances like these. In short, a lot of us get tired of poor folks being poor real quick. We expect them to rise up and succeed in spite of it all because, hey, ain’t this the land of opportunity?

It’s enough to make you wonder what a “revitalized” New Orleans is going to look like. Many are openly speculating whether this natural disaster will be utilized as an opportunity to make the city a little less black and poor and a lot more white and well-to-do. In a follow-up column about Katrina that ran Oct. 26, I quoted from an Oct. 19 article that appeared in The Washington Post entitled, “The Economics of Return; Class, Color May Guide Repopulation of New Orleans.” Now might be a good time to quote from that article again:


“These days, as planners and politicians look ahead, many realize that the future of this city, which before the storm was more than two-thirds black and nearly one-third poor, swings on two simple questions: Are residents coming home? If so, which ones? It now appears that long-standing neighborhood differences in income and opportunity — along with resentment over the ghastly exodus — are shaping the stalled repopulation of this mostly empty city. ... Anxiety is building that New Orleans will not bounce back as Chicago did after the fire or San Francisco after the quake. There is concern that it will be much smaller, whiter, richer and more homogeneous: an anodyne, theme-park version of the Big Easy dominated by highbrow restaurants and lowbrow bars of the unflooded French Quarter.”


There’s more. On Nov. 4, a woman named Janeice Lisa Sylvester, a resident of Orleans Parish who had been displaced by the storm and evacuated to LaPlace, La., decided to come home and check on her apartment. All of her stuff had been put in the street, apparently by her landlord. There was also a notice of an eviction hearing — scheduled for Nov. 3 — tacked to her front door. Even though Sylvester apparently made an effort to contact her landlord and tell him where she was, he made no attempt to contact her before going to court to evict her. I think it’s safe to say that Sylvester probably wasn’t the only one this happened to, but Sylvester and others decided not to take this bullshit lying down. With the help of the Grassroots Legal Network, the Loyola Law Clinic, the Advancement Project, the People’s Advocacy Center and New Orleans Legal Assistance, a lawsuit was brought against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish on behalf of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, UNITE-HERE Local 50-2, SEIU Local 21, ACORN New Orleans and a group of other tenants who had been victimized by their landlords as a result of Katrina. Sylvester was the lead plaintiff.

They won. Just in time to erase the deadline, a judge ruled that all evictions in Orleans and Jefferson parishes were to be immediately stayed. This means that landlords don’t have the right to rush down to court to evict their tenants just because they don’t yet know where their tenants are. Furthermore, under the judge’s order, FEMA is required, upon request, to provide both parishes with current contact information for the tenants that the landlords want to evict. In other words, they can no longer say, “Hey, haven’t heard from the guy. He’s outta here.” The landlord now has to make a real effort to find the tenant, then provide a written notice of eviction to the tenant’s most recent address. The tenant then has 45 days from the date of mailing to respond.

In short, evacuees who faced being thrown into the street as of last Thursday, Dec. 1, now have nearly two more months to get things together. That’s still not much, but it beats the hell out of tomorrow.

So for now, at least in this instance, at least some of New Orleans’ poor won a battle. Only time will tell how they will fare throughout the war.

The good news, however, is that the dispossessed are fighting back. With the help of a number of sympathetic organizations who seemed prepared for this eventuality, it looks like they may even be scoring a few victories. The best way to keep the victories coming is to keep that light of scrutiny shining bright.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]