By Sean Benjamin
In addition to flooding 80% of the city, Hurricane Katrina destroyed over 50,000 rental apartment units. A small portion of these have since been refurbished, but the vast majority are still unlivable and the city still faces an acute shortage of affordable housing 19 months after the storm. Rents have skyrocketed since the storm; landlords have taken the opportunity to jack up the rents on the apartments that are still livable. Apartments that used to rent for as little as $400-500 before the storm now regularly rent for between $800 and $1200. In many cases, rents have more than doubled as the pressures of a drastically-reduced housing stock and the lack of price regulation allow landlords to gouge their tenants. The folks who still haven’t returned home since the storm regularly cite a lack of affordable rental housing as one of the main reasons they are unable to come home to New Orleans.
For the first six months after the storm, I was working with a group called NOHEAT (New Orleans Emergency Housing Action Team) to fight rent increases and evictions. NOHEAT doesn’t exist any more, but high rents are still a huge problem. Since NOHEAT disbanded last year, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF) Tenants Rights Working Group has been doing the bulk of the organizing around issues of fighting high rents. This week they managed to get a hearing before the City Council to demand rent control and the creation of a board of New Orleans renters mandated to defend the rights of tenants and to have a voice for tenants in the rebuilding process. I haven’t been very involved in the housing struggle lately, but when the PHRF called for a large turnout of renters to this City Council meeting, I figured I’d better attend.
Malcolm Suber from the PHRF led a team of presenters to outline the urgency of the housing crisis in front of City Council. He didn’t rant about ‘ethnic cleansing’ or chew the scenery the way that some of the city’s self-proclaimed housing advocates are in the habit of doing; his approach was calm, considered, and was amply backed up with statistics and with testimony from renters and displaced New Orleans residents. He explained that affordable rents were necessary so that the low-wage workers central to the city’s economy could return, and that the lack of affordable housing was a major obstacle to the return of displaced residents and to the city’s reconstruction efforts. The PHRF proposal called for the creation of a city-wide tenants’ council to represent the interests of tenants in all decisions made regarding the reconstruction of the city. He also pointed out that it’s the City Council’s responsibility to protect its citizens by regulating exorbitant rents and demanded the enactment of an anti-price-gouging and rent control ordinance using August 2005 rents as a retroactive benchmark and allowing for modest annual increases to account for increased costs of property insurance after the storm. The PHRF delegation also submitted a 10,000-signature petition in support of these demands.
I doubt Malcolm Suber or the PHRF is under the illusion that the City Council has any real interest in counter-acting the landlords’ price gouging. He’s a solid socialist with decades of community organizing experience, and he’s well aware of the class interests of the Council and the purpose it serves within the city’s economic power structure. But publicly coming before the Council and demanding that it take a strong stand for the citizens it ostensibly serves was the right approach to take. The councillors, for their part, knew they had to appear sympathetic so that when the meeting was covered on the evening news they’d look like they have the interests of tenants at heart. The Council referred the proposal to the housing sub-committee, and most of them made appropriate noises about the urgency of the problem and the need to find ways for displaced New Orleans residents to return. Most of them, that is, except for Stacy Head.
Stacy Head made no attempt to hide her disrespect for the presentation and her disagreement with the need for protection of tenants’ rights. She spent the entire length of the PHRF presentation sighing, scowling, rolling her eyes, and whispering indignantly to James Carter and Shelly Midura, the two councillors sitting beside her. She interrupted Malcolm Suber a number of times to angrily insist that landlords faced insurmountable hardships in insurance costs and that they were the real victims needing protection. (Never mind that the PHRF proposal took into account the fact that small landlords needed to deal with increased insurance and repair costs; they recommended a combination of amortization and pressure on the state legislature to enact controls on insurance companies.)
Later, a former resident of the Lower Ninth Ward got up to testify that he’d been the owner of a small local hip-hop record label before the storm, but he couldn’t come home to contribute to the economy because of high rents and he was still stuck in Baton Rouge while commuting to the city every day. Stacy Head showed him even more contempt. She refused to believe he couldn’t find affordable housing in the city. “You’re a young man,” (I’d guess he was in his 30s) she said with that mixture of disdain and patronizing sweetness that only a yuppie can muster. “You’re probably looking for – what – a one-bedroom?” No, he said, he was actually a family man with two kids to support. “Well, there’s a website you might try looking at; it’s called Craigslist, and it’s got all sorts of listings for apartments available. I’m sure you can find something there.” This in the same cloying, falsely-helpful tones as before, as if it had never occurred to a man trying for months to get his family home and re-start his business that there might actually be apartments listed on *gasp!* the Internet! The audience murmured angrily at her patronizing suggestions, but she kept going with her lecture on Apartment-Hunting 101, completely unaware of how offensive her assumptions were.
So apparently to the Stacy Heads of the city, the housing problem is not due to high rents, lack of livable apartment units, or shuttered public housing; it’s just that these complainers just aren’t resourceful enough to find apartments for themselves. They just need to look harder. The same goes for jobs, I presume. It’s not that unemployment is a built-in side-effect of contemporary capitalism, or that New Orleans’s economy is dominated by low-wage tourism and service-industry jobs through any consequence of the way the city has been run for the last fifty years. No, it’s that people just don’t have the dedication or stick-to-it-iveness to create opportunities for themselves. It’s their own fault, really…….
Stacy Head isn’t the only opponent of affordable housing on New Orleans City Council by any means. The two Cynthias (Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Cynthia Willard-Lewis) are also allied with developers’ interests and just as opposed to affordable housing. But they manage to talk a good talk, making populist appeals to bringing New Orleanians home while at the same time opposing the construction of affordable housing complexes in their districts. In the time-honored tradition of two-faced New Orleans politicians, they manage to fool a lot of people into thinking they represent the interests of regular folks. But Stacy Head doesn’t even try to seem sympathetic to the needs of tenants. She’s an open unabashed representative of real-estate developers, yuppie gentrifiers, and landlords. During her election campaign last year, one of her most-trumpeted qualifications for elected office was that she had bought a number of run-down rental properties, renovated them, and resold them for a tidy profit. She’s a landlord and gentrifier, plain and simple.
Stacy Head is the Jackie Clarkson for a new generation. Jackie Clarkson was also unabashedly in bed with big money real estate and developer interests, but she was also a caricature of herself: showy, flamboyant, New Orleans old money. Even if you knew she was on the opposing side in most issues, she was just too silly to take seriously. Stacy Head’s got an updated image: young, educated, professional, eloquent, with just enough of a veneer of good-government reform credentials to make her look progressive in some circles. It’s been less than a year since she was elected, and a lot of people were happy to see her defeat Renee Gill Pratt in last year’s election. Pratt was an old-style New Orleans politician of the worst kind: incompetent, openly corrupt, and solidly connected to one of the city’s most powerful political machines. She needed to go. But her replacement is one of the most dangerous politicians operating in New Orleans today.
A couple of the characters responsible for the dissolution of NOHEAT are still around, attaching themselves to the campaign to re-open New Orleans’s shuttered public housing developments. They’ve already singled out Stacy Head as an opponent of affordable housing and as a representative of landlords’ and real estate developers’ interests, and they’ve been picketing her Uptown house for the past couple of weekends. These folks are very problematic. They’re textbook examples of how not to do community organizing; they’ve got a strident, pompous, abrasive vanguardist approach which turns most people off. In any genuinely revolutionary situation, they’d probably be more likely to be strung up as ‘enemies of the people’ than be accepted in the kind of leadership role they aspire to. In fact, their outsized presence in New Orleans housing campaigns is a big reason why I’m not very involved anymore. But once in a while these guys just might have the right idea, and I’m starting to think that their targeting of Stacy Head as a major enemy in the housing struggle is a good choice.
I’ve always liked the idea of using home demos as a way to personalize a struggle and give faces and names to our opponents. Anarchists in Montreal used to organize “proletarian field trips” to the wealthy suburb of Westmount, and one of the best New Orleans demos I’ve been to took place outside a George W. Bush fundraiser at a country club amid the mansions of Old Metairie. The ruling class doesn’t like it when we come into their neighborhoods to raise a ruckus, and it’s also a good way to promote class warfare. In any case, a stepped-up campaign against Stacy Head at her home (and her law firm, for that matter) is a step forward in the fight for affordable housing.
Photos from the Council meeting: http://www.peopleshurricane.org/display/ShowGallery?moduleId=895693&galleryId=52565
Link to the text of the PHRF council presentation: http://www.peopleshurricane.org/storage/documents/council_presentation.doc
Stacy Head’s website: http://www.stacyhead.com/