Written by Lauren Bienvenue
Thursday, 11 October 2007 11:09
Many believe that refusing housing to non-blood relatives is inevitably prejudiced in a parish where 93% of the population is white, making it nearly impossible to rent to those who are not, and is unacceptable in a time when housing for New Orleans’ residents is scarce to begin with. Others though, namely St. Bernard Parish residents, buy into the parish committee’s idea of preserving their community the way it was before the storm: as a stable area of owner occupancy and not a slumlord haven.
GNOFHAC cites The Fair Housing Act of 1968 that includes seven protections; it prohibits discrimination of sale in relation to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and handicap. Under the Fair Housing Act, one does not have to prove intent of the prohibition, only the effect. In this case, the effect is clear; it prevents someone from getting housing. The majority “of St. Bernard Parish is white,” Executive Director of GNOFHAC James Perry said. “That means there is a very small portion available to those who are not white. That is the result. That is what the effect is.”
St. Bernard Parish has refuted negative response to the ordinance by saying it has nothing to do with race, only that they wish to preserve the parish’s “integrity” by keeping it owner-based. GNOFHAC doesn’t buy it. “Its hard to keep the parish the way it was,” says Perry, “the only way to do it would be to keep it segregated. Maybe their intent was broader, but the effect is the same.”
The ordinance passed by a 5-2 approval, with Chairman Lynn Dean and Council member Mark Mandry against it. Dean feels the committee‘s decisions have a clear motive. “When you tell people this sort of thing, you are dictating the way they live. We should have free rights. This is strictly pure racism, even though they [St. Bernard Parish committee] deny it completely,” said Dean.
GNOFHAC believes that if what St. Bernard Parish really wanted was an owner occupied neighborhood, they would have taken the steps many other parishes in Louisiana have taken, like tax incentives, to promote home ownership.
Orleans Parish, for instance, partnered with several local banks, lenders and home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot to secure low interest loans, eliminate down payments, and provide low-cost building materials to people rebuilding.
Furthermore, GNOFHAC suggests that if St. Bernard Parish is so concerned about landlords buying up property and producing shoddy renovations in order to get it rented quickly, why not put a series of code inspections in place?
Dean opposed the ordinance and suggested rebuilding the rundown apartments, increasing police protection, and building playgrounds, but they were ignored.
“The home ownership excuse falls flat on its face,” Perry said. Quite simply, it seems that St. Bernard Parish has missed a step. “The huge problem right now is that it is a tough financial time for everyone. The likelihood of many people buying homes [at all] is unlikely.”
Dean believes that St. Bernard Parish’s racial problems will never disappear until they start to deal with them. He believes that the Parish was created by people who wanted to escape the predominately black city life of Orleans Parish for an all-white suburbanized community. When African-Americans eventually moved into St. Bernard Parish, they were corralled into cramped low income housing that only fostered their stereotype as poor, uncivilized citizens who brought down the Parish’s reputation.
St. Bernard Parish ultimately wanted to tear down the projects and build high-priced condos, resulting in no alternative for low income residents and what Dean calls what “only rich white people would be able to afford.” Dean says low-income housing fulfills its stereotype of un-kept properties and high crime rates because it is so heavily populated with residents who have nowhere else to go. “How can we expect people to do good things when there is no green space for them to socialize and play in?” said Dean. He thinks that if low income housing were produced more like middle-class income housing, its stereotypical problems wouldn’t fester.
A few years ago, Dean bought land in a predominately black section of St. Bernard Parish so he could personally fund a public playground, but was denied a permit by the St. Bernard Parish committee to build one. He believes St. Bernard Parish’s low income residents have been and continue to be pigeonholed with this new ordinance.
The GNOFHAC had their eyes on St. Bernard Parish after an ordinance was passed in July that made it difficult to receive a permit to rebuild or renovate and another to rent single family housing. The third ordinance, that made it mandatory for renters to be blood relatives to the home owners, was the last straw for GNOFHAC.
They challenged the first two ordinances in July and again in September after the third ordinance passed, but they all went ignored. Perry said the written challenges were addressed to the council president, Henry “Junior” Rodriguez, presumably the legal representative for St. Bernard Parish, but the remaining council members said they had no recollection of receiving any challenges to the new ordinances and therefore went unnoticed. Furthermore, GNOFHAC said they set up a conference call with St. Bernard Parish that they never showed up for.
The GNOFHAC see taking St. Bernard Parish to court as their only option left. They’ve been advised by four attorneys, most of whom have worked on major fair housing cases and are confident they will win in court. “We are not calling them racist or that their intent was discriminatory,” Perry says. He says the effect is what GNOFHAC is seeking to change because “it’s a tough situation to be in, people need housing now more than ever.”
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