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Public housing smarts: two universities discover a trove of opportunity in New Orleans’s public housing system – Cover Story

New Orleans

At night, from the third floor landing of her
three-bedroom apartment, Keywanda Wiggins has a view of the glittering
New Orleans skyline. Visible from her window are the bulbous Superdome,
most of the city’s modern high-rises, and a slice of the Mississippi

The view immediately below, however, is less spectacular. Stray
dogs wander on a wide street that separates two solid orange-brown
columns of buildings. During the day, music blares from car windows as
groups of too-often unsupervised children ride bikes and play ball.

This is the heart of the Guste Low Rise Housing Development.

Near the backyard fence of the neighboring Guste High Rise is an
unsightly dumpster packed with garbage. A collection of old bathtubs,
stoves, and refrigerators offers visual testimony to a recent spate of
apartment renovations.

“This place is much better than it used to be,” says the
twenty-three-year-old who like her mother and grandmother, has spent
most of her life at Guste. “There is just more work going on here now,
more things getting Gleaned up and fixed up.”

“I don’t even want to tell you what it used to be like,” says
Cynthia Wiggins, Keywanda’s mother. “It wasn’t just that we had
problems, we couldn’t seem to get anything done about them. The
management around here was always changing, and if you needed something
taken care of, nobody could help you or had the authority to do so. It
was a mess.”

For the younger Wiggins, a student at Tulane University, and her
mother, renovations at Guste housing development represent the most
visible sign of an innovative urban experiment underway in New Orleans.
At the heart of this unique experiment are Tulane and Xavier
Universities. The two institutions are taking community involvement to
new heights with each playing a major role in revitalizing the nation’s
sixth-largest public housing authority.

Today, nearly every building among the city’s thirteen public
housing developments is under renovation, thanks to an unprecedented
$10-million program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development (HUD). The program, which began in 1996, has transferred
responsibility of New Orleans’s housing projects — a job once thought
by many in the city’s political leadership to be hopelessly knotty —
from the auspices of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) to a
cooperative agreement among Tulane, HUD, and the city of New Orleans.
The federal funds will be paid out in $2-million annual installments
over five years.

At the helm of HANO sits Ronald Mason, senior vice-president and
general counsel of Tulane University, as the agency’s executive
monitor. Mason’s appointment to the position, the result of a
compromise between HUD and New Orleans city officials, put the dapper
New Orleans native in charge of overseeing the overhaul and
restructuring of HANO during the past two years.

“I ended up being the guy in charge because I was acceptable to
both HUD and the city,” says Mason, who grew up only blocks away from
both the Iberville and Lafitte projects.

Mason says the decision to separate the social services and
property management functions was made early on. A restructured HANO
has greatly improved its property management performance, according to
observers, while Tulane and Xavier have taken responsibility for
delivering social services to public housing residents.

“HANO was trying to do both, but it wasn’t doing either very well,” lie says.

The origin of the HUD program stemmed from separate conversations
former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros had with New Orleans Mayor Marc
Morial and Tulane President Dr. Eamon Kelly, according to Mason.

Earlier this decade, Morial and Kelly discussed the precipitous
decline of the city’s housing projects. Violent crime soared and many
of the structures had become rat havens filled with garbage. Combined
with the chaos of administrative instability at the housing authority
and the general state of disrepair of the buildings, these factors
caused an exodus of thousands of residents who could no longer stomach
the situation.

After HUD threatened to place HANO in federal receivership, New
orleans officials struck a deal with the department in 1996. Tulane and
Xavier were brought in as management partners, and they appointed Mason
to be executive monitor of HANO. The appointment, which has elevated
Mason to a highly visible public role, has also given Tulane an
influential voice in the management of the city’s public housing.

Revitalizing Structures and Lives

A survey of the city’s public housing developments reveal
considerable diversity among its buildings and architectural
challenges. Since the agency’s reorganization, officials have devised a
fifteen-year plan to revitalize all HANO properties.

At Guste, both the high- and low-rise developments are the products
an intricate, multi-layered web of public housing projects that dot the
New Orleans landscape. The St. Thomas Projects, situated near the docks
of the Port of New Orleans, and the Iberville Projects, just blocks
away from the historic French Quarter, are among the oldest — dating
back to the late 1930s, the pioneer days of the Housing Authority of
New Orleans. Curiously, these older clusters of oak-tree shaded, brown
brick buildings trimmed with decorative wrought-iron finishings have
fared better than their successors. Some have housed three or four
generations of the same family.

Toward the eastern side of the city, however, newer structures —
like those of the mammoth Desire and Fischer developments — have not
fared as well. Now only in their third decade, many are already boarded
up and abandoned. Their likely destiny is a yet unscheduled visit from
the wrecker’s ball.

Under the supervision of HANO, those buildings judged to be solid
and requiring minimal repairs will remain. However, it is projected
that nearly one third of the units, such as the badly decaying ones
that comprise Desire, will likely be demolished. An estimated $750
million in construction will be needed to revitalize HANO properties.

“Every one of the projects that I know of was going through some
bad times, ” says Phelan White, thirty-two, who lives in the St. Thomas
Projects and is now a technical assistant for the St. Thomas Resident
Council, which attempts to find solutions to the dozens of repair,
crime, and management problems that face the residents of any big-city
housing complex.

“It seemed pretty hopeless for a while, but it has gotten a lot better since then,” White says.

While dozens of structures are undergoing rehabilitation, their
30,000 inhabitants are also getting a new lease on life. With help from
Xavier, Tulane is making a concerted effort to train the residents of
the now crumbling, once drug-infested projects to solve their problems

The HUD pact led to the emergence of the Institute for Resident
Initiatives at Tulane — where some three-dozen people, most of whom
are either current or former public housing residents, were trained and
stationed at each of the city’s project sites. The institute offers an
assortment of services to the current residents, ranging from
employment and education counseling to business development advice.

“I like that approach,” says the younger Wiggins, who is a pre-med
student and works in the school’s Institute for Resident Initiatives,
which is also funded by the multi-million-dollar HUD grant. “Now it is
the residents who are keeping things up around here. We have our own
beautification program, and you can see the entire development is much
cleaner than it was before. That is because the people here are now
taking care of our own business, not some people on the outside.”

Applying “People-Oriented” Solutions

An equally vital, if not more intensely focused, part of the HUD
program is the Tulane-Xavier Campus Affiliates Program (CAP), which
aims to address the needs of the C.J. Peete public housing development.
Located near what locals call the “Central City,” Peete consists of a
stately row of formidable brick buildings constructed during World War
II. The project currently houses approximately 4,000 people.

“This part of the program has gotten bigger and changed in more
innovative ways than I think anyone could have anticipated when it was
all being drawn up,” says John Pecoul, acting vice president for
development at Xavier. “It is very people-oriented in that a wide
variety of faculty and students from both Tulane and Xavier have gotten
involved and are doing things like mentoring, tutoring, reading, and
college readiness programs. This has turned out to be one of those
things, I think, that has been rewarding for both sides.”

“At any given time, we probably have upwards of around 100 students
who are committed to working on public housing as an issue on a regular
basis,” says James Wright, a professor of sociology at Tulane and the
director of CAP.

Wright, who has been a New Orleans resident for more than a decade
and is an expert on urban poverty and homelessness, estimates that
since CAP began two years ago, at least 600 Tulane students have been
involved in either studying public housing or visiting one of the
projects — primarily C.J. Peete — for after-school mentoring.

That mentoring has touched the lives of some 2,000 children.

“It is really a very satisfying thing to see so many young people
committed to change,” Wright says. “We have vans running a regular
shuttle route from Tulane and Xavier universities over to C.J. Peete,
where most of our programs are located.

“And I can tell you for a fact that there is nothing I can teach in
a class that is quite as effective as bringing students over to a
development like C.J. Peete and showing them what the deal is,” he
continues. “You can talk until you are blue in the face about urban
poverty, but until you go up and look into the belly of the beast, you
don’t understand it.”

Some of the supporters of the Tulane and Xavier initiatives,
however, worry about the risks associated with placing students — many
of whom are not only new to New Orleans, but have never seen a public
housing project before — in parts of the town that have historically
high rates of violent crime.

“There are many things that could still go wrong with our efforts
down here,” admits Mason. “I dread the example of one of our student
catching a bullet at one of these housing sites. That would put panic
[in] everyone.”

Emergence of a New Spirit

One factor, however, that may help stave off such a tragedy is the
five HUD-funded community police substations that are now located on
project sites. After the first year substations were opened on the
sites of the Desire, B.W. Cooper, and Florida projects, the murder rate
dropped by a stunning 73 percent.

Police are additionally supported by the newly vigilant efforts of
the residents, who today are much more likely to monitor and report
suspicious activities.

Mason believes there is a newly emerging spirit among many of the
projects’ residents. He cites their willingness to help sop crime and
their participation in the daily management of their projects as
evidence that they are more willing now to get involved in the fortunes
and fate of their communities.

An increasing number have also begun to express interest in buying
their units. The prospect that more than a third of the city’s housing
units could one day be privately owned is one that even the most
fervent project supporter would have once had a hard time believing.

Cynthia Wiggins is among those advocating home ownership for public housing residents.

“We had a meeting about this just the other day and sent out fliers
asking people if they would be interested in owning public housing and
the response was big — we got seventy-two people to our meeting who
said yes,” she recalls.

Mason, who plans to step down from his Tulane administrative duties
this year, is spearheading the establishment of a National Center for
the Urban Community, which will be based at the Tulane campus. The
center, under Mason’s leadership, will coordinate activities Tulane and
Xavier now support through its cooperative agreement with HANO. It will
also allow faculty members and researchers to test and evaluate policy
proposals within city neighborhoods and public housing developments.
Mason says the center will become a national resource for public
officials and academics seeking policy research and community
development models to implement in their own communities.

For Cynthia Wiggins, who has seen the worst and best of times at
the Guste Project, the cooperative effort by the universities, HUD, and
the city has had an impact that she sees and feels each day.

“I can see the difference in daily life around here,” she says.
“People are working together more. There is less crime. Things are
cleaner…. You always feel good when you do something that makes
things better.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

© Copyright 2005 by

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