By Zoe Sullivan, Special to the NNPA from The Louisiana Weekly –
After Katrina, St. Bernard Parish issued an ordinance restricting rental of single-family dwellings to people related by blood. It also put a moratorium on the construction of multi-family dwellings. Both of these steps were perceived as efforts to prevent African-Americans from moving into the Parish, and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) won federal injunctions to overturn both of these policies.
Last week, the fight heated up again. After St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro urged council members to "stand with him" while adopting a "resolution to this challenge that incorporates the concerns of the federal agencies while maintaining our ability to govern locally." The Parish President's office told The Louisiana Weekly that the multi-family housing development being planned for the parish is of a high-density type that doesn't fit with the agency for Housing and Urban Development's current policies. "They tore down high-density housing in New Orleans," the Parish President's office said, questioning why similar housing would then be built in St. Bernard.
A press release from the GNOFHAC said that the organization filed a temporary restraining order against the parish because "St. Bernard Parish officials clearly stated their intent to violate the Fair Housing Act and the Consent Order by impeding the development of four mixed-income apartment complexes."
GNOFHAC Executive Director James Perry comments, "We are profoundly disappointed in Mr. Taffaro and other parish leaders for what is another backwards and wrongheaded step by the Parish to limit housing opportunities for people of color. We will continue to advocate in court and through HUD's processes until there is fair housing choice in St. Bernard Parish."
In his statement to the parish council earlier last week, Taffaro "acknowlede[d] and rebuke[d] discrimination both past and present.” But, he said, "The timing of the Provident project is wrong, the agenda is flawed, and the implementation is skewed. At the end of the day, the developers walk away with their profit, the tenants are herded away from home ownership opportunities in a recovering community, and the parish is left with the burden of being left with additional properties expanding the glut of existing rental and for sale housing."
Perry countered the assertion of surplus housing, citing statistics that 40 percent of pre-Katrina St. Bernard residents say that lack of housing is one of the factors that prevent them from returning to the parish. Additionally, Perry argued, a "state-of-the-art" hospital is being built within walking distance of the Provident development, which means that the new homes would be suitable for the facility's staff.
Parish officials say that they were forced by the federal government to re-issue a building permit to Provident Realty Advisors, Inc. although the original permit had expired and the firm didn't follow any re-application procedures.
According to the GNOFHAC, the current situation follows on the heels of a fifth motion for contempt that it filed against the parish in January, sustaining that the parish's actions violated the terms of a February 2008 Consent Order and the Fair Housing Act. The previous decree was extended through the end of this year by Judge Berrigan, who said that allegations against the parish, "if true, indicate that the parish is prepared to deviate from normal procedures in an effort to harass and delay Provident's ongoing construction."
Some of the steps Taffaro suggested in last week's council meeting for Provident include obtaining a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, a release from the State Fire Marshal, and a review by the Water and Sewer Division.
"Their assertions are laughable," said Perry. "Provident Housing has done everything they have been obligated to do under the permitting process. ...they intend to stop the project regardless of whether [Provident] do[es] anything right or wrong."
Perry also pointed out that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is considering withdrawing hurricane recovery funds from the parish as a result of this situation. Additionally, in an extremely rare move, HUD's Secretary has initiated a complaint process. Perry says that Secretary Shaun Donovan "saw activities that were so egregious that he decided to launch the complaint process against St. Bernard Parish."