The Long Road from C.J. Peete to Harmony Oaks
Those charged with redeveloping one of New Orleans’s Big 4 public housing developments faced an extreme version of nearly every challenge that public housing redevelopment struggles with. and while it wasn’t perfect, they took their responsibilities to work with the residents seriously, and learned some lessons to share with others.
By Katy Reckdahl Posted on October 14, 2013
By the time her organization landed a contract to do work in New Orleans, Sandra Moore had felt the city’s tug for more than a year.
Moore is president of Urban Strategies, a nonprofit community development organization that often partners with developer McCormack Baron Salazar, which specializes in mixed-income and affordable redevelopments. Urban Strategies got a contract in early 2007 to provide services for residents from C.J. Peete, a shuttered New Orleans public-housing complex.
When she thought of New Orleans, Moore vividly recalled images broadcast during the wake of Hurricane Katrina: New Orleanians were pleading for water, medical help, and long-delayed buses to take them out of the devastated city. “I, like most people, and people of color in particular, was mesmerized by what I was seeing on national television,” says Moore. She believes it was then, in August 2005, that Urban Strategies became “involved in this project … in our spirit.”
In late 2006, McCormack Baron Salazar responded to a request for qualifications issued by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) to work on a development called C.J. Peete, located in the Central City neighborhood. As in most of their projects, they asked Urban Strategies to work with them on the service-provision side.
Thousands of public-housing families were among those left behind in New Orleans after Katrina when the federal levees broke open, deluging 80 percent of the city. After living in deplorable conditions for nearly a week, many low-income residents left town on FEMA planes and buses that didn’t allow people to choose their destinations.
The tone toward public-housing residents seemed set a month after the storm, when media across the nation reported the controversial statement of HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who said that New Orleans “is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.” At first, the Housing Authority of New Orleans said it would reopen most of the complexes, except for a few that were badly flooded. But soon, without any notice to the contrary, the housing authority installed steel barriers over the windows and doors of some complexes and erected tall fences around the remainder.
Rumors flew. But no one announced anything certain for nearly a year.
Then, in June 2006, nine months after Katrina hit, Jackson announced a plan to demolish more than 5,000 public-housing apartments in the so-called Big Four—four of the city’s biggest complexes, including Peete. Plans showed that public-housing residents would likely be displaced for at least four more years.
At the invitation of New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative (NONDC), a longtime Central City organization, McCormack Baron submitted proposals to HUD and won a contract for Peete.
When Moore received the word, she knew that they would need to react more quickly and with more resources than they’d ever done before.
Her New Orleans to-do list was daunting and the timeline very tight. Urban Strategies had to swiftly make contact and provide case-management to residents scattered across the United States without consistent cell-phone numbers or addresses. They had to earn the trust of Peete residents and its close-knit group of leaders, who over the past decade had seen a series of developers arrive, demolish half of the complex’s apartments, and then disappear.
And everything had to happen in record time: Peete’s developers were faced with building 460 apartments and 50 affordable for-sale homes within a short construction window—18 months—because of the strict placed-in-service deadline for special Gulf Opportunity Zone low-income tax credits.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, nerves were raw. Local service providers “were pointed; they were direct; sometimes the responses … felt mean-spirited,” says Moore. “They told us that we weren’t from New Orleans, we didn’t know what we were doing, and they didn’t want us there.” They said it directly to Moore; they skipped partner meetings; they failed to share necessary information.
Esther Shin, Urban’s senior vice president of policy and planning, believes that it was their “greatest challenge” politically: gaining the trust of local nonprofit leaders who feared that Urban’s intent was to “come in and take resources.”
Slowly, the tide turned. “One by one, people began to trust us,” Moore said. She believes that they won over their toughest critics partly by keeping promises. But also “they helped to push us in ways that were helpful—and we found our common ground together.”
They decided to focus first on finding C.J. Peete’s residents and building a connection with them.
By the time Katrina blew into town, fewer than 100 families lived at Peete, amid a sea of 600 decrepit apartments that had been shuttered for a decade. Urban largely was starting from scratch to find those residents, using a strategy that had several prongs: They got contact information from FEMA, did mailings, issued press releases, and bought newspaper ads and billboards.
In a strategy that both located residents and built relationships, Urban hired former Peete residents to call their former neighbors, giving them pre-paid cell phones and paying in cash, using private philanthropy dollars.
Once they located people, resident leader Jocquelyn Marshall remembers, “Many people were just saying, ‘I want to come home. I want to come home.’” The residents hired by Urban listened to their neighbors’ concerns, talked with them about the demolition and the redevelopment, and explained that they would have a case manager who would work with them throughout this process.
But it wasn’t easy. Residents asked, “Why should we trust what you say?” They raised issues that seemed deceptive or unfair. They accused McCormack Baron of being like past developers who flew in, didn’t honor their word, got paid and went back home. “We had been lied to many times and misled. So residents felt they couldn’t trust anyone,” Marshall says. Plus, their existence at that point “was about survival, just trying to meet basic needs,” she says. That too added to people’s stress.
So, according to resident leader Debbie Holmes, “the biggest challenge was to get people to buy in.” But their willingness to do that changed from month to month. “Sometimes residents would come to the meetings. They would be fully active, participating, engaged, and ready. And the next month, they might be like, ‘You need to get the hell out of here’.”
In early 2008, the mayor of New Orleans asked developers to sign memoranda of understanding with resident leaders of each of the four complexes. This included having to agree on topics such as rules of tenancy.
While these negotiations typically would have been conducted by a senior project person, in New Orleans, Moore stepped into the role. The negotiations extended for months because the resident leaders and their legal-aid lawyer had detailed, in-depth questions about how all aspects of the development would work and what the role of the resident council would be in its new environment. “The residents were good leaders, good stewards, smart, and they had good counsel,” Moore says. “So the negotiations went on and on.”
For example, Marshall and other leaders said the developers’ preference for residents sitting on back balconies or in back yards wouldn’t fly. They saw front-porch sitting as both a tradition and a crime-prevention measure that provided eyes on the street. “If I’m paying rent, whether I’m getting a subsidy from the government or paying market rent, you’re not going to tell me I can’t sit on my porch,” said Marshall. The residents prevailed.
But the two parties butted heads on two provisions: that the developers provide job training for Peete residents and that the developers not demolish the existing community center—which residents had gotten in the first place only after a fight—but instead allow residents to manage it. The standoff on these two items dragged on, creating a high stack of drafted MOUs.
While Urban Strategies typically manages its own sites, Marshall felt like the residents’ council had “sweat equity” from managing the center’s past day-to-day operations. “We were here before they came here and will be here when they’re gone,” she says.
Moore says that the management of the community center was a sticking point because the center was part of the real-estate deal. “The investors wanted to make sure that all of the real estate, the center included, was properly managed to the standard of any private rental development that they might invest in.” Those investors had concerns about the residents’ ability to manage the building, Moore says. “There was worry that the public-housing residents, returning from the trauma of the hurricane and then taking on management of the center on their own would not meet the standards or expectations needed. [So] Urban was drafted to manage the center.”
In the end, residents agreed that Urban could be the manager of the center but would have the responsibility to train resident leaders to manage it over a 7- to 10-year time span. When hiring staff for the center, Urban also agreed to give first option to former residents, Moore says.
What’s In a Name?
Another emotional, and imperfect, decision was the complex’s name.
Shin said that residents were split pretty evenly about whether to keep the name. One half wanted to pay homage to the original site and call it Magnolia. Another half wanted a new name because they didn’t want new renters to associate the new site with the high crime and other negatives that came with the name Magnolia.
“It came down to marketing,” Shin said. Development and management people told residents that the name Magnolia would be a marketing issue for them. The word “oaks” kept cropping up in proposed names, because of the large live-oak trees on and around the site, Shin said. But a resident renaming committee came up with three names, all based upon the name Washington, for Washington Street, which borders the complex. As Shin recalls, the three names were Washington Square, Washington Park, and Washington Heights.
The committee submitted it to the investors’ marketing people, who rejected the proposals. The new name would be “Harmony Oaks,” they told Shin.
Shin’s heart sank. The word Harmony hadn’t been raised at all by residents and yet she was going to have to stand in front of a group of residents and tell them the new name had been chosen. “It was a terrible moment,” she says. “People want to forget how it happened.”
But Shin remembers. “I was screamed at a lot,” she says.
Perhaps, as the investors had hoped, the name change contributed to the outpouring of interest. But more likely it was that Harmony Oaks was offering apartments for modest rents when there was an extreme shortage of such apartments in the city. Whichever it was, thousands of people—not just former public-housing residents, but a diverse mix of New Orleanians, including staff from nearby Ochsner and Touro hospitals—filled out cards expressing interest in a Harmony Oaks apartment.
Urban’s case management model is about eliminating barriers to return, so they worked closely with former residents to help them figure out next steps, Shin says.
Marshall recalls one important conversation about barriers to return. By then, she was an employee of Urban, which hired her and her neighbor Debbie Holmes in August 2008. She sat down with resident leaders and Urban staff and they made a list of potential barriers for residents returning to the site.
Since anyone with a criminal background would face a barrier, they decided to help facilitate expungements for those who had convictions that were old or minor. Since they were giving preference to working tenants, they needed to assist them in finding employment and give them a grace period to find jobs.
And they needed to address relocation expenses, because if residents didn’t have the money necessary to move from Texas or wherever they were, that would be a barrier to return. The HANO receiver at the time, Karen Cato-Turner, refused to allow relocation assistance for returning tenants. But Marshall refused to give up on the issue.
In late 2009, when HUD—disgusted by HANO’s perennially poor performance—sent in an unprecedented federal “takeover team” led by public-housing veteran David Gilmore, Marshall saw her chance.
She spoke at Gilmore’s first board meeting. “My question was, ‘Why? Why wouldn’t you pay for relocation assistance for families that were involuntarily displaced from your sites when they want to come back home?’” she says. She believed that HANO’s refusal violated the Uniform Relocation Act, she said.
Gilmore said, “That’s true” and approved relocation assistance for all four sites.
But even with all the barriers removed, only about 15 percent of households in the new complex are former Peete residents. About half of those are from the 1998 relocation and half came from the 99 Katrina-displaced households.
Holmes has mixed feelings about that. She harkens back to her pre-Katrina life, which—while not perfect—was familiar. Before Katrina, she felt like part of a community, she says, where, for instance, her neighbor knew that Holmes worked two jobs and so her teenager was in their apartment alone after school. “For me, it was the relationships I had with residents here. I don’t think we have that right now. The community we had, it’s not here.”
Urban Strategies senior project manager Linda Pompa says, in her opinion, getting everyone to return seems like less of a “self-sufficiency model” and more like one that’s “paternalistic.” If the goal of caseworkers is only to boost return numbers, “they’re not going to necessarily counsel people about other options, like becoming a homeowner, or getting a better job, or moving to a different school district so your kid can be in a better school. If their goal is to make that [return] number as high as possible, then that becomes their priority,” she says.
Marshall, a New Orleans Saints fan, compares the redevelopment’s success with the Saints, one-time losers that came back to win the Super Bowl. That win came in January 2010, just as Marshall was welcoming the first families back to Harmony Oaks. “It couldn’t have happened at a better time,” she said, noting that the achievements helped her realize that anything is possible “You set your mind to it, you believe, and it will happen,” she said.
This article is excerpted from a longer report that discusses more of the history and politics of the redevelopment, as well as the development of schools and literacy and job training programs as part of the process. The full report, which was funded by the Annie E. Casey and C. S. Mott foundations, will be available for download from www.nhi.org/go/HarmonyOaks when it is published.
Katy Reckdahl is a New Orleans-based news reporter who has written for The Times-Picayune, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and the Christian Science Monitor.