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Ben Carson, HUD Secty., visits former N.O. housing developments

21st August 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

Brain surgeon-turned-Trump administration head of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Dr. Ben Carson, toured two of New Orleans’ revamped housing project developments last Tuesday, along with Governor John Bel Edwards and representatives from both HANO and HUD.

The two developments, Bienville Basin (former Iberville projects) and Columbia Parc (formerly the St. Bernard, which flooded after Hurricane Katrina). Since Hurricane Katrina, both have been refurbished inside and out. Both now house mixed-income communities funded through public-private partnerships.

Gone are most of the old brick structures, replaced with cheery red brick and colorful siding. The insides are no longer painted institutional yellow, but rather white walls like any other apart rather white walls like any other apartment. Faux marble countertops and faux wood floors give each unit a homier feel.

The baseline market price for a one bedroom in Bienville Basin was said to be $1,200. “That’s the market rate. If you came in and didn’t have any assistance with the rent, you’d pay $1,200,” Governor Edwards told The Louisiana Weekly. “I don’t want to speak for the folks who run the development but I think, if you were low-income with assistance, it can be as little as $150 or $200 a month.”

Of the Bienville Basin’s total 496 units (down from over 800 units before Katrina), 155 are now reserved for public housing, 173 remain at market value and 168 are reserved as affordable units for those utilizing tax credits and/or vouchers to reduce their rent.

“I’ve been through this development previously and I am happy with the progress,” Gov. Edwards added, praising the mixed-income model. “To move from where you have concentrated residents who are all low-income into a mixed-income deve-lopment is going to be a big success. This is just so much better, I think. So much more stability.”

This tour came after a stop the day before in Baton Rouge where Dr. Carson and Gov. Edwards stopped to look at new housing there and also to speak with politicians and residents about the slow-coming $1.7 billion in special appropriations from Congress to fix last year’s flood damage.

The large group including Dr. Carson and Gov. Edwards, plus representatives from HUD and HANO then proceeded to a second, larger Bienville Basin unit meant for families. There, Carson explained to those gathered that HUD was pleased to currently be helping one-in-four people in need of residence. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers currently contains over 30,000 people.

At this point in the tour, Dr. Carson asked, “What are the schools like around here?”

“We have several schools near here,” replied Gov. Edwards, “all charter schools.”

“Oh, really?” said Dr. Carson. “Were the charters already there or did they come in [after Katrina]?”

“After Katrina almost all of New Orleans’ schools became charters,” replied Gov. Edwards, referencing what has been one of the biggest issues in Katrina’s wake.

“Oh. Well, that was very proactive of them,” Carson said, smiling.

“It’s been a huge improvement,” Edwards claimed, before also claiming that the schools were all about to move back under the control of the New Orleans Parish School Board.

Next, the caravan moved to the Columbia Parc complex on St. Bernard Ave., where The Louisiana Weekly asked HUD’s Gen Deputy Assistant Secretary for Office of Public Affairs, Jereon Brown, how important knowledge of education systems is to running HUD. “Oh very important,” he replied. “I mean, do you want to pay millions of dollars to rebuild this type of housing but then have the same quality of school? A lot of public housing is designed to uplift individuals but this model here is meant to uplift the entire community.”

The final phase of the tour commenced in Columbia Parc’s EduCare building, where close to 200 students receive learning-enhanced daycare. The community also enjoys a clinic, and a grocery store will soon be built on site. Of Columbia Parc’s 683 total units (1,400 before Katrina), 229 are public housing, 182 rent at market rate and 272 are eligible for rent-lowering tax credits and vouchers.

One focus of the discussion while on the tour was the Trump administration’s budget, and potential cuts.

“We haven’t had an actual budget since when? I think we’ve been under continuing resolution for at least eight years, maybe nine… there has been no agreement on what the budget is going to be, so the budget has been the same for all of those years,” explained Brown. “Even if we did have a budget, it would go up every year. So that’s why we’re looking at these public private partnerships; we have to look at smarter ways of building to get as much public housing as we can.”

Though we don’t yet have a Republican budget, Brown explained that HUD currently works based on conservative ideologies.

“[Columbia Parc] is unique in that there is a work requirement to live here. A lot of places have a community service requirement, this has a work requirement,” Brown explained. “They have a self-sufficiency program to move toward home ownership. They have job counseling and training. They teach you things about how to dress and how to get a job inside your skill set.”

Like other conservative programs such as school choice, mixed-income housing has come under under scrutiny for its blind spots.

In Carson’s final statement to the press he summarized his visit and again mentioned “personal responsibility” as well as focusing on “business principles over bureaucratic principles.” Carson praised the mixed-income model, saying, “When we keep people separated, they tend to gather stereotypes and treat others different. But if you live in a community, you come to have similar values, so that the amount of money you make is not nearly as important as the other values shared.”

Again stressing self-sufficiency, even in New Orleans’ permanently depressed economy, Carson also added, “We are currently working now on mechanisms that move people through the assisted living program, so this is not a permanent address, so that over the course of time we’ll need less housing than more.”

To those worried that Trump’s (as of now hypothetical) budget might cut back on some of New Orleans’ perceived public housing gains, Carson promised he is “Trying to keep all of the programs, but tighten them up.”

Corrections: The print version of this story stated that the Iberville flooded during Katrina. That is not the case. This story has also been updated with a correction to distinguish between public housing and Section 8 as it relates to the units available in Bienville Basin and Columbia Parc.

This article originally published in the August 21, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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