There have been several recent killings in the old Iberville project, abutting the French Quarter, even though the complex is only about one-quarter occupied. In one, a young man was found shot in the head, propping up the door of an abandoned apartment with a bag of crack cocaine at his feet.
At the St. Thomas project, the violent crime rate was more than seven times as high as the city’s as a whole, according to a paper done at the London School of Economics; only 2 percent of its residents were employed full-time.
At the C. J. Peete project, which is on the department’s demolition list, Lawrence Powell, a Tulane University historian, recalled a flourishing open-air drug market across the street.
Bernell Stewart, a nearby resident standing across from the empty Lafitte project, said, “Every time you looked around, somebody was getting killed on this corner.”
Even those critical of the housing department acknowledge that the projects, with all their troubles, had effectively cut off their inhabitants, an isolation reinforced by generations of living in them. Mr. Powell, who ran a social services agency at C. J. Peete in the 1990s, said he tried to “help people move out where they would become homeowners, to move back to the original goal where it was a way station, not warehouses.”
That alienation was starkly in evidence at the public meeting last month. “For once, I would like for us to live in y’all’s houses and let y’all live in ours,” Josey Willis, a displaced Lafitte resident, told the officials. “Let us change places and see what we feeling; then you can feel what we feeling.”
Other cities have seen similar resistance from public housing tenants fearful of change. But here the tenants’ extreme poverty and a legacy of mistrust fueled by years of official neglect have given the fight an edge. Misspent money caused the federal department to keep a close watch over the local housing authority in the mid-1990s, and the department finally took it over in 2002. The projects here were in such poor shape that “a lot of us said it shouldn’t even be considered affordable housing,” said Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, who served as chief of staff for former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros.
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