After Hurricane Katrina, most of the city’s public housing projects were demolished despite protests from residents and the preservation community.
New Orleans’ four largest federal public housing projects—C. J. Peete, Lafitte, St. Bernard, and B. W. Cooper, known as the “Big Four”—were seen as hotbeds of violent crime before they were demolished in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.¹ Built in the early 1940s, the low-rise brick buildings were arranged around open spaces on multi-block lots that cut off the city’s street grid, conditions that were said to impede effective law enforcement and provide cover for criminal activity.² In 2005, the flooding that followed Katrina moderately damaged the buildings and the properties were vacated. Displaced residents were not allowed to return to their homes or retrieve their belongings, and many struggled to find replacement housing due to a post-storm housing shortage and an average 45-percent increase in rent.³ In June 2006, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) announced plans to demolish the complexes and replace them with new mixed-income communities.⁴ In response, former project residents filed a civil rights lawsuit and turned out in high numbers to protest both the loss of their homes and the lack of much-needed immediate replacement housing.⁵ The preservation community also spoke out against demolition of the historic complexes, favoring renovation of at least some of the buildings.⁶ While HANO declared the projects structurally unsound, preservationists maintained that the buildings had in fact sustained limited flooding and remained solid and habitable despite a general lack of pre-Katrina maintenance.⁷ Most importantly, renovation would have been the fastest way to alleviate the housing shortage and allow many of the city’s poorest citizens to return home.⁸
However, while anti-demolition protests garnered national attention, in December 2007 the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a motion to demolish the four housing projects, a total of 4,500 housing units, to make way for the construction of new but fewer, allegedly safer neighborhood-style units.⁹ A few months later, Richard Moe, then-president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote in The Times-Picayune that:
“We continue to believe it is possible and desirable to use the historic housing projects as the basis for carefully planned mixed-income redevelopment in which new construction is blended with rehabilitated older buildings, and streets are opened to facilitate better integration with surrounding neighborhoods. However, our proposals have been drowned out by demands that almost every building be eradicated--as if destroying the structures themselves would eliminate the failed social and housing policies they symbolize.”¹⁰
But the battle was already lost. Site clearing began in 2008 and, after numerous delays and recession-related funding shortages, all “Big Four” sites were at least partially redeveloped and occupied by 2014.¹¹ At least one original structure, or “legacy building” as they became known, was retained at each site.¹² Demolition of the city’s last remaining housing project, Iberville, began in 2013.¹³ The redevelopment will incorporate sixteen of the original 1940s-era structures per a programmatic agreement with federal, state, and city preservation agencies.¹⁴
1. Adam Nossiter, “In New Orleans, Ex-Tenants Fight for Projects,” New York Times,
December 26, 2006.
3. Federal Housing Response to Hurricane Katrina: Hearing Before the Committee on Financial Services, U. S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007), 96.
4. “Demolition on public housing draws protesters,” nola.com, December 13, 2007.
5. Nossiter, “In New Orleans, Ex-Tenants Fight for Projects.”
6. Jack Davis, “Is razing projects the best solution?” The Times-Picayune, January 29, 2007.
7. Jack Davis, interview with the author, October 9, 2014; and Federal Housing Response to Hurricane Katrina, 6.
8. Davis, “Is razing projects the best solution?”
10. Margaret Foster, “In New Orleans, Demolition Begins on Public Housing,” preservationnation.org, March 13, 2008.
11. Katy Reckdahl, “B.W. Cooper housing site's slow march to rebirth reaches finish line,” nola.com, May 5, 2012; and Doug MacCash, “The architecture of New Orleans’ rebuilt public housing gets mixed reviews,” nola.com, February 13, 2011.
12. Jeremy Alford, “Public Housing’s ‘Legacy Buildings,’” bestofneworleans.com, July 24, 2012.
13. Katy Reckdahl, “Iberville demolition marks end of an era,” neworleansadvocate.com, June 20, 2013.
14. Richard A. Webster, “Demolition of Iberville housing development begins,” nola.com, September 10, 2013.