NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The federal government calls demolition of public housing complexes an overdue war on poverty in New Orleans made possible by Hurricane Katrina. Churchmen, civil rights lawyers, preservationists and protesters call it a land grab and class cleansing.
On Wednesday, workers began tearing down the first of 4,500 federally administered public housing units to make way for mixed-income neighborhoods.
The plan has ignited allegations the true aim is to benefit developers over the needs of New Orleans' poor, who are overwhelmingly black. Many are still displaced in Houston, Atlanta and other cities.
On Thursday, civil rights lawyers filed an 11th-hour suit in state court after a federal court suit failed to derail the demolition plan. Protesters kept up the pressure with a march on the offices of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.
In New Orleans, at least two protesters apparently occupied one of the buildings scheduled to be bulldozed, draping two handmade banners from the side. One read "Reopen now" and the other "No demolition."
A man and a woman were arrested hours later on municipal trespassing charges.
As the pace of demolitions and protests is expected to pick up this weekend, there is no consensus of what's best for New Orleans' poor, even among public housing residents. Redevelopment would diminish the public housing stock and drive many into less stable voucher programs. Repair of brick and barracks-style projects badly damaged by Katrina would keep intact poor but close-knit neighborhoods.
"The walls are peeling. The mold is there. They would have to take the heating system out. Why not let them tear this down and bring something better back, something fresh for the future, for the children, for the old folks?" said Sharon Hall, 35, a lifelong resident of the St. Bernard housing development.
St. Bernard, like most of the complexes, was fenced off after Katrina, leaving residents displaced in trailers, hotel rooms and apartments throughout the nation.
Hall, a nursing home clerk, had gone back to her old apartment to say goodbye to it before bulldozers move in this weekend. She has fond memories of neighbors and cheap rent, but for the most part she said life there had been tough.
There was violence and too many unemployed residents; her ceiling fell in and repair workers would take a week to fix a stopped-up toilet.
"That's not livable," she said. "There are people rushing to get back to this!"
Opponents, though, say HUD's $600 million redevelopment plan is worse, and would reduce availability of public housing by 80 percent and freeze people out of the city. They also argue the plan is ill-conceived because New Orleans is gripped by a post-hurricane shortage of cheap housing.
Social workers say the number of homeless has doubled to about 12,000 and will grow in coming months as disaster housing assistance vouchers run out.
"It makes absolutely no sense to have those vouchers run out and bulldoze 4,500 useable units," said Jeff Connor, a United Methodist pastor, as he participated in a rain-dampened protest Wednesday night that temporarily blocked demolition at the B.W. Cooper development. "Open the housing now and let people stay in their homes."
Distrust has grown in part because of revelations that HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson is under investigation for ties to a friend who was paid $392,000 as a HUD construction manager in New Orleans. Jackson has denied wrongdoing.
Jackson's financial-disclosure forms also show Atlanta-based Columbia Residential LLC won a $111 million contract to redevelop the St. Bernard housing development and owes Jackson between $250,000 and $500,000 for consulting services. Before working for HUD, Jackson worked for Columbia Residential. HUD officials say he had no hand in the contract.
Jackson, who is black, hasn't helped ease suspicions that a move is afoot to reduce New Orleans' black population. He told the Houston Chronicle a month after Katrina hit in August 2005 that "New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again."
"Politics and money, that's what it's about," said Stephanie Mingo, a resident of public housing. "They want to downsize the public housing. The poor have been excluded."
For decades before Katrina, public housing filled an important and sometimes beloved role in this city where 38 percent of children lived in poverty, more than a third of blacks were poor and four out of every five children were raised in single-parent families.
"They were awesome, they had everything," said Don Bourgeois, who moved with his mother and father from a plantation to the St. Thomas housing development in 1941.
But by 1985, things had changed. The Housing Authority of New Orleans was in financial difficulty and drugs use and crime were sweeping public complexes. HUD eventually took over HANO.
So, the prospect of returning to public housing in New Orleans doesn't excite Eisa Scott, a 39-year-old woman who lived in the C.J. Peete development before Katrina. Since the storm, she said she's been in a public housing complex in Galveston, Texas, with her mentally disabled brother.
"I'm undecided," she said in a telephone interview. "I have peace of mind. It's quiet."
She keeps up with events in New Orleans, she said, and it's "depressing."
"Every time I looked at it, somebody's getting killed, getting raped," she said.
Still, she's homesick. "They have a street (in Galveston) that's supposed to look like Bourbon Street. But they make you go and pay to celebrate Mardi Gras on that street. They're real slow out here."