Monday, July 11, 2011

An alternate take on the St. Bernard housing battle

For the past few years there has been enormous resistance in St. Bernard Parish to the construction of new affordable housing complexes. This fits into a larger pattern of St. Bernard Parish's racially coded use of Parish law to prohibit rental properties of any kind, no matter their size or scale. A post-Katrina blanket construction ban on new apartment buildings and an ordinance forbidding more than one rental property in a 500-foot radius are other examples of efforts at the Parish level to keep St. Bernard as it was-- meaning, white.

It's hardly surprising, then, that the conflict over the new affordable housing complexes has been cast in racial terms: the (poor) white people of St. Bernard don't want (poor) black people moving into their parish. Racist graffiti and racist messages left on the developer's voicemail seem like clear evidence.

Planning map. Pic from
The dispute over this particular set of affordable-housing developments-- four big "mixed-income" apartment complexes, 288 units-- has dragged on for years. At every step, at every council meeting, the residents of St. Bernard Parish have unanimously, unequivocally stated that they do not want these apartment complexes built. The people of St. Bernard have fought this tirelessly since it was proposed... tirelessly, but unsuccessfully: the federal government has stepped in to ensure the Dallas developer who bought up this land post-Katrina can build the complexes.

Does this sound familiar? The people of a community resist something for years and years, exhausting every legal channel, and then it happens anyway. That's the story of the highway running through the middle of Treme, that's the story of the destruction of lower Mid-City, that's the story of countless Walmarts opening in neighborhoods where they were unwanted. Money is implacable. It doesn't matter what the people want: money always gets its way. Opponents of "progress" are demonized as necessary: Don't you WANT people to have medical care? Don't you WANT economic development and jobs? Don't you WANT groceries? Don't you WANT there to be affordable housing?

Let's take a look at "Provident Realty Advisors," the multi-million-dollar Dallas developer building these huge new complexes, complexes where formerly there were wetlands. When we visit their website,, we learn that their primary interest is "distressed/opportunistic real estate assets." So, when shit gets fucked up somewhere, these cats dip in and snatch up cheap land, as they did immediately post-Katrina in St. Bernard parish. Do you think they give a damn about poor people? Surely no-one can pretend they have any agenda besides making money.

Who owns the wetlands?  Pic from
There's someone else making money off these developments too. St. Bernard is mostly blue-collar, with a median household income of $36,000 a year, but as in plantation days there are a few extremely rich landowners. The land Provident is building on was bought in a complicated, strings-attached sales deal from a group called the Meraux Foundation, a consortium whose own bizarre & sinister history sheds light on the way things are done in South Louisiana.

The late Doc Meraux was St. Bernard's sheriff and tax collector. He became a massive landholder during the great depression by pressuring penniless & tax-defaulting residents into selling him their property at desperation prices. These days, the ill-gotten Meraux land is owned by a foundation trust run by a who's who of the parish's biggest power players, chief among them the current Sheriff, Jack Stephens. The Meraux Foundation has made millions doing business with Provident Realty. So, while the people of St. Bernard struggle for local control over land use, their own politicos and "community leaders" profit hugely from selling St. Bernard off to developers.

I would argue that this sale is not evidence Sheriff Stephens & the Meraux Foundation are more enlightened than those who oppose the projects.

St. Bernard, like many parts of the South, spent long decades of the twentieth century in the grasp of insane racist autocrats. Avaricious strongmen like Doc Meraux and Leander Perez were repeatedly elevated by the (white!) voters to Khan-like regional omnipotence, explicitly in exchange for a commitment to protect the parish's whites from a perceived racial threat. The immigrant ancestors of most of Chalmette and St. Bernard's oh-so-reviled racist whites weren't themselves considered white by turn-of-the-century America, but race as a concept, like most prejudices, has always existed in its own reality.

This self-sabotage by voters, letting a fear of some alien "other" prompt them to consolidate political power (& resources) into the hands of an elite, is not a phenomenon limited to St. Bernard Parish. Replace the black bogeyman with terrorists, communists, immigrants, or in the case of most leftists, Republicans, and you get the same results anywhere: people eager to cede their rights, via democracy or other means.

Progress. Pic from
One toxic aspect of this toxic legacy is that a few people end up legally owning almost everything. In St. Bernard that's certainly the case. Now, with the sale to Provident by Sheriff Stephens & co., a sacred & historic trust between the poor whites and the elected officials of St. Bernard has been ruptured. Is there any wonder the betrayal's caused outrage? Elected officials were given absolute authority, allowed to run everything & own everything, just on the strength of that one promise... but it turns out there's something much stronger than tradition, stronger than trust, and stronger than prejudice: greed for the almighty dollar.

I make NO excuses for the outright and pervasive bigotry expressed by many of the opponents of these new housing developments. The brutal & ongoing consequences of this institutionalized race-hatred should not be belittled, minimized, or "contextualized" into abstraction. But just because people are racist, does that mean they aren't our neighbors? Do working-class people who openly express prejudice lose the right to self-determination, while those who have the privilege and education to cloak their agendas roll on unopposed? Should rich out-of-town developers get to do whatever they want when an entire community opposes them?

Of course, "entire communities" were opposed to school integration, as well, and there are echoes of that in this case, especially with the role federal judges have played. But if we castigate the poor whites of St. Bernard for not making common cause with poor people of color, for being duped into viewing their class comrades as enemies, haven't some of us been guilty of a similar oversight? Has our legitimate revulsion towards racism led us to side with a cynical megadeveloper or the profiteering Sheriff Stephens? This complicated story is, in part, a story of poor locals resisting the will of a wealthy out-of-town developer partnered with the US Government... and if we ignore that aspect, we ourselves have been duped.

Ain't dere no more. Pic from


  1. As the economic crisis hits home, whites who've been able to get enough crumbs from the elite to consider themselves middle class are being forced into the same neighborhoods (and class status) as the poor people of color they sold out for their middle class existence. Boo Hoo. Should we weep for them? Or should we hope that their new found outrage at getting less crumbs (less safety in the neighborhoods, more desperate and/or poor neighbors) than before will shift their allegiances from white elites to the poor they are now closer to in terms of class status? Some will direct their outrage even more fiercely against those below them, hoping to push them down enough that it gets them a pass from taking a cut in their own crumbs from the rich: those are who we must confront. Some will recognize common cause with the people they are now almost as poor as, and will fight together against the rich. Which direction people go, as their middle class suburbs become the new American verison of Parisian banlieues as the housing circulation continues it's trends of re-colonizing the inner city for the rich and pushing the poor to the suburbs, which group they look to for more power and dignity -- their neighbors who will demand anti-racist solidarity, or the elites who will demand even fiercer racism -- will determine the future.

    How do we influence the people of St. Bernard to ally with the new displaced urban poor coming to their areas, and not the elites promising bigger crumbs from the pie if the new poor can just be effectively attacked enough? I think it had to start with confronting the racist elements of the struggle and helping show their is an alternative to such reactionary protectionism of class/race privileges.

  2. For more on this check out WTUL News & View's interview with James Perry of GNO Fair Housing Action Center...

  3. It's no wonder that the public perception outside of St. Bernard parish is that this is a matter of race. If I were not a resident and were reading all of the articles, I'd be misled, too.

    What is at the root of these battles is PROPERTY. Pre-Katrina, our town was majority HOME OWNERS. Because our town was destroyed by flooding from one end to the other, we lost a majority of those HOMES to demolition. The remaining homes were then scooped up by so-called investors who then starting haphazardly putting the houses back together and quickly turning them into rentals. Once stable neighborhoods began seeing renter after renter trickling in and out of these once well kept homes and the houses quickly began to fall into disrepair and looked as bad as they did right after Katrina. And, many of the houses converted to rentals simply sat empty, with lawns growing out of control. And they continue to sit empty. Yet, we're being bombarded with over 250 new apartments because of back room land deals. I took a chance, believe in my town, rebuilt, returned, and now there is no concept of neighborhood. There are merely people here today, maybe tomorrow, and then new people after. I couldn't tell you what their name is, much less what race they are, because they aren't here long enough. A transient population is not what we had -- and that's regardless of RACE. We already have an abundance of rentals. We don't need more. Why does my property value have to be diminished even more because someone decided that NEIGHBORHOODS and HOME OWNERSHIP equaled RACISM?

  4. You are wrong to cast all white residents in one parish as the same. You are also wrong to state the opposition was unanimous, as it is not. You're getting closer to the issue (land grab, race to the bank, rule breaking with federal government backing), yet you too have decided all whites in St. Bernrd Parish are this way when that is far from the truth.

  5. there is evidence the graffitti was written by the construction site security guards who were arrested for selling and using drugs on the site. there is no evidence the voise messages were not a hoax; the voice annotations are not collegial. destroying wetlands before filing the wetlands appliation is illegal. the developer allowed the building permits to expire because the tax credits were no longer available. the state court found the building permits were illegal. just because some residents of the community may be racist does not make the developers activity legal. if you want the federal government issuing local zoning and building permits, go forward withit in your own town.

  6. No-one is saying all whites in St. Bernard are racist but there can be no denying there is a large & vocal racist contingent among those opposing the developments.

    But just because some people who are racist are against the developments, doesn't mean the developments are a good thing.

  7. What I hear in these comments is white property owners freaking out as their neighborhood is pushed out of the lower middle class due to a combination of the economic recession and the housing cycle/circulation of renewal and decay. Your neighborhood is on the decay side, rich people are moving to the city, your neighborhood will continue to deteriorate unless you stop blaming the poor who are moving into the aging housing stock in St. Bernard and start joining with the to demand the sane quality of life y'all enjoyed when those suburbs were first built and we're still desirable places for the middle class to move in to. Poverty will overwhelm st Bernard, so the solution is to raise the baseline if what poverty means, so that poor people have access to what are now considered middle class lifestyles!

  8. all the housing stock in st bernard is 5 years old or under; that is hardly an aging housing stock

  9. gutted and rebuilt old floor plans and brick exteriors that are not attractive to a large part of the younger generation of the middle class who 30/40/50 years ago were jumping to buy into these homes.

  10. Any time a federal court judge - ignores that an out-of-town real estate developer is building state and federal-funded housing complexes without any permits, obstructs the proper permitting process, ignores violations of wetlands and wildlife protection laws, allows the continued construction of housing complexes - without permits, without building inspections, without inspections for electrical and plumbing = unlicensed workers, threatens and intimidates parish government officials - with heavy sanctions and fines - to obstruct them from performing their jobs - or going on the premises to serve a Cease and Desist Order from state court - while the federal court judge has stalled any motions filed by parish government officials, obstructed the appeal process "confiscating" motions filed by parish government officials - for the federal court judge to devise the time frame for Provident to continue building as an ILLEGAL OPERATION - is a federal court judge who is headed toward a criminal investigation - as a catalyst to substandard housing being built - by Provident - in the exploitation of the inner city poor, blacks and minorities - so that owners of Provident can line their pockets with $61 MILLION of Free Money - while ignoring and subverting parish, state and federal laws - thanks to USDC Judge Ginger Berrigan and her OVERT Corruption being disguised as a RACIAL issue.

  11. Since this website is involved in Anarchy - maybe you people should work on having a JUDICIAL TYRANNT removed from the federal court bench in SoEast District = USDC Judge Ginger Berrigan.

    The case w Provident is not the only case that was fixed in her federal court - or as Chief Judge - rallying for the Corrupt Big Dogs - while defrauding the little people out of a lawful judicial process - that destroys the quality of life for the rest of society - and standards in the administration of justice.

    While Berrigan flim-flams with Provident - to give the FALSE IMPRESSION that All opposition is based on Race - instead of fraud and abuse in government, Provident involved in LIAR Loans, falsifying applications for Grant Money - and Tax Credits - refusing to honor parish, county, city, state laws as certified on their applications - while Provident has gone belly-up in Texas for $33 MILLION - building the same would-be ghetto structures that are no longer built in New Orleans bc of a quality of life issue; Provident failing to pay its contractors on other out-of-state housing complexes...that sit vacant and delapidated - clearly indicating it is NOT about providing housing for the poor and disadvantaged - but to screw everyone - including the federal government out of substantial money in Grants = FREE MONEY - without any oversight - which means KICKbacks exist - as further evidenced by the investigation and prosecution of city officials that Provident paid off in Texas = BRIBERY and EXTORTION schemes.

    If anarchists, you people should be protesting down at Camp & Poydras - demanding US taxpayer money - acquired by Provident - to not be abused in building SUBSTANDARD Housing - in the exploitation of the inner city poor, blacks and minorities.

  12. whether or not the opposition to these developments contains racists, these developments are terrible. they are destroying wetlands. why not use the $60 million to buy some of the houses for sale in st bernard and give them to people, rather than displacing wildlife & building flimsy towerblocks of sky-ghetto for the poor? since when is the left in favor of big developers? this is about Provident and the fatcats making MONEY. don't be fooled.

  13. I agree with you, that would be great! Is that what those in St. Bernard are pushing for? Or are they *only* pushing for stopping these buildings out of fear and in an attempt to protect property values? If the latter is the case, they will not be enthusiastic about trying to get money to go into buying up foreclosed or storm damaged homes and turning them into low-income rentals or rent-to-owns... Do you have 1 thing that the opposition has written stating their desire to have the money go toward different, better low-income solutions?

  14. RE: Judge Ginger Berrigan commenter:
    To anarchists, all judges are equally "JUDICIAL TYRANTS." Just FYI.

    And as to the rest of your comment:
    There are no longer housing projects built in New Orleans not because of a "quality of life issue" as you put it, but because of the same greedy developer problems of them getting paid big bucks, as well as the city having a chance to keep all the poor people who used to live there out of the city after Hurricane Katrina.

    When the projects in N.O. were built, they were FULL OF WHITE PEOPLE, but after the GI Bill allowed returning WHITE soldiers from WW2 to buy houses in the suburbs, black families moved in to the projects. Then, in the 1960s/1970s, as payback for black protest movements, the government decided to de-fund the repair and maintenance of the buildings, leading to dilapidated buildings. THEN, the government used the excuse of them being dilapidated after THEY neglected them for 40 years, to tear them down.

    Anarchists from N.O. were there in that struggle fighting for fixed up housing for public housing residents instead of the "mixed-income neighborhoods" that were going to make developers millions and lock the poor out of the city. Where were these people from Chalmette, like yourself, who claim to care so much about the "sub-standard housing" being built for the poor in your area, back then? Were you involved in this similar struggle? No?

    Why do you expect people to believe you then? Why do expect people to trust you? Why do you expect people to see your movement as anything other than white homeowners trying to protect their property values and keep blacks out of their neighborhood, and using the excuses about greedy developers to do it? People would trust you that those were not your motivations, if as part of your organizing down there, you DENOUNCED the racism (instead of making up conspiracy theories about it), and you demanded the money go to funding BETTER low-income housing ideas. On those 2 points, the opposition to the Provident development in Chalmette has so far been SILENT. And if you HAD been trying to propose better alternative ideas, I bet you could have been working WITH the N.O. FHAC this whole time instead of fighting them in court!

    The inability of people in Chalmette to make clear that racism is unacceptable has cost them this battle!

  15. RE the comment The inability of people in Chalmette to make clear that racism is unacceptable has cost them this battle!

    It was never about race; except the race to the bank. The Media played this card as well.

  16. For additional photos of the Provident Realty apartment complexes in St. Bernard Parish go to:

  17. This is all about the fact that Provident let their original permits expire, and THEY DID NOT FOLLOW STATE AND LOCAL LAWS.
    this was proven in State Court, and that Judgement still stands. Our local officials have always said that our need was not for rentals. Our goal in housing was to fill the empty homes and lots throughout the parish, and that we had a glut of affordable rents. It IS about the economic impact on our devastated real estate market, and the quality of life issues with 288 high density subsidized rentals. HUD has recognized the problems with high density housing, and has moved away from them, while concentrating on home ownership, and rent to own. I invested my own hard earned money to invest in my rentals. Note: St. Bernard rents have and are still VERY affordable,and are the lowest of all neighboring parishes....even after Katrina when the supply was low, and demand high, they only rose around 20% for a short time. I have rentals that will be obsolete and un-rentable after these luxury apartments with swimming pools and computer rooms etc. hit the market. MY Government uses MY TAXES to compete with me and put me out of business....IS THIS FAIR TO ME. I did everything right and paid my taxes and invested MY money, without any help from the Gov. ???
    I've watched these developers do everything wrong and run to the Judge at every hiccup. I've seen the Judge in action, with her arrogant demeanor. There have been almost 700 filings, and her orders have come swiftly due to the developers timetable. They have to be complete by the end of 2011 or they lose their funding. Our State Housing Finance Administration has factual reasons to pull their funding, but probably won't, due to their clout, and $$ being paid to the connected. How nice it would be to see this profit hungry developer compete with me with HIS OWN money. And then we could use the $61 million to help with home ownership to fill our actual void throughout the Parish.

  18. THIS IS ABOUT RIGHTS, The Citizens of St. Bernard WON a STATE COURT RULING that all 4 PERMITS issued to the Dallas Developer were expired when they started building deeming the PERMITS illegal and any such building without proper permits are ILLEGAL. The buildings are over 75 percent completed and new PERMITS were ordered issued by FED JUDGE. THOSE NEW PERMITS are ILLEGAL as WELL. YOU CANNOT ISSUE PERMITS on already existing BUILDINGS. FED JUDGE is also affiliated with TULANE and sat on the BOARD of TULANE, hired a TULANE ENGINEER TEACHER NOW PRIVATE ENGINEER to go inspect and give good grades for INSPECTIONS which some of is impossible to inspect after covered up concrete slabs over plumbing and inspection of sewer and draining etc. THIS IS A DISGRACE of LIBERTY AND FREEDOM, JUDICE OF ALL. THE PEOPLE OF ST. BERNARD ARE BEING DISCRIMINATED AGAINST NOW AS NOT ONE OF THEM COULD BUILD ANYTHING WITHOUT PROPER PERMITS. HERE IS THE BEST PART... THE DEVELOPER FORECLOSED ON 30 MILLION PROJECT IN DALLAS AND COMES TO LOUISIANA TO GET approved for 50 MILLION MORE.. THIS IS NOT OVER, THE PEOPLE OF ST. BERNARD WILL CONTINUE TO BRING THIS TO LIGHT. NOT GOOD AMERICA, NOT GOOD AT ALL..




  20. There's no skirting the question: When "Village Square" was built it was an immaculate piece of real estate with gorgeous and vibrant color apartments. And if history is correct, the Federal Government "moved into" the area with HUD, and "affordable housing" to give so-called "low income housing" a chance. It Failed miserably. The end result before Katrina was what Provident and the Feds will do to the "NEW" - Village Sq. Part 2 aparments around St. Bernard Parish and EVERYONE KNOWS IT! With certainty, it will become the area's latest slums and those who occupy it will become part of the filthy, diseased, overcrowded and drug-infested areas in the community. One would be lying to deny that history will again repeat itself while those in power and in charge of financing it will be securely locked behind beautiful gated, secure housing somewhere else besides the low-middle income groups in St. Bernard Parish. Pitiful display of government's corruption in action, as well.


    The Meraux Foundation roaches are scuttling for cover!

  22. Another informative blog… Thank you for sharing it… Best of luck for further endeavor too.

  23. This is quite a good article, it is not bias like so many are... it tells a bit more of the entire story, and history. I have seen the poster put up around the Walmart.

    Berrigan is hitting the Parish with more fines! This is money we should have for schools... and instead it is going to fines. We are not a rich parish, she is really sticking it to us. I bet her kids all go to private schools, she doesnt care what she does to our Parish, she lives rich while we live poor.

  24. St. Bernard Parish Issues Permits, Avoids Massive Fines
    Story posted 2011.12.23 at 11:49 AM CST


    St. Bernard Parish officials say they have issued occupancy permits to four mixed-income apartment complexes in Chalmette. A federal judge had threatened to fine the parish $50,000 a day unless it approved the permits so the apartments could be rented.

    Parish councilman Frank Auderer Jr. said Friday that the permits were issued to comply with U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan's order. The permits mean people can live in the apartments, which have been under construction.

    The apartments have been the center of a legal fight pitting the New Orleans suburb against federal authorities and housing advocates.

    "Well, this is incredible," James Perry said, calling the move an early Christmas present. "I think people will be able to move in over next few days."

    But some in parish government called the repeated rulings against St. Bernard a strike against home rule.

    "As a municipality, we lost our right to govern ourselves and actually were governed by the bench," parish council member Wayne Landry told WDSU.

    After Hurricane Katrina, the parish tried to restrict the number of new multi-family apartments. Berrigan shot down those efforts, saying they discriminated against African-Americans.

    Fair housing advocates spearheaded the fight to complete the complexes, which were built by Provident Realty. The company must have its units in service by Dec. 31 to qualify for federal low-income housing tax credits.

    The developments are Magnolia Park, Parc Place, Riverview and The Woodlands.

    Story posted 2011.12.23 at 11:49 AM CST