Remembering Katrina: Louisiana diocese uses hammers, advocacy to house hurricane survivors

February 26, 2007

At the end of another week of frustration and hostility directed at city and state governments for their inability to resolve the housing crisis since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to much of New Orleans, an Episcopal initiative to build new, affordable housing in the Central City neighborhood was celebrated with the opening of its first homes. A street party on February 24 with a brass band, food and outdoor festivities, including speeches from black evangelical pastors and civic leaders, marked the occasion. Neighborhood residents toured one of the three new "Jericho Road" houses after a ribbon cutting ceremony by Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins. The three-bedroom, two-bath modular houses, with large front porches, are 18 feet wide and 70 feet long. The $115,000 price includes carpeting, central air conditioning and appliances, including washer and dryer. The Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative, incorporated less than a year ago, is a cooperative effort of the Diocese of Louisiana and Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) to build new housing in an area slow to return to normal after Hurricane Katrina flooded large sections of the city 18 months ago. Just 48 hours before the Jericho Road celebration, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chair of the congressional subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, convened a hearing at the city's Dillard University to hear testimony from Louisiana's governor, the city's mayor, representatives of churches and public housing advocates. The congressional panel heard repeatedly that many residents are still stuck in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housing trailers, sharing homes and apartments, or commuting from out-of-town accommodations while they wait for the state's "The Road Home" recovery program to hit full stride. Mayor Ray Nagin charged that the Road Home program, in which the state is authorized to distribute federal grants to those who lost their homes in the disaster, is not working. "It is overwhelmed, understaffed and technically flawed," he said, seeking control of the program by the city. Of 108,751 applications received by the Road Home contractor, only 782 have received final payments, the panel was told. In stark contrast, the Episcopal diocese, although it too is hampered by government red tape, according to Jenkins, is moving forward with great strides by working ecumenically in housing initiatives and at the same time partnering with Central City black pastors to try to put an end to street violence that last week alone claimed four lives. Rebuilding neighborhoodsIn its first phase, Jericho Road expects to develop 55 properties clustered near churches and businesses. While it still waits for the city to award it property upon which to build, the diocese purchased three lots for the first houses. At the February 23 opening, Brad Powers, executive director of Jericho Road, announced that the housing initiative will be the first to receive available lots under the city's adjudicated land program. "The next step in the next 12 to 18 months is to build 50 more houses," he said. Cheering greeted his announcement. Donations to ERD have provided the initial funding totaling $2.3 million, which is being used for administrative management, property acquisition and construction. The funding from ERD, combined with planned financing from various community development corporations will result in an investment in the Central City neighborhood of more than $20 million, Powers said. "This initiative is about community," Jenkins said to those who gathered for the celebration. "It could be an act of those who have means, but that is not what Jericho Road is about. We don't want it to be seen as a sense of power over those who have no power. We want this to be a community offering. We are not simply building homes for people, but transforming lives and changing neighborhoods." He said the name "Jericho Road" was taken from the sermon, "Beyond Vietnam," given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at New York's Riverside Church in 1967. "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar," King said. "It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." "Hurricane Katrina laid bare years of racism, economic exclusion and inferior education," Jenkins said. "All were exposed by that flood." To assure it was a true community partnership, the bishop, who is the corporate head of Jericho Road, named to the board of directors some of the area's black evangelical pastors. "We're putting up the money; they are putting up the soul," he said. One community leader at the celebration, Saundra Reed, co-director of the Central City Renaissance Alliance, praised the role of the Episcopal Church. "We have all seen that government intentions have failed, fallen short," she said. "When the Episcopalians came, they came with their own dollars. They didn't wait for the government. They stepped out in faith on their own." Obstacles to goalIn an interview in his office February 22, Jenkins said the biggest obstacles he has encountered have been "the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans." He said the fact that neither government was prepared to advance "soft second mortgages" to low-income families meant that the affordable housing that Jericho Road builds will be available to only 20 percent of low income people. "We want them to be available to 60 percent of people," he said. Two days later, at the house opening, Jenkins said he learned that the city will move to advance soft second mortgages to low income families. More people in New Orleans are reduced to renting homes or apartments than in many other American cities. In pre-Katrina New Orleans, about 54 percent of the city's residents were paying rent instead of a mortgage, the congressional panel was told, so the issue of public housing and low income rentals is paramount. The city, which had 5,100 families living in public housing before Katrina, now has roughly 1,200. The decision by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in June to close the city's four largest public housing developments and demolish them in order to develop mixed market-rate rentals and subsidized housing incenses Jenkins. "The federal government has closed housing when we have hundreds of thousands of people who want to come home," he said. "There is no place for them to go. No one told me I couldn't go back to my house." Many agree with the bishop's assessment of the situation. "This is, by far, the toughest environment I've ever had to work in," said Steven C. Richards, a former FEMA official and now chief executive officer of American Renaissance Homes, builder of the modular houses that the diocese has purchased for its Jericho Road initiative. "You're dealing with people's emotions, all of the fear, anxiety, discouragement and emotional trauma that people are going through. I hope what you see here," he said, standing in the front room of the new Jericho Road home, "is just the beginning of a recovery."