[StBernard] Revived La. Parish Faces Fight Over Race

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Thu Nov 19 23:03:36 EST 2009

Revived La. Parish Faces Fight Over Race
by Debbie Elliott

November 19, 2009

Slowly, about half the population of St. Bernard Parish has returned to the
area since Hurricane Katrina. But with a twist - it's not as white as it
used to be, which has sparked a battle over low-income housing and race.

After Katrina, local attorney David Jarrell decided he could help his native
St. Bernard Parish rebuild by buying and renovating damaged houses. In a
bound notebook with pictures of the dozen or so properties he has
refurbished, he singles out one that was "trashed" by the hurricane before
he restored it.

"This was the inside - it was wood floors, 10-foot ceilings," he says.
"Everything was meticulously designed. But it was still affordable for
people, so if anybody was looking to rent, it was just a great little

But there's a problem: Jarrell can't get a permit to rent it. The parish
council has limited the number of rental properties allowed in each
neighborhood and, for now, has put a moratorium on approving any new

"It's just bad for business," he says. "It's bad for the re-growth of St.
Bernard and the recovery of St. Bernard, and I just want to see it go away."

Jarrell is one of three people who have filed fair housing complaints with
the Department of Housing and Urban Development against the parish. It's the
newest front in an ongoing battle over affordable housing and the changes
that have taken place in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

St. Bernard is a mostly working-class parish southeast of the city. Since
the storm, new people have moved in - many of them minorities. According to
the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the parish's white population
has dropped from 84 to 77 percent.

Now some residents here, like Keith Buras, are adamantly opposed to
developers who plan to build four mixed-income housing projects in the

"It's not discrimination," Buras says. "It's called self-preservation."

Buras says he doesn't want the kind of crime problems that have plagued
housing projects in New Orleans.

"You see what's going on in those," he says, "not just in the black
community. I mean, there's good and bad. Some of them could be Nobel Peace
prizewinners. With any low income, you have bad element: You got your
prostitution moves in, you got your drug gangs come in."

That kind of talk is what U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan found to be
"camouflaged racial expressions." She ruled that the parish must grant
permits for the housing projects in a lawsuit brought by the Greater New
Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. In 2006, the center sued to stop a
parish ordinance that said homeowners could only rent to blood relatives,
arguing that the impact was discriminatory in the mostly white parish.

"I'm absolutely sick and tired of being called a racist!" says St. Bernard
Parish councilman Wayne Landry.

Landry admits that in the rush to rebuild, mistakes were made, especially
with the blood-relative ordinance. But he says the intent was not racist -
it was to bring back the people who lived there before the storm.

"We had a bedroom community. Everybody knew everybody. Houses got passed
down from generation to generation. They were trying to preserve that.
Nothing wrong with that," he says.

Landry says he is frustrated that the local government is hamstrung by the
federal courts.

"We should have the God-given and government-given right to govern this
parish to protect the property values and the people for their life, and for
all of the values of their community," he says. "It has nothing to do with
race. It has to do with the economic stability of the people of this

But there is clearly a need for rental property in the parish. A report by
the Brookings Institution estimates that rents in the New Orleans
metropolitan area are about 46 percent higher than they were before
Hurricane Katrina because of the low supply and high demand for rental

Rental property developer Sam Hodorov adds that the economic stability of
the parish will depend on people from the outside.

"Part of progress and part of changing is diversity," he says. "People will
come from many other countries and they will do their business. And this
town will prosper because of the diversity. Not because of narrow-minded
thinking that whatever was, will be. It will never be, because there was a
big chaos here, you know."

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