NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A raucous debate over the shortage of cheap housing and the demolition of 4,500 public units is sweeping the city and likely to become more intense.
Protesters planned to disrupt a meeting Thursday of the City Council, where members were expected to approve demolishing dozens of buildings _ a move that would open racial and class divisions.
The City Council vote is a critical moment in a protracted fight between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and residents, activists and preservationists.
HUD wants to demolish the buildings, most of them damaged by Hurricane Katrina, so developers can take advantage of tax credits and build new mixed-income neighborhoods.
HUD says the redevelopment, in the works before Katrina hit, will mark an end to the city's failed public housing experiment that lumped the poor into crime-ridden complexes and marooned them outside the life of the rest of the city.
But critics say the plan will shrink the stock of cheap housing at a time when housing is scarce and drive poor blacks out of the city. They also say the buildings are, contrary to popular opinion, mostly handsome brick structures that will outlast anything HUD builds in their place.
By Wednesday, opponents of demolition appeared resigned to a council vote that would go against their wishes, and were accusing council members of discriminating against blacks.
A news release from the Coalition to Stop the Demolition, one of several groups organizing protesters, characterized the pending action as a ``rubber stamp'' at a ``sham meeting.''
``It is beyond callous, and can only be seen as malicious discrimination. It is an unabashed attempt to eliminate the black population of New Orleans,'' said Kali Akuno, an organizer with the group.
A recent shake-up on the seven-member City Council turned it into a majority white chamber for the first time since the 1980s, a shift that will certainly make the vote even more racially charged.
Three of the council's white members were quick to say they supported the tear-down plan, while the council's three black members were hesitant about expressing their intentions.
One black member, Cynthia Hedge Morrell, issued a statement late Wednesday in favor of demolitions. The fourth white member, Council President Arnie Fielkow, has been careful to tread the middle ground, but reportedly supports demolition.
``It's not racist and it's truly not a done deal behind the scenes,'' said Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, a newly elected councilmember-at-large, about the council's pending vote.
Besides opening fissures between whites and blacks, the clash has divided along political party lines.
Many Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John Edwards, have said they would like the Bush administration to stop the demolitions. Louisiana's Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, has also supported overhauling the redevelopment plan.
By contrast, Republicans have come out in favor of demolition. On Wednesday, Sen. David Vitter and three Republican congressman wrote a letter to a Senate committee considering the redevelopment plan, saying it needs to be left alone because overhauling it would delay and even derail redevelopment.
``Public housing in New Orleans has for many decades served almost no other purpose than to warehouse the city's poor and disenfranchised,'' the letter said. ``That generations of our fellow citizens were allowed to live in government-operated and sanctioned slums is offensive and intolerable.''