House Passes Bill To Protect Public Housing In New Orleans From Destruction

Wednesday, March 21st 2007, 4:06 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Public housing projects damaged by Hurricane Katrina would not be knocked down until the government has a plan to replace them under a bill the House passed Wednesday.

The legislation, approved 302-125, also would grant tenants who lived in New Orleans public housing before the storm the right to return to homes and apartments subsidized by the government.

``We need to address the affordable housing crisis in the Gulf region by returning people to their homes,'' said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who sponsored the bill. ``Every person who desires to live in the Gulf region must be given an opportunity to rebuild and to return home.''

The Housing and Urban Development Department and the city's housing authority had approved plans to demolish New Orleans' four largest public housing complexes and other smaller sites. The August 2005 storm left about 7,500 apartments in a condition not considered worth repairing. The demolitions would have made way for an estimated $681 million worth of mixed-income neighborhood construction.

``To do as HUD has proposed across all public housing in New Orleans is tantamount to forced homelessness,'' said Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who represents much of New Orleans.

Under the bill, HUD would have to survey people who had lived in public housing and provide housing for any who wanted to return by Aug. 1. Residents would have to declare their intent to return to the city by that date and occupy the units by Oct. 1.

The government would not be allowed to demolish any public housing without having an approved plan to replace it.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment that would extend a Federal Emergency Management Agency housing voucher program through the end of the year and transfer those eligible to other housing assistance programs when the FEMA aid ends.

In January, hundreds of New Orleans residents protested the planned demolitions by cleaning up one of the larger housing projects.

Republicans argued that housing low-income families in mixed-income developments would increase living standards in public housing.

``We have a moral imperative to change the standard of public housing in New Orleans,'' said Rep. Spencer Baucus, R-Ala. ``We can do better than simply warehousing families in failed large housing projects and crime-ridden communities.''

GOP amendments to replace only those public housing units occupied before Katrina and to require recipients of rental assistance under the bill to perform 20 hours of approved ``work activities'' a week were rejected.

The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said the bill would not prohibit building new mixed-income developments but would maintain current buildings until new homes and apartments could be constructed.

The bill also would free $1.2 billion for a Louisiana program that awards rebuilding and buyout grants to homeowners with major storm damage.

The Senate has yet to take up the bill.

Also on Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee approved legislation strengthening existing tax incentives to builders of affordable rental housing in Katrina-affected areas.

The bill would extend for two years, through 2010, the deadline for those units to be inhabited. It also would make it easier for homeowners to benefit from tax-exempt bonds issued by local governments for renovations and refinancing.