Thomas stands by rules for re-entry
Job requirement has strong support, he says
Saturday, February 25, 2006
By James Varney
It may be causing an uproar in Houston, but New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas said Friday that he has encountered solid support at home for his view that only employed residents, or those willing to train for a job, should be allowed back into the city's public housing developments.
Since Thomas expressed that position at a Housing Committee meeting on Monday, he said, his opinion has often been misconstrued.
For example, he didn't mean to imply that the elderly and disabled should be excluded from returning to their homes in the developments. But he does believe that residents of publicly subsidized housing must display the moxie New Orleans needs during its gravest crisis, instead of a sense of entitlement. And he will not "back down" from a view that resonates across the town's political and racial spectrum, Thomas said.
"Out of more than 50 phone calls to my office from black and white residents, only two were opposed," he said. "Look, I'm as bleeding a heart as anyone, but people know where I'm coming from, and I think black leaders need to say what has to be done, not what some people may want to hear.
"We need to teach our people independence," Thomas said, again addressing the city's African-American community and citing Malcolm X's argument that the welfare state was a modern form of slavery. "If someone is given a chance to better their life, why would they say no? What does that say about them?"
Thomas' comments, which drew immediate backing from federally appointed officials running the Housing Authority of New Orleans, centered on what some believe may be the largest stock of apartments in a flood-ravaged city. While HANO is still cataloging how many units are inhabitable, officials said the city had more than 7,000 units before Hurricane Katrina. Those that are in areas that didn't flood, such as the West Bank, are in operation, while HANO is bringing the others back in stages.
Rules get tougher
Already, the agency has adopted stricter requirements for housing -- most of which reflect the principals Thomas espoused.
For example, former residents who want to return to their previous units or take occupancy of a deserted one must exhibit a desire to go through training programs or provide a prior record of employment, said Nadine Jarmen, the receiver in charge of HANO. It remains unclear how long the new requirements, which officials say are an emergency measure, will remain in place.
HANO's new rules -- along with Thomas' comments -- drew an immediate rebuke from officials in Houston, which has absorbed more Katrina evacuees than any other city. There, City Councilman M.J. Khan said Thomas' statements smacked of selective engineering, and he questioned why any city should be able to dictate who lives there. He also questioned why New Orleans, which relied on the graciousness of other cities during a time of crisis, would now cavalierly assume some residents should not be allowed to return.
On Friday, the Houston Chronicle joined that fray, ripping the New Orleans City Council in an editorial titled, "No welcome home."
"Everyone who fled from New Orleans during the storm deserves the same warm welcome back that they received upon arriving in Houston and other host cities during the emergency," the paper wrote. "If New Orleans is unwilling to do that for its own, to the best of its ability, then the Hurricane Katrina disaster has shattered its sense of community in a manner no engineer or architect can ever repair."
For some of the evacuated residents, Thomas' words stung.
"Instead of helping keep the city closed, why doesn't he offer to help open it up?" asked Stephanie Mingo.
Mingo lived in the St. Bernard development with four children and one grandchild. She worked for the Orleans Parish School Board before fleeing to Harris County in Texas as Katrina approached. She is well aware that things will never be the same in New Orleans, but she isn't asking for that, Mingo said. She's asking for a place -- any place -- where she and her family can come back and start over. Many others want the same, regardless of their employment status.
"I know I'm just a poor small person who has no say-so, but as soon as they start rebuilding, I'll accept anything they offer," she said.
Thomas' statements also rankled some housing activists, who link them to what they see as a naked move by elite interests to radically alter New Orleans racial composition.
"We see Thomas' rant as part of the solution of the elites and the 'Bring New Orleans Back' commission to drive out the poorest blacks in the city," said Jay Arena, a graduate student at Tulane University and part of a coalition of groups that believes HANO has not been aggressive enough in reopening public housing developments. "We oppose using the hurricane as a pretext to reduce public housing. People have a right to return to their homes."
While most of the city's public officials have remained on the sidelines in the debate, Councilwomen Renee Gill Pratt and Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson backed Thomas' comments, as did most of the largely African-American audience in the council chambers when he made them. Mayor Ray Nagin, asked about the matter after a police ceremony this week, seemed noncommittal.
Nagin is fighting for re-election against an increasingly crowded field, and Thomas was considered a possible candidate. But Thomas decided instead to seek re-election as an at-large council member. Arena and other housing activists say they believe Thomas' statements were designed to curry favor with white voters and increase his chances of an election victory. Thomas denies that claim.
"I don't have to pander to anybody," Thomas said. "I think people know I say what I mean and I have credibility with black voters already."
Clarkson said people are casting some council members' sensible statements in a sinister light. The process must unfold in the most "intelligent manner possible," she said.
Given the city's hobbled infrastructure and the lack of employment opportunities, open schools, day-care centers and the like, it's absurd to think people can begin pouring into the city and taking up where they left off before Katrina struck, she said.
"This isn't about who can come back and who can't come back," she said. "People think we are telling the elderly and the disabled people we don't want them to return to New Orleans and that's not true. We just want to make sure we have what we need in place for them to return when they return to some form of normalcy."
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James Varney can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3386.
Too bad he is not running for mayor. I heard him talk before and he pulls no punches.
Well we are trying to help Houston to become a cholate city instead of a carmel one. houston just does not appriciate what we do for them.
While I was in Houston this weekend, I dropped by some pawn shops to see if there were any bargains. (No.) One shop owner told me that he had few guns in stock because they had been purchased by either all the N.O. refugees or people trying to protect themselves from the N.O. refugees.
He said that all of the 35-year-old complexes in his part of town were filled with a mix of Mexicans (legal and otherwise) and N.O. blacks. He said crime had skyrocketed.
Houston is paying a heavy price for being so close and so welcoming to the evacuees in terms of crime rates and school enrollment. So many of the kids don't know shit.
The Dem pols of LA have so screwed up that state that it is unsalvageable.
But, hey, it is friendly to unions, so it must not be all bad, right?
In other news, the destroyed SuperDome is hosting big parties this weekend. I guess they are just putting table cloths on the cadavers and hanging air fresheners.
That's because New Orleans threw in a few nougats too!
Would this be considered discrimination ?
I guess I should be a little more understanding for Houston in that they can't handle a few evacs from N.O.....
LA is a right to work state.
That is why Thomas should be mayor. He will say things that white politican won't even consider. He does speak his mind and mean it.
No ones stopping anyone from returning to *their* home. If its public housing, its not *their* home. Its taxpayer funded housing that society has been kind enough to supply to these folks and guess what, due to storm damage, it just isn't there at the moment in the numbers of units that existed previously. If these folks can come back and buy a new place, no one is stopping that from happening.