Never Say Never »
I never thought that an article in the national press purporting to feature the pioneering spirits of New Orleanians returning to the most ravaged neighborhoods against all odds, exhibiting the enormous resolve of “ordinary” citizens to restore their homes and their dignity whether deserved assistance comes or no, could raise my hackles. But leave it to Adam Nossiter to prove me wrong. I don’t have it in me right now to go over the article in detail and how, in the guise of shedding a faint ray of light on the triumphs and struggles of New Orleans citizens, Largely Alone, Pioneers Reclaim New Orleans presents the opportunity to highlight the worst of what’s happening here and confirm a stereotypical hopelessness arising from the citizenry’s boundless ineptitude. Which isn’t to say that the crime rate, the state of public schools, and the planning leadership aren’t abysmal or bordering on it, but the article conveniently neglects to illustrate the of citizen-led efforts to decry and confront those problems the same way citizens confront the restoration of their physical homes. I’ll leave one particularly pungent quote to make my case: “only about one in five [Road Home] applicants – most of them entitled to it – have actually received money” (emphasis mine). Most of them entitled to it. What a pithy summation of the worst sort of condescension. Thanks, Mr. Nossiter, for your gracious observation that New Orleans isn’t mostly frauds and thieves.Comments (0)
May 13th, 2007
“Recovery also has to do with establishing legitimacy: understanding and responding to citizens’ priorities for the city. … With legitimacy, even if physical reconstruction is uneven and slow, citizens won’t necessarily feel their recovery was thwarted or denied.” – Diane E. Davis, Reverberations: Mexico City’s 1985 Earthquake and the Transformation of the Capital, March 18, 2002, at MIT’s Resilient Cities lecture series
Karen (of Squandered Heritage and Northwest Carrollton fame) asked the other day in conversation, why aren’t we looking at Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake more? Maybe because it wasn’t exactly a stellar recovery – but then, that makes it all the more relevant to our own faltering steps. Of course, the comparison hasn’t been completely neglected – nosing around a bit, I turned up this post, which in turn led to finding this video of Diane E. Davis’ lecture on Mexico City’s experience.
Do you have an hour or so to spare? WATCH THE VIDEO. The lecture portion is about 50 minutes long, with a 20 minute question and answer session following (although the sound isn’t great in that portion). Don’t have 50 minutes? Watch it in stages. I started jotting down a few notes about comments that seemed interesting or relevant to New Orleans’ situation, and ended up with 4 1/2 pages. I’ll try not to go into excruciating detail, but the Mexico City experience is so much food for thought I expect I’ll be chewing on this for a long time to come. So rather than attempt a blow-by-blow comparison of similar events here and there, here are a few points that especially stood out for me (in no particular order):
Responding to the title of the series, Davis argued that it’s not quite the case that cities are resilient. Rather, cities have multiple resiliencies, and some are less desirable than others. Corrupt intstitutions for instance, or violent crime. On the other hand, the resiliency of neighborhood and grassroots organizations was remarkable – even if they didn’t achieve everything they wanted or deserved, their political impact was definitely felt after the first faltering efforts that “followed the logic of money and power.” Citizens asked, “is it possible that we can believe in the efficacy of the government, when it was the people who did everything?” Their questions were the beginning of the end of one-party rule, and did eventually bring about somewhat more participatory democratic institutions and greater accountibility. Questions about urban recovery shouldn’t be limited to how cities recover; we should also ask what they recover. Since the center of the city, the concentration of the political, social, historical, cultural, and economic character of the city as a whole, was most severely affected, what exactly that character was and what it should become were hotly contested. Failure to come up with a coherent, easily implementable recovery plan wasn’t due merely to the very real shortcomings of the local and national government of the time, but also to the competing priorities of different populations and the political pressure they applied. Less damaged areas pushed for more “macroeconomic” concerns while the homeless were still fighting for shelter; debates raged on whether low-income housing should be rebuilt in place, in long-standing downtown neighborhoods, or whether that would discourage higher-end downtown redevelopment with a focus on tourism and offices – again, the character of more than just buildings was at issue. There’s conflict inherent in recovery – ignoring that fact won’t make it go away. Dignity, la dignidad, was the rallying cry for citizens’ groups. They lobbied for specific material needs as well, and for government accountibility, but the recovery of dignity was the vital underpinning of all those efforts. Although admirable concessions were achieved in housing policy, distribution of housing and assistance were still uneven in some respects, and that unevenness has had long-lasting effects, including exacerbating violent rivalries among street vendors, and the persistance of tent cities for years in some areas. Many downtown hotels and private office buildings were left unattended for years to come. There’s been a resurgence of activity and investment in the area more recently, but there are still spots here and there, two or three blocks in size, that have been untouched since 1985, just a stone’s throw from thriving, rebuilt districts.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop myself for now. I’m curious to know what anyone else thinks about the lecture, or about the Mexico City recovery experience in general.
March 23rd, 2007
Mockingbird, by Bob Hines, United States Fish and Wildlife Service
“The process on how damage percentages is determined is the estimate of the cost of repair compared to the replacement cost of the home, if you had to build it from scratch,” [Robert Evans, Allied American's chief operating officer] said. – The Mississippi Press, 8/14/2006
With all the recent fuss over “rebuilding” vs “compensation” regarding Road Home payments and CDBG regulations, I was surprised to hear yesterday that Phase II of Mississippi’s Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP) is basing its grant calculations on cost to rebuild.
I wrote about the “worst of both worlds” scenario Louisiana’s Road Home Program was facing the other day at Think New Orleans: in a nutshell, the LRA was allegedly told when designing the RHP that they had to cap awards at the pre-Katrina appraised value of the home even if the estimated cost to repair/rebuild was greater, because basing awards on rebuilding costs would make it, aptly enough, a “rebuilding program” and thereby trigger torrents of onerous requirements and regulations. And just lately, HUD “discovered” that the method of Road Home payments constituted a “rebuilding program” as well – maximum burden for the minimum award.
Mississippi’s HAP is using a phased approach: Phase I was for homeowners with homeowners insurance (although not necessarily flood insurance) living outside the pre-Katrina FEMA designated flood zone. Like the Road Home, it also had an ultimate $150,000 cap, and beneath that cap, the upper limit was based on the value of the home – in this case, the insured value of the home, plus 35%. Meaning that, should the damage estimate, determined by the method described above, exceed the insured value of the home (or the appraised value, for that matter), a higher award could be calculated. What exactly is being “compensated” here, that’s not compensable in Louisiana?
Phase II is directed at homeowners with a household income beneath 120% AMI with Hurricane Katrina storm surge damage. The HUD-approved action plan makes no mention of insured or appraised value. This award is capped at $100,000, but up to that amount, the award is based exclusively on the official damage assessment – insured homeowners receiving 100% of the estimate, uninsured receiving 70%. And yet, “In consultation with HUD, and due to the nature and design of the Homeowner Assistance Grant Program, the State has determined through its environmental review that project level actions are categorically excluded and not subject to related laws for Phase II.” No NEPA.
I don’t begrudge Mississippians any additional money they may be awarded via their damage assessments; I also wouldn’t be surprised if the assessments were erratic or out of sync with today’s real costs of rebuilding, as the rest of the Mississippi Press article cited above suggests. But I’d really like to understand why Louisiana can’t have similar latitude for the Road Home. Granted, there are a number of other differences between the programs, some of which may influence which requirements might apply, but on their faces, both states’ programs have very explicit rebuilding components, sometimes favoring rebuilding over relocating, and as far as I can tell, the only difference between “rebuilding” (i.e. triggers-multitudes-of-onerous-regulations) and “compensation” (i.e. you-might-get-some-money-in-this-lifetime) is smoke and mirrors.
Was the LRA Housing Committee really too thick to rephrase their “compensation” package to permit greater consideration of rebuilding costs? Is there some secret catch to Mississippi’s plan that would make its rebuilding-cost “compensatory” provisions unfavorable to Louisianans somehow? Or does the fact that the nebulous nature of CDBGs requires negotiating with HUD, currently headed by Alphonso “heck of a crony” Jackson, mean that our marginally-Blue State will be held to a different standard no matter what we do? Or is it some combintion of all three?
Or am I completely missing the point?