Raising Voices

In 1990, Atlanta’s per capita income was below that of its metro area. But in 2004, after years of encouraging professionals to move to the city’s downtown and neighborhoods, its per capita income was 28 percent higher than its metro area. The New York Times (3/11/06) reports that this shift was the largest in the nation. The majority black city is changing in other ways as more affluent whites move in, “reclaim” blighted communities and displace lower-income African Americans. The percentage of black residents of Atlanta dropped from 67 in 1990 to 54 in 2004. Many fear that the culture and character of this city will change, and not for the better.

What’s happening in Atlanta is happening in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, only in an accelerated way. How it plays out will depend on whose voice is heard loudest – the rich and powerful or the poor and working class.

Over the next year, Shelterforce will look at the direct consequences of Hurricane Katrina and what it means for community development as a whole. We’ll examine more closely the housing story and the fate of tenants (who are notably absent in most of the area’s recovery programs), take a look at the role of CDCs and their limited capacity in the Gulf Coast and in the South and examine the politics of the Diaspora in New Orleans. Will it turn into the “whiter city” predicted by HUD Secretary Jackson, or will it remain a “chocolate” city as Mayor Nagin assured an audience recently. In this issue, we present a group of articles that provide an overview of the politics, planning and organizing that preceded and followed the hurricane.

We open with Peter Dreier’s analysis of the political disaster. By now, we’ve seen President Bush’s shirt-sleeved stage show, promising to do everything possible to bring New Orleans back. But six months later, an administration determined to dismantle domestic government agencies and hostile to the very real needs of poor and working-class Americans, has done too little and too late. Dreier helps us understand why government agencies that were successful in past disasters have been so incompetent in this one.

Dreier also reminds us that, if there is a single remedy to the ideology of greed and disdain, it is the organized voice of the people. Champions of that voice are the organizing networks active in the region, such as IAF, PICO and ACORN. Miriam Axel-Lute tells us how these national and local networks responded to the immediate crises, providing needed food, shelter and communications. She also examines the long-term issues the networks now face, from organizing a Diaspora, to connecting local problems to national political action.

If the region is to be rebuilt in an equitable way, the people’s voice will need to be an integral part of any redevelopment plans, such as those proposed by the Urban Land Institute in New Orleans. Ken Reardon takes a look at that plan and the mayor’s plan for the city’s rebuilding, and finds them lacking. The plans will work fine for the relatively unscathed and affluent areas of the city, but they provide very little opportunity to hear the voices of the lower-income African-American households who lived in the heavily damaged areas.

Whatever the long-range plans are, however, work needs to be done right now. As is often the case, such work is done by nonprofit, community-based organizations. Aggressively stepping into the area are the national intermediaries – LISC and Enterprise – and NeighborWorks America. Catherine Smith tells us how they’ve grown their collaborations within the region and are attempting to deal with two major issues – the lack of nonprofit infrastructure and the overwhelming devastation that will need far more resources than most nonprofits are able to muster.

Indeed, getting those resources will be a challenge. And having those resources targeted to the people whose needs were never a priority of this administration, will be even harder. Just take a look at the FY2007 budget request. Most of the money to be spent in the rebuilding will benefit the well-off and connected, and much of it will be paid for by cutting benefits – housing, healthcare, education – to the poor and working class. For clear and painful analyses of the administration’s budget request and its effect on Katrina survivors, see the Web sites of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (cbpp.org) and the National Low Income Housing Coalition (nlihc.org).

Also in this issue, Alex Salazar tells us about a downtown Oakland housing development aimed at stemming the gentrification being encouraged by the city’s mayor. Committed to grassroots organizing, Salazar sees his work as not an end in itself but as a tool in service to the voice of the community. It’s only when the voice of the community is raised, that real change – from housing developments to equitable recovery to responsive government – is possible.

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