Four years after Katrina, government bodies are still shuffling about trying to figure out what is the best future policy for a sustainable, prosperous New Orleans. The challenges facing the Gulf Coast are the same facing the nation: developing housing, improving health care, closing educational achievement gaps, de-concentrating centers of poverty, and achieving security from climate change and its related disasters. Except in the Gulf Coast these problems are much more pronounced. If the federal government were ever to focus on this region, the solutions produced for these social and environmental ills could be applied broadly across the nation.
While campaigning in February, 2008, Obama said, "I will make it clear to members of my administration that their responsibilities don't end in places like the 9th Ward; they begin in places like the 9th Ward." Suffice it to say that the Gulf Coast is the Lower 9th Ward of the United States. And yet, for all of Obama's posturing on 9th Ward primacy while running for office, he's not visited the area once since being inaugurated. Meanwhile, George Bush -- you know, the one who "doesn't care about black people" -- visited New Orleans for every August Katrina memorial, even if he was a day late and a dollar short.
The Institute of Southern Studies recently released a report that assesses how Washington has handled the storm's aftermath. The ISS asked 50 community leaders to grade the Obama administration's Katrina recovery efforts: Obama got a D+, and Bush was given a D-. If graded on an E for effort curve, Bush probably would have gotten the edge given his authorization of millions in Gulf Opportunity tax credits and bonds, and an extension of time under which developers could use them.
Meanwhile, Obama has done little in seven months beyond distributing $50 million in housing vouchers. Unfortunately, families either won't be able to use them because there aren't enough houses built yet, or the vouchers will be of little use because they only cover a fraction of rents, which have risen substantially since Katrina. He's also instituted a plan to sell FEMA mobile units to families for $1 or $5, but many of those trailers are toxicfrom formaldehyde leaks.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) did little for recovery and reinvestment in the Gulf Coast area that needed it the most. Since calculations were made based off current population numbers -- many displaced people throughout the country are still waiting to return -- fewer ARRA dollars reached these congressional districts. ARRA's tax credit exchange program, which cashes in states' low income housing tax credits, also excluded the Go Zone tax credits, leaving over 17,000 housing units hanging in the balance.
Yesterday, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan visited New Orleans to address a room of policymakers, nonprofit directors, foundation heads, and community leaders. He made an announcement that HUD will relax their "duplication of benefits" rules, allowing families who've already received disaster housing recovery funds to receive additional support from community development block grants that will be administered by non-profits. It's a good save for those who've already begun rebuilding their homes. As for those still without homes, the verdict is still out. Donovan claimed his advocacy for another extension of the placed-in-service dates to 2012 was a sign of more progress, but with financing still clogged up, and the value of tax credits far below the dollar, that extension won't have great significance for developers of low-income housing.
A visit from Obama would go a long way here, as would firm commitments for how his government will do the "whatever it takes" that Bush promised for the Gulf Coast. In our special report Redemption and Rebuilding we document the efforts from various non-profits and community organizations to assist government efforts, or fill in where government has fallen short. Once the Obama administration gives the Gulf Coast the attention it needs and deserves, then recovery will become a reality not just for those already with means and resources, but also for those who've been living here without.
-- Brentin Mock