REUTERS/Lee Celano

A new report examines how black women living in public housing were affected by Katrina and during the recovery.

There have been countless Katrina stories about New Orleans describing it as a “tale of two cities,” one black and one white. This assumes that the experiences of black men and women during the disaster the same—not to mention those of the city’s Latino, Vietnamese, Creole, and LGTBQ populations. This is, of course, not the case, especially when closely examining the lives of black women, and those residing in public housing in particular. Their experiences “were not taken into consideration when developing a plan for post-Katrina recovery,” according to a new report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Researchers interviewed 184 black women who lived in four of the largest public housing projects when Katrina hit to gather their perspectives on how the recovery went. One of the myths dispelled in the report is that black women didn’t return to the city because they didn’t want to. Sure, there were some that found better lives in the cities they evacuated to, the report acknowledges, but most of the women interviewed wanted to come home.

For those that did make it back, many were not enamored with the new mixed-income developments that replaced the public housing demolished after Katrina.  Five other major insights that came out of this report:

Not enough housing to come back to: The foremost obstacle women faced in trying to return was reconciling that their homes in the public housing projects were first closed down, and later demolished. It would take years for replacement low-income housing to get rebuilt, and only a fraction of it came back. The new replacement housing fell short of many of their expectations when it did finally get built. “The sturdy construction [of the old buildings] provided families with protection from storms for generations and, if flooded, could be repaired with much less effort than other structures,” reads the report.

Too much insecurity in the new housing landscape: Most of the women interviewed said the former public housing complexes “created a reliable infrastructure … both in terms of safety and social works.” Some of those interviewed said the old housing made them feel safer from street violence, because the bricks were “bulletproof.” With the new mixed-income developments, public housing tenants are more scattered across neighborhoods, sometimes living farther away from the friends and family members they used to rely on for financial and emotional support. “Katrina changed all of that,” reads the report, “as displacement disrupted these social networks.”

Vouchers aren’t helping: The number of Section 8 housing vouchers issued to low-income families now is roughly triple the number of those issued before the storm. The vouchers, which help cover rent costs in privately owned units, are the primary replacement for public housing today. But they haven’t been helping many of these black women make ends meet—especially in today’s market, where they now have to cover utilities and other expenses that they didn’t have to pay in the public housing projects before Katrina. “The levels of unemployment faced by the women ... were much higher after the Katrina disasters than before,” reads the report. Meanwhile, rent costs have surged over the past 10 years. A report last month from The Data Center showed that families that do have vouchers are just as likely to live in high-poverty communities as they were before Katrina.

Public transportation is worse: As Eric Jaffe reported, New Orleans’ idea of redeveloping public transit after Katrina has been expanding streetcar service rather than bus service. But low-wage black women depended more on buses before the storm. The streetcars’ routes and ranges are extremely limited, even today. Meanwhile, many of the jobs available for low-wage workers are in New Orleans’ suburbs, where the streetcars don’t reach. The women interviewed said they relied on bus service; where they had a 15-minute wait before the storm, they say they now sometimes have to wait as long as an hour. “[The bus transportation] was kind of making me late for work,” one woman told the researchers. “I’d get up like two hours in advance and still be late for work. They were kind of laying me off because of that.”

The safety net has weakened: Women of all ages interviewed for the study said they faced “an incomplete emergency safety net” that was unreliable. Anti-poverty policies put in place after the storms were inadequately implemented, said the women, sometimes even leading to “further marginalize low-income women and their families.” Much of this was because social service agencies were over-burdened in the years after Katrina. Already overburdened, low-income black women bore the brunt of the impact because of that.

In order to remedy these problems before the next disaster, the IWPR offers the following recommendations:

  • Improve communication among different service providers;
  • De-prioritize the construction of mixed-income housing, which seeks to integrate neighborhoods but generally results in an increase in market-rate housing at the expense of affordable housing;
  • Expand tenant vouchers and use them as a means of addressing not only housing, but also education, health care, job training, and transportation;
  • Diversify policies to focus on the needs of women and their families in a variety of circumstances;
  • Guarantee the right to return for all residents; and
  • Include the voices of low-income women and their families in policy planning and development.

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