Remarks of Secretary Alphonso Jackson
Gulf Coast Reconstruction Summit
August 28, 2006
It is with great joy that I announce to you today a brand new Department of Housing and Urban Development. Everything is going to change about the way we work, and the change is going to start right here, today, in New Orleans.
Our charter is to ensure that affordable housing is available for those who need it. This year in New Orleans, I am ashamed to say we have failed.
For the past year, as various interests have battled it out for this city, we at HUD have often ended up on the wrong side of that battle, forgetting our charter and making decisions that cheat both contractors and ourselves of the chance to make a big difference.
Until today, we at HUD planned to demolish 5,000 units of perfectly good public housing here in New Orleans, and put commercial housing in its place. Almost all of these apartments have no damage at all, and their former occupants are by and large begging to move back in and start contributing to their city once again.
Today, we're going to help them to do that. But that's only the start. With your help, we're not going to destroy much-needed housing, we're going to make it work - for all of us.
We've got a three-step plan:
1. The first step is to let these folks go home right now.
2. Next, we're going to help them create the opportunities they need to thrive.
3. Finally, with your help, we're going to give back to Mother Nature what she needs to protect this city for all of its citizens.
All of this is going to require your help to an unprecedented extent, and we are very pleased to announce a contracting budget to match, of nearly 4 billion dollars.
1. LET PEOPLE COME HOME
More on that in a moment. But first, what on earth made us lock American families out of their homes in the first place?
Well, until last week, our M.O. here at HUD was to tear down public housing whenever we could. Like many folks in Washington, we thought that the projects caused crime and unemployment, and we thought that erasing the symptom would get rid of the cause.
We were wrong.
Today, with nearly all public housing still boarded up, crime rates are at record highs anyhow. And in any case, employment rates in public housing were pretty much the same as anywhere else in this city. These were real communities, not the crime-ridden hood you see on MTV.
When we tore down St. Thomas and replaced it with "mixed-income" flats, only 1 out of 27 former residents made it back, and the rest have faced hostile communities, endless commutes, and in some cases homelessness. It just didn't work.
We will not make this error again. This afternoon, we will reopen all housing projects in New Orleans and allow these Americans to be part of their city again.
2. CREATE OPPORTUNITY
But opening doors won't be enough. We also need to create the conditions for the enduring prosperity of these communities.
To do that, we're first going to stop the flow of money out of these communities. You know something's wrong when local earnings of poor folks end up in pockets of Wal-Mart shareholders in Manhattan. After extensive discussions, Wal-Mart and three other chains have agreed to withdraw from areas near low-income New Orleans neighborhoods and to help nurture local businesses to replace them. Legislation under study at state and federal levels will make sure this sticks.
And money will start flowing in. Starting today, we at HUD will contract directly with public housing residents to remediate apartments and initiate community projects; these measures will invigorate these communities and create new expertise for the long term. We have also budgeted 75 million dollars in training and education incentives for contractors like yourselves to transfer necessary know-how to residents.
3. PROVIDE BASIC SERVICES
Now for the big stuff. All of us are here at the Pontchartrain Center today because we want to see New Orleans succeed. But to make that happen, we have a giant challenge before us: to make sure that essential infrastructure is available to everyone.
Health care, for example. Too many working families end up on welfare because some easily curable medical condition has gotten out of hand. No more. In partnership with health departments and the CDC, and with your help, we will insure there is at least one well-equipped public health clinic for every public housing development. We have 180 million dollars to make sure they're the best.
As for education, Katrina has provided a means to replace government education in favor of private solutions. But why was government education so bad in the first place? It's because government schools are dependent on local taxes; when an area is underpriviledged, its schools have no money. That's why we at HUD are teaming up with the Department of Education to create a national tax base for schools. This will mean an immense amount of contracting work, and we hope that many of you will be bidding. With your help, the prospects of New Orleanians will no longer depend on their birthplace, and the cycle of poverty will come to an end.
4. FIX THE ENVIRONMENT
The plans I've laid out so far will establish the groundwork for success of low-income communities. But there's one pesky detail: New Orleans is likely to flood once again.
It's not just that we keep pumping greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. That's bad of course - but it's beyond HUD's scope. If a large ice shelf slips off Greenland, as it seems to be starting to do, there won't be a few thousand New Orleanians clamoring to get back into undamaged apartments, like today, but rather 300 million refugees whose cities have gone permanently under the sea. An agency mandated to assure affordable housing has to wonder what that would look like.
But even just another Katrina could bring us back to square one. Fortunately, there is a solution - and here's where we need you like never before.
As you know, the main reason New Orleans was so vulnerable to Katrina was the destruction of the wetlands - due in large part to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, built so that oil tankers could get to the ocean more cheaply.
I am pleased to announce that Exxon and Shell have agreed to finance wetlands rebuilding from part of their 60 billion dollars in profits this year.
As J. Stephen Simon, Exxon Vice President, writes on the Exxon website: "We at ExxonMobil have always intended our business practices to have a positive effect on the world. When this turns out to be not the case, we must do whatever we can to remediate. Today, therefore, ExxonMobil is earmarking 8.6 billion dollars from revenues our company has made in this region to the project of shutting down MRGO and beginning the long process of wetland restoration, so as to assure that ExxonMobil never again has a hand in destroying a large American city."
Any of you who might be interested in contracts around the MRGO closure program should get in touch with EPA or HUD offices as soon as possible, or give me your business cards at the press conference.
With your help, we at HUD are putting our collective mistakes behind us. Together, we will make sure that New Orleans follows in the footsteps of San Francisco, Tokyo, and Chicago, newly protected from dangers it used to face and well on the road to prosperity.
We will not rebuild just New Orleans - we will rebuild the American Dream. Many of you here will be crucial for this great endeavour.
Please come join us at the Lafitte housing complex for a festive ribbon cutting ceremony immediately after the plenary session. We can discuss the work to be done in more detail, and lunch will be served. This is what we're all here for, so let's make it happen.
Let's Bring New Orleans Back.