Lower Ninth Ward: The Other Housing Market

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Also can be read, here, in the Louisiana Data News Weekly 

While New Orleans is in the midst of surging real estate prices and a lack of affordable housing, the Lower Ninth Ward is struggling to repopulate what was once the largest concentration of African-American homeownership in the US.

The neighborhood landscape is filled with empty lots, once homes of those unable to return after Hurricane Katrina, which are now under state control. Often filled with wild animals and trash, these abandoned lots of land have become a lingering problem that has continued to suppress the value of neighboring properties. Since the storm, New Orleans has combatted blight like many US cities have- shifting ownership away from the static control of state government and towards those who are incentivized to care for the land the most: next door neighbors.

There has been a collage of programs to help homeowners claim the abandoned lots that they share a fence with, dozens of who live in the Lower 9th. However, the majority of residents of the Lower 9th (median income $31,582) and other economically depressed areas have largely been unable to capitalize on these investment opportunities. Despite provisions to help low-income homeowners participate in this blight reduction strategy, the process in purchasing these lots is complex and costly. As a result, the Lower 9th streets most affected by blighted land are the least likely to see them developed on, further embedding these areas in a cycle of poverty.

The lack of upward mobility can be enormously frustrating for people who see minimal improvements in the city’s historically black community. Lower 9th homeowner Dianne Polk is an example of someone who has begun to loss faith in the city’s plan, “No one cares about this place. The Mayor, the city, the President come when they need to but no reason to think things will change”. In that moment, surrounding neighbors also could not help notice that the long-awaited repaving of their streets coincided perfectly with President Obama’s Katrina anniversary visit.

Even for those more optimistic, it is near impossible to navigate between the several different blight reduction programs and funding sources without some legal expertise. People like Polk are shocked that at how hard it is for neighbors to fix these lots that are clearly a public safety hazard.

The Costs In Owning A Vacant Lot 

The ‘Lot Next Door’ (LND) is the original initiative in providing homeowners the chance to own adjacent vacant lots and is credited for elevating the city’s housing market. When the program began in 2007, provisions were included to ensure that lower-income homeowners could still participate, but a degree of financial stability was still required.

The largest obstacle people in the Lower 9th faced when partaking in LND were the rates adjacent properties were priced at. Due to a Louisiana law that prohibits the sale of any state-owned property for under ‘fair-market value’, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) has little flexibility on pricing. The ‘fair market value’ requirement prevents the city from making the most dangerous and blighted properties cheap enough to buy- as a result, many Lower 9th residents are given $10 thousand price tags for the privilege to own dilapidated structures that they have taken care of for years.

With the amount of capital required to participate in LND, it is not surprisingly that the majority of lots purchased come from areas like Lakeview (median income $80,972) that were devastated by storm but with a comparatively more affluent demographic. Conversely, low-income residents of the Lower 9th were unable to take advantage of programs like LND before the program expired in 2014. In fact, a collection of 7 residents who participated in this story admitted to not knowing anyone who actually acquired vacant property through the Lot Next Door program. The program was known just not seen.

Ten years of watching the Lower Ninth Ward get left behind has spurred lawmakers to get creative in tackling the lack of economic opportunity in their neighborhoods. State Rep. Wesley Bishop decided to address the issue head-on by proposing a bill that would allow abandoned lots in the Lower Ninth Ward to be available for $100. But because of the Louisiana law, which restricted LND, that mandates the sale of state assets at ‘fair-market value’, the $100 a lot proposal had to be voted on as a ballot initiative in the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, the Louisiana electorate was unable to see the benefit of jolting the neighborhood’s real estate market and rejected the proposal.

It is impossible to know exactly why Louisiana shot the idea down, but it would be shame if it stemmed from the belief that the proposal was a ‘government handout’ since that is not the case. If passed, the bill would have mandated participants of the program to not only maintain the property, but then build a house that must be inhabited for at least 5 years. The idea was to get people moving into the neighborhood quickly.

While Rep. Bishop is disappointed that the measure failed, he sees the bill as a symbol for the city’s appetite in aggressively meeting the social inequality that plagues the Lower 9th. With the emergence of Lot Next Door 3.0 there may very well be a renewed sense of urgency. The question is if the future policies are accessible by the homeowners who need the services the most.

Complexity Of The System

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Shannon Dupree look over the remains of his neighbor’s home.

The several iterations of Lot Next Door, along with the $100 a lot proposal and other blight reduction objectives may all come together for the lawmakers who designed them. But for those on the ground it is web of red tape making it hard to distinguish between an individual’s ineligibility for the program or a bureaucratic hold-up.

Brenda Dupre, life-long Lower 9th resident, is an example of those who have heard about programs like LND but has yet to see it in action. Whether it is LND, or another program, her main priority is to get rid of the abandoned building next door to her home. The deteriorated structure is still filled with the personal effects of her pre-Katrina neighbor as well as that of drifters yet there is no movement from the city on tearing down the hazardous site.

While Dupre is happy to have survived the years of repairs and multiple robberies, the crumbling structure two-feet from her childhood home remains the “bane of her existence”. In terms of public policy, it is a perplexing that vacant lots are dealt with before condemned buildings that are havens for illicit activities. With the building being in clear violation of coding enforcement, and not available on LND property lists, she has no idea which direction to take with the city.

Her son, Shannon Dupre, does not see the logic used in pricing vacant properties. “We’re not asking for $100 alot. But the price for properties should account how badly it affects others and how long neighbors have been fixing it up. There needs to be a better formula that makes it fairer.”

Unfortunately for residents suffering from blight, there is no one agency to direct all questions towards. Convoluted property laws in Louisiana coupled with a more conservative state legislature make it hard for New Orleans to streamline revitalization efforts, especially in areas like the Lower 9th that require subsidies. But despite little progress made, local lawmakers and community leaders are optimistic that increasing homeownership is the best way to provide the economic opportunities that residents have been deprived of for so long.

Preventing Prices Out

The rapid gentrification of the city has caused concern that native New Orleans may not be able to keep up with rising rental costs in the very neighborhoods that they help reestablish after Hurricane Katrina. Historically black communities like the Seventh Ward or Central City are undergoing demographic shifts that could potentially reach the Lower 9th if the real estate market continues to spike. But if native Lower 9th folks are able to own their homes, or expand the footprint of their property, then they can avoid being priced out of their homes even if the housing market reaches New York City levels.

But for many lawmakers, concerns over gentrification seem misplaced as the Lower 9th currently sports a dismal real estate market, prompting calls for $100 land sales. Lower 9th advocate Rep. Bishop even admits that the main objective is “to provide the community with goods and services”. That said, many residents who stood by their homes when neighbors left, plan on dying on their properties and not being price out. Brenda Dupre points to a sign on her fence with the word ‘Dupree’ along with a well-designed logo. “I had to fight for this sign. Along with everything else.”

Congress and Americans Give the Nod To Torture

America tortures people. The debate that has ensued, not the first one in living memory, has different parameters depending on who you speak to. Supporters of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ have continued to highlight the need to leave every option on the table while also claiming that the techniques have yielded results. The opposition to the program is a bit more fracturus. Whether the program brings into question legality, efficacy or morality is something that is not completely agreed upon. First, the findings on what the practice of EIT means.

The Findings

Detainees were not more likely to give up useful information when being physically harmed- that includes Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. And KSM is hardly representative of those who were detained, in fact a large portion of detainees weren’t even affiliated with jihadism. 23% of detainees were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Pentagon. That means that even the hyper cautious over military commissions that are expected to be over zealous before just, have admitted that nearly a quarter of detainees have no connection to terrorism whatsoever.

Despite the revelations that came from the report, torture still has a considerable amount of support from political leaders. Of course, those who were directly involved or created the CIA program continue to defend the techniques as ‘enhanced interrogation’. James Mitchell, a psychologist regarded as the architect of the program, and John Brennan, CIA Director and overseer of these tactics, have gone on the record voicing their opposition to the torture report as something they see as political motivated and out of context. Their justification of EIT has not changed since the initially public discussion in the mid 2000s. The only real difference is that many of the exposed torture techniques have been chalked up to rogue CIA officers. The claim that the CIA acted independently from the White House and the President’s knowledge is heavily disputed. The report revealed that there were details from the EIT program that were not known to the President until 4 years after their implementation. However, according to the breaking coverage from the Intercept ,V P Dick Cheney, CIA Director George Tenet and Nat. Security Advisor Condelezza Rice were aware of the illegal techniques even while they claimed that intelligence agencies used ‘humane’ practices.

Ultimately, it should not matter if the President knew about the CIA program in full. The White House is responsible for what their executive agencies carry out. But it is still worth identifying the role that the White House played in the EIT program because the answer to that shifts the debate. Bush Cabinet officials and agency heads are quickly pushing the blame to lower level officials who committed illegal torture techniques without their authorization. If faceless mid-level CIA personnel acted independently, it would free White House officials from responsibility. From there, a story of isolated incidents and rogue actors is far more dismissible than a story of a corrupt institution and leadership.

Public Opinion on Torture

With so much conflicting information on who gave the orders to torture and how much elected officials knew about the program it makes polling difficult to gauge. The various polls conducted on the matter confirm that US public opinion is frayed on the issue. With any survey, semantics dictate the results- this is especially true when we can’t agree on what to call the practice in question. Respondents to a 2011 Pew poll that used the word ‘torture’ were more likely to express clear opposition to the techniques compared to those who responded to a 2013 AP poll that used the term, ‘harsh interrogation techniques’. Furthermore, there is the question on how to define a respondent’s ‘support’. If someone says that torture is justified ‘Sometimes’, does that necessarily mean that they support the program?

A study by Reed College confirms the long-standing critique of polling, which is that respondents almost never identify with absolutes. A respondent is far more likely to gravitate towards the available moderate answer even when they possess strong feelings on the matter. Broad questions will always receive broad answers, the specific questions are what can elicit one’s beliefs. This is the case with any survey, and is especially true when the definition of ‘torture’ is debatable.

So do Americans support the CIA interrogation program? It’s difficult to say for sure, but signs lead to ‘yes’. When comparing results of 2004 and 2011 Pew polls, public support of torture seems to have grown.  Despite the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report being dubbed as an historical moment, the revelations have not moved the needle of American perception.

In fact, several editorialists view the the Senate Intelligence report itself as a reason why Americans should be proud of their country instead of embarrassed. ‘What nation releases a report with such brutal self-examination? Certainly not those that the terrorists come from!’ is the general gist of the article written by Thomas Friedman. While comparing US policy to that of Middle Eastern dictatorships is probably a dangerous platform, the comments also conflate what the actions of the Senate Intelligence Committee and what their report truly is.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, a bipartisan body that was established in 1976- along with it’s House counterpart- to better monitor the executive’s branch intelligence agencies. After it was revealed that intelligence agencies were involved in the coverup of the Watergate scandal, it became clear that congress needed to monitor the CIA, FBI and NSA on a consistent basis. The SIC has been tested the most since 9/11 as the intelligence community experienced a massive expansion and a significant reduction in regulations. It is unclear how the SIC monitors intelligence agencies since these bodies answer to the executive branch. A Senator cannot give an order to a CIA official, but the SIC does have the ability to check the intelligence community. As legislators their obvious power is to pass laws that restrict their activity. However, congress has never passed any meaningful regulations on intelligence int he last 30 years. After the Edward Snowden revelations, the Senate was close to passing the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act but couldn’t get the votes, that includes SIC chair Dianne Feinstein.

The other way to check the intelligence community is to release information to the public. The scorn of the electorate has repercussions for the President, which in turn affects intelligence gathering. With the recent coverage of the CIA torture report you would think there would be political cover for such a move. But similarly to the legislative angle, the SIC has yet to declassify pertinent information- a power that the committee undoubtedly possesses.

The Senate Intelligence Committee: a history of restraint

Senate Resolution 400, the bill that founded the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1976, outlines how intelligence agencies are suppose to routinely share intelligence that is needed to make sound national security policy. The committee is most empowered by Section 8, a provision that established the process in which a committee member can declassify information that is seen to be in the public interest. Even if the executive branch (usually meaning the very intelligence agencies that are being evaluated) SIC is able to get a Senate floor vote on whether the declassification can happen or not.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dem. Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dem. Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee

While there are hurdles, Section 8 gives the opportunity for intelligence officials to be held accountable in the public square. However, the Senate hasn’t ever been forced to vote on declassifying information because Section 8 has never been enacted before. There have been attempts from lone SIC members to declassify information, but ultimately the committee leaders overruled the request.

So despite the controversial release of the CIA torture report, it is worth noting that the SIC did not share any information that the White House was unwilling to make public. The fact that Section 8 was not employed, coupled with the fact that nothing from the report reflects negatively on the Obama Administration, has only added to the belief by Republican congress members that the report was politically motivated.

The details of the report are gruesome but after examining the process in which the findings were released the report cannot be seen as close to comprehensive. President Obama may certainly view the Bush White House’s interrogation techniques are morally abominable. Simultaneously, the public has no clue if Obama continues to sanction EIT because the SIC refuses to challenge the Executive Branch on what can be released. Considering that the Obama Administration continues the practice of rendition, it is quite likely that torture is still committed even if in an indirect manner. To the contrary of Friedman’s claims of functional checks and balance system for intelligence agencies, the US has shown to mislead the public on it’s practices and the congress is fine with whatever information they are given.

How To Portray the Full Story of Torture

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Three men recently released from Guantanamo Bay to Uruguay. Another six men have already received asylum in Uruguay in Dec 2014. Miami Herald

None of the opinion polls attempted to gauge surveyed Americans level of knowledge on the torture report. It could very well be that the surveyed Americans had no clue there was new information on the CIA torture program. And it is very likely that Americans are unaware of the Section 8 provision. It should not be expected for every American to read an congressional report most in the country have a minimal interest in politics. In theory the role of the media should be to give a thorough summary of a story, and that entails including all sides of the matter. Unfortunately, western media seldom interviews those who were held in black sites or Guantanamo. This is still the case even after three Guantanamo Bay prisoners, all of whom were detained without charges, have recently been granted asylum in Uruguay. (An accessible destination for foreign journalists). The three individuals, all of whom have legal counsel, may be advised to not speak to the media, especially American organizations. However, I doubt that the few former Guantanamo detainees are not eager to share their stories. It would be interesting to see how public polls are affected after the US hears the side of the tortured.