NEW ORLEANS - In normal times, redevelopment of public housing to make way for mixed-income neighborhoods might have gone largely unopposed. But passions are high in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, where residents are desperate for cheap housing.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to demolish about 4,500 public housing units at four of the city's largest complexes and replace them with mixed-income neighborhoods.
Protesters have marched on Mayor Ray Nagin's home and disrupted City Council proceedings with chants. A march on the HUD offices in Washington, D.C., also was planned for Thursday.
Protesters were able to temporarily halt crews from demolishing decrepit buildings at the B.W. Cooper housing site on Thursday. They vow to continue disrupting work there and at other sites around the city.
The protesters have won the blessing of one presidential contender, John Edwards.
"There is a housing crisis in New Orleans today - the result of government policies that have failed the people of the Gulf," Edwards said in a statement this week. "Rents have doubled, families are being evicted from FEMA trailers and now the current administration is trying to make a bad situation worse."
Opponents are suspicious of HUD because the redevelopment plans - following a model used around the country to break up concentrations of poverty - call for a reduction in subsidized housing and allow commercial development on the sites.
Tessua Faulk, a 31-year-old teacher, said she doesn't trust the plans because demolition at New Orleans' St. Thomas development, where she grew up, left some of her old neighbors homeless.
"They were too slick about the whole process, the so-called 'rebuilding,'" Faulk said as she watched the protesters chant "Housing is a human right!" and stare down demolition crews at B.W. Cooper. "It needs to be a two-way street: Residents need to be involved from the beginning, every step of the way," she said.
The St. Thomas redevelopment has been a major source of distrust of housing plans in New Orleans. After it was torn down, a Wal-Mart superstore was built and most of the former residents wound up in other neighborhoods.
Many more demolitions are slated to begin after Saturday.
"I think it's about politics and money," said Stephanie Mingo, 44, a protest leader who lives in one of the 2,000 public housing units occupied since the storms. "If they demolish these buildings, then that'll give them the opportunity to demolish other buildings."
About 5,100 public housing units were occupied before the storm.
Meanwhile, air-quality tests on government-issued trailers housing thousands of hurricane victims were to begin by next week, nearly two months after the Federal Emergency Management Agency postponed them.
On Nov. 2, CDC scientists were scheduled to start testing FEMA trailers in Mississippi for levels of formaldehyde, a common preservative and embalming fluid found in building materials for manufactured homes.
FEMA postponed the tests, however, saying the agency needed more time to prepare.
Harvey Johnson, FEMA's deputy administrator, disclosed the agency's latest plans for the tests during a hearing Wednesday in Washington before the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Senators pressed Johnson to explain the delays in testing 500 occupied trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana, where tens of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
"It's taken a long time in part because we have not had this problem before," Johnson said. "This is the first time we've had people be in travel trailers for this length of time - up to two years - in which case some of these symptoms and the impacts on health have become more apparent."
Officials from FEMA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were expected to outline the new testing plans Thursday at news conferences in New Orleans and Washington.
Many trailer occupants are blaming ailments on formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
© 2007 Associated Press