NEW ORLEANS - Two human rights experts for the United Nations on Thursday criticized a federal plan to raze public housing projects in New Orleans, saying it will force the predominantly black residents into homelessness.
New Orleans advocates clamoring to save 4,500 public housing units claimed a victory. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which wants to replace the decades-old housing projects with mixed-income, mixed-use development, called the U.N. experts "misinformed."
The statement issued out of Geneva was not a U.N. finding, but only the individual views of Miloon Kothari, a special investigator on housing matters for the U.N. Human Rights Council, and Gay McDougall, a lawyer who is an expert on minority and rights issues.
They charged that demolition would harm thousands of people by denying them a place to live in a city where housing already is scarce since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005.
"The authorities claim that the demolition of public housing is not intentionally discriminatory," Kothari and McDougall said, but the "predominantly African-American residents" will be denied their "internationally recognized human rights" to a home.
They commented a day before a U.N. racism panel planned to discuss Katrina recovery efforts and public housing in New Orleans and also was expected to comment on allegations of racial discrimination in the United States. Neither expert was involved with that committee's hearings.
Local officials said the U.N. experts were too detached from the complexities of the post-Katrina city to claim razing of the buildings was racist.
"The past model of public housing in New Orleans has been a failed one - years of neglect and mismanagement left our public housing developments in ruin," the city council said in a statement issued Thursday. "These are critical times in our city's history - we can choose to continue on the path of progress and positive change or we can choose to maintain the status quo."
Council members unanimously supported the demolition plan in December, in a meeting marred by violence when some protesters tried to force their way into the packed chambers. The protesters have said they were denied their legal right to enter.
The demolition of the housing projects appears all but assured. Early stages have begun at some developments, while others are waiting only for demolition permits.
Monique Harden, co-director of the public interest law firm Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, said the U.N. experts' statement "is vindication of what public housing advocates have been saying from day one."
"Recovery must mean the end of displacement for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast," said Harden, who returned to New Orleans last week. "What we have instead is recovery that demolishes affordable housing."
HUD said in a statement that bringing people back to the deteriorating projects is no answer.
"We do not want to relegate thousands of minority and low-income families back into the substandard conditions of New Orleans' public housing - conditions only made worse by Hurricane Katrina," said a statement issued by HUD's press offices.
HUD says its plan will create an equal amount of affordable housing as existed before Katrina hit, though critics dispute that. Much of the area's lower-income housing was destroyed by the hurricane, and recently announced federal plans to move thousands of displaced residents out of Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers by summer will only intensify the current housing crunch.
New Orleans has seen 65 percent of its total population return, according to a local demographer who uses utility hookups to offer the most detailed figures. But the black population has not rebounded as quickly as the white population, and some black enclaves are a fraction of what they were.
© 2008 Associated Press