1937–1944: First developments constructed
As part of a national response to extensive homelessness during the Great Depression, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) is created. The first two projects are constructed and open their doors to residents in 1941: St. Thomas, with 970 units in 121 buildings, and Magnolia Street Projects, with 723 units and design elements emblematic of the city, including ornamental metalwork and balconies and common courtyards. In the pre-Civil Rights era, the former is restricted to Caucasians and the latter designated for African-Americans, but years later both are preserved for historical purposes. Other developments from this era include Iberville, Lafitte, St. Bernard, and Calliope, which is later renamed B.W. Cooper and has 46 buildings with 686 units—and another 48 buildings are later added in 1954.
1945–1960: Post-war expansion
Several additional developments are built to accommodate returning war veterans and a growing population overall. In the Florida, St. Bernard, and Desire projects, 576 buildings go up with a total of 5,512 units. These first developments are low-rise buildings that match the density and context of the surrounding community, with retail, community services, athletic facilities, and public and parochial schools nearby. It’s only $22 per month for a three-bedroom unit in 1941, and working-class families see the public housing as a stopping place while they save money to purchase their first homes.
1960s: Surviving Hurricane Betsy
Forty years before Hurricane Katrina, a category 4 storm named Betsy causes more than $1 billion in damages to the region. Nevertheless, solidly built public housing is able to withstand the 155-mile-per-hour winds and a 10-foot storm surge with little recorded damage. The Guste (previously called the Melpomene) and Fischer developments—22 buildings, two of which were high-rises, comprising almost 2,000 new units—are also later built in this decade.
1970s–1980s: New law creates Section 8
The federal Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 initiates the Section 8 program, which minimizes the cost of rent for eligible recipients to 30 percent of their income (the remaining rent is government subsidized). Eventually, this allows two different programs, one where tenants can use the subsidy to live in publicly owned housing and another that provides vouchers to use with privately-owned housing. The latter option removes pressure from organizations such as HANO to construct new buildings.
1990s–2005: Renovation and new urbanism
Aging housing stock and almost $70 million in federal housing grants drive the renovation and modernization of several HANO developments. The directive is to diversify income levels among residents, reduce social blight, and open up the street grid to the surrounding community. “The goal was walkable, urban-friendly, mixed-income, and mixed-usage sites with a focus on client services,” says Judith Moran, special programs manager for HANO.
2005–present: Katrina and its aftermath
HANO is in the middle of redeveloping five conventional sites when Hurricane Katrina strikes on August 29, 2005. The HANO structures severely hit by flooding are taken down to concrete slabs. Afterward, federal disaster-relief dollars accelerate redevelopment, including the addition of enough green features to qualify at least one project (formerly St. Bernard, now Columbia Parc) for LEED Silver certification. Across the 10-parish greater New Orleans region, population recovery is well underway after losing about 140,000 people in the aftermath of the storm. By 2011, HANO services more than 19,000 residents—with a waiting list of 22,000 for rental assistance. As Aaron Neville, who returns to the city after a three-year exile, says, “You can tell the home people even from far away. You can tell by how they dance to the music.” And that dance has roots in the courtyards of HANO developments.