Mayor Mitch Landrieu last week directly addressed one of the city's most pervasive — yet least discussed by public officials — political issues: race. Landrieu broached the subject in the context of the city repossessing blighted properties from black property owners who have failed to return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It came at a community budget meeting Aug. 2.
Approximately 1,000 residents of eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward attended the standing-room-only meeting at the Household of Faith church on the I-10 Service Road in eastern New Orleans. The residents raised a familiar array of issues themselves — blight and the lack of hospital facilities, jobs and retail outlets in the area.
"I want to talk about race," answered Landrieu at the end of the evening. "You start taking people's homes, people start asking, 'Why you trying to stop people coming home, Mr. Mitch, looking the way you do?' Do I need to say it?" Landrieu queried.
The crowd murmured its support, and he continued: "The question is, Is this about race? Or is this about the city? And when is the day when we start focusing on these properties? Is it now? Is it September? Is it November? Or yesterday?"
The crowd cheered when Landrieu said, "yesterday."
"I'm just asking," Landrieu continued. "I just want to make sure I heard you. Because I promise you as soon as I lay it down, somebody's going to lay it down, and there's going to be a march."
"We got your back, Mitch," yelled several people in the crowd.
The idea of repossessing vacant properties in eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward — two hard-hit neighborhoods populated mostly by African-Americans — has been increasingly on City Council's radar in recent months. At a meeting of the council's Recovery Committee on June 30, consultant Greg Rigamer said that of 52,800 New Orleans applicants to the state's Road Home program, 34,921 have closed on their homes and are moving forward — but about 14,000 are showing no signs of progress after having received the money. Rigamer urged the council to look into donating out-of-compliance properties to the Louisiana Land Trust. A fight is sure to ensue, and no doubt that's part of what Landrieu wanted to "lay down" up front. — Matt Davis