Magnolia housing projects New Orleans

Jamie Jones and Missa Smith, right, supervise Ashley Colemen as she explores a newly built playground at Harmony Oaks Apartments, standing on what was a notoriously risky housing project.

By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY

Updated

NEW ORLEANS - The decaying brick buildings of what was known as the Magnolia Projects are now rows of freshly painted town homes with ornate balconies and manicured lawns. Stoops where dealers once sold dope and shot at rivals have been replaced by a clubhouse featuring a flat-screen TV and a pool where neighborhood kids splash.

  • By Jonathan E. Bachman, for USA TODAY

    Jamie Jones and Missa Smith, right, supervise Ashley Colemen as she explores a newly built playground at Harmony Oaks Apartments, standing on what was a notoriously risky housing project.

By Jonathan E. Bachman, for USA TODAY

Jamie Jones and Missa Smith, right, supervise Ashley Colemen as she explores a newly built playground at Harmony Oaks Apartments, standing on what was a notoriously risky housing project.

The Magnolia Projects, once one of the city's most notorious public housing complexes, today is Harmony Oaks Apartments, a 460-unit mix of government-subsidized and market-priced apartments. It replaces one of six public housing projects across the city recently razed to make room for new apartments and a fresh approach to housing the city's poor.

"I never thought I'd be able to live like this, " says Harmony Oaks resident Larry Berzat, 60, who grew up in the former Magnolia Projects. "It's a whole lot safer. And a whole lot better."

Following a national trend, New Orleans' traditional model of corralling all subsidized housing into one location is being replaced by newer developments that mix subsidized and market-priced homes. More than 900 such units have opened in New Orleans already; another 3, 100 are on the way.

Public housing projects in Chicago, Atlanta, Salt Lake City and other cities have followed a similar trend, says Linda Couch of the Washington-based National Low-Income Housing Coalition. What makes New Orleans unusual is how the city toppled all of its major public housing projects at once, choosing a swift overhaul to its public housing over a phased redevelopment, Couch says. "People will be watching New Orleans closely, " she says.

Larry Berzat scoots up a custom ramp to his "whole lot better" apartment.

Residents and city leaders agree that the new developments are far more livable and draw less crime than the previous structures, some of which were more than 8 decades old. But housing advocates warn that the new plans will steeply drop the number of available public housing units, leaving thousands of low-income families without affordable places to live.

"You're going to have a large number of people without housing, " Perry says.

Most of New Orleans' public housing complexes were built after the Great Depression as a way to create jobs, and the structures deteriorated over the decades, according to the Housing Authority of New Orleans. Neglect and the unsafe environs steadily drove residents away. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 further scattered residents.

After the storm, only 5, 000 families lived within the city's 12, 000 public housing units, according to housing authority statistics. City leaders decided to knock them down and partner with private developers to rebuild.


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