Rep. Maxine Waters
Ten years ago, America witnessed what the Federal Emergency Management Agency has called the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. History – and 10 years later there is still more work to do.
This is very personal to me. When the storm hit, I, along with the rest of America, watched as people were ushered to the Superdome and left to fend for themselves. Compelled by the plight of victims, my husband and I flew to New Orleans on the third day of the storm where I joined with several leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., to provide support for relief efforts; and we drove from shelter to shelter to assist victims from New Orleans to Lafayette, Louisiana.
Together with leaders on the ground, we met with then-governor Kathleen Blanco to advocate for low-income residents to ensure that relief went to the areas that needed it the most.
In the aftermath of the devastation – and the initial federal, state and local response to the needs of Gulf communities – Congressional Democrats stepped in to ensure that the Bush Administration was held accountable for delivering the necessary resources to aid those impacted by the storm.
As ranking member and then-chairwoman of the subcommittee charged with oversight of housing and community development issues at the time, I saw the housing devastation firsthand. I, along with Members of the subcommittee, visited public housing units that were damaged by the storm and the difficult conditions victims of the storm faced. In the following years, we continued to work with public housing tenants to ensure they had the resources they needed to survive. We saw these families struggling to find each other, to pick up the pieces, and to rebuild their lives.
To shine a light on recovery efforts and hold officials accountable, the Committee held 16 hearings, six of which were held in the Gulf. We recognized that we needed to stabilize the housing situation in New Orleans if the City were to recover.
This is why I drafted legislation, H.R. 1227, the Gulf Coast Hurricane Recovery Act of 2007, to help put the region’s housing infrastructure back on its feet. While never signed into law, I’m proud to say that important parts of this bill were enacted and did play an important role in moving the recovery forward.
For example, the enactment of provisions to authorize 3,000 vouchers to house the homeless along with disaster vouchers allowed displaced families to smoothly transition to permanent housing and were critical in meeting the immediate housing needs of vulnerable populations.
However, it was also clear to me that legislation alone would be insufficient to help with a challenge the size of Katrina. This is why I worked with the Bush and Obama administrations, nonprofit organizations, fair housing groups, local housing authorities, displaced residents and elected officials to improve housing opportunities for families impacted by Katrina.
We worked to identify and re-house victims of the storm and to identify and end violations of the Fair Housing Act, such as the anti-rental housing ordinance in St. Bernard Parish or the discriminatory allocation of grant dollars through the Road Home program. Knowing that public housing would be critical to re-housing the City’s low-income families, I stood with several key lawmakers and advocates to oppose the demolition of the “Big Four” public housing developments in New Orleans unless there was a guarantee that every one of those units would be replaced.
Ten years after Katrina, the City of New Orleans has turned a corner and I’m proud of the work New Orleanians have done to rebuild their City. Today, population levels are on the rise, chronic homelessness has fallen by nearly ninety percent, and poverty levels have stabilized in and outside of the city.
Nevertheless, more needs to be done.
First, we must do more to improve the availability of affordable housing for low-income New Orleanians. HUD-assisted housing in New Orleans now exceeds pre-storm levels, yet the public housing stock stands at just 26 percent of its pre-Katrina inventory.
Second, I’m also concerned about recent studies about the impact of Katrina on New Orleans’ Black middle class. As we confront the wealth gap nationally, we must also confront the policies that have led to the erosion of New Orleans’ once vibrant Black middle class.
Third, far too many residents are paying more than they should to rent a home. Prior to the storm, the majority of households in New Orleans spent less than 30 percent of their income on rent. Recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the trend is moving in the wrong direction, with 58 percent of renters spending more than 30 percent of their income to pay the rent today. I hope that these issues will be explored in-depth at a field hearing the Committee intends to hold in the City several months from now.
For the past decade, we have witnessed the strength, determination, and resilience of people of the Gulf coast. As Ranking Member of the Financial Services Committee, I reaffirm my commitment to the people of New Orleans and to the people of the Gulf region. I congratulate them on the progress they have made over the last ten years and I look forward to continuing our work in the years to come.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Ranking Member of Committee on Financial Services,
U.S. House of Representatives