New Orleans Considers Razing High-Rises

AUDREY JONES doesn't sleep much at night. As a resident of the St. Thomas Housing Project, one of this city's oldest public-housing developments, she lives in fear of stray bullets entering her $120-a-month apartment.

``Three bullets have come flying through my bedroom window already,'' says Ms. Jones, who is disabled and has a nine-year-old son. ``If someone gave me half a chance, I'd be out of this place in a minute.''

Jones could get her chance if a proposal aired last month by a top city official becomes reality. Lambert Beissiere, a 12-year veteran of the City Council and candidate for the mayor's race early next year, wants to demolish three of the largest housing projects in New Orleans, while transferring the residents who live in them into the more than 37,000 abandoned houses dotting the inner neighborhoods of this economically troubled city.

``Most of these projects have outlived their usefulness,'' says Mr. Beissiere, whose proposal has drawn fire from some New Orleans housing officials. The critics argue that federal law prohibits local government from destroying housing property.

``Basically, we're living with the social engineering of the 1930s and '40s,'' he says. ``And it has absolutely nothing to do with the realities of the 1990s.''

While Beissiere's idea is viewed by many locals as an innovative, if controversial, volley in what promises to be a contentious mayor's race, others see the proposal as symptomatic of the search for new answers to the nation's public-housing problems.

``We have to, above all else, be imaginative,'' says Wallace Johnson, executive director of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association (PHADA) in Washington. ``We have too many problems not to be.''

Noting that answers to project housing vary greatly depending on local conditions, Mr. Johnson continues, ``In some cities, the best thing may be to demolish, while in others, it might be smarter to renovate and rebuild, and in still others, you might want to move people in the direction of homeownership in nearby neighborhoods. No one answer will fit every situation.''

One answer that many policymakers and administrators in housing circles do agree on, however, is that the day of the massive, modern high-rise, reminiscent of many public-works housing projects in the 1930s and '40s, is over. Gigantic solution

``They seemed like a good idea at the time. It was a gigantic solution to a gigantic problem,'' says an official with Chicago's Housing and Urban Development office, where dozens of 16-story concrete towers known as the Robert Taylor Homes stretch along the Dan Ryan Expressway for two miles. ``But when you get developments as big as these, problems like crime and physical deterioration become overwhelming, and what then seemed like a dream solution turns into a nightmare.''

Perhaps nowhere was that nightmare as frightening as in St. Louis where the Pruitt-Igoe housing project - 33 high-rise buildings erected in 1954 for up to 10,000 low-income residents - became, by the early 1970s, an enclave of terror where gangs and drug dealers reigned supreme and the population reached the 20,000 mark. Labeled by syndicated columnist Neal Peirce as the ``most monumental failure of public housing ever constructed in America,'' the Pruitt-Igoe site was dynamited in 1974 and eventually replaced by smaller development sites funded by more than $30 million in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and community-development dollars.

``There are still gigantic projects like Pruitt-Igoe in New York, and Chicago, and Los Angeles, but it is unlikely you'd see a new federal housing project on that scale today,'' says Vivian Potter, a HUD public-affairs official in Washington. ``The new thinking is that you're better off with a smaller, low-rise development. They're easier to maintain, and the residents seem to like their scale.''

HUD planners, led by the agency's new chief, Henry Cisneros, have also moved to decrease the need for such massive housing through a series of initiatives, including vouchers allowing low-income, inner-city families to move to suburban neighborhoods and granting more freedom for tenants in HUD's rent-subsidy program to pick the location where they want to live.

For the projects that remain, however, Mr. Cisneros has pledged to use up to $8 billion earmarked by Congress in 1990 to fix up some of the aging structures. ``Too many Americans are living in public-housing units badly in need of repair,'' Cisneros told a congressional committee earlier this year. In New Orleans, some $100 million is slated for renovation work on existing projects. Concentration not good

With more than 4 million people still living in public housing in the nation's largest cities, many housing officials also say they believe the day of housing projects as isolated enclaves, separated from surrounding neighborhoods, may soon be over.

``All of the things we see as bad about a project today stems from their being concentrated in one section of a city,'' Johnson says. ``They need to be spread out, in smaller developments, so you can get a better economic and demographic mix. That makes it better all the way around.''

At the St. Thomas project, resident Jones says the only solution is demolition. ``Maybe [big housing projects] were a good idea once, but now they are nothing but prisons,'' she says. ``The sooner they tear all of them down, the sooner we'll all be free.''

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