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Bill targets razings in New Orleans

Public housing would be spared

WASHINGTON -- Public housing projects damaged by Hurricane Katrina would not be knocked down until the government has a plan to replace them under a bill the House passed yesterday.

The legislation, approved 302 to 125, would grant tenants who lived in New Orleans public housing before the storm the right to return to homes and apartments subsidized by the government.

"We need to address the affordable housing crisis in the Gulf region by returning people to their homes," said Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat and bill sponsor. "Every person who desires to live in the Gulf region must be given an opportunity to rebuild and to return home."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city's housing authority had approved plans to demolish the city's four largest public housing complexes and other smaller sites. The August 2005 storm left about 7,500 apartments in a condition not considered worth repairing. The demolitions would have made way for an estimated $681 million worth of mixed-income neighborhood construction.

"To do as HUD has proposed across all public housing in New Orleans is tantamount to forced homelessness," said Representative William Jefferson, a Democrat representing much of the city.

Under the bill, HUD would have to survey people who had lived in public housing and provide housing for any who wanted to return by Aug. 1. Residents would have to declare their intent to return to the city by that date and occupy the units by Oct. 1.

The government would not be allowed to demolish any public housing without having an approved plan to replace it.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment that would extend a Federal Emergency Management Agency housing voucher program through the end of the year and transfer those eligible to other housing assistance programs when the FEMA aid ends.

Republicans argued that housing low-income families in mixed-income developments would increase living standards in public housing.

"We have a moral imperative to change the standard of public housing in New Orleans," said Representative Spencer Baucus, an Alabama Republican. "We can do better than simply warehousing families in failed large housing projects and crime-ridden communities."

The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, said the bill would not prohibit building new mixed-income developments but would maintain current buildings until new homes and apartments could be constructed.