Citizen Tom Murphy ends his morning chat about his efforts to revive New Orleans with a quote he credits to Niccolo Machiavelli: "Change is tough." Looking small at the Starbucks table in a plain green sweater, matching casual slacks and a pair of Reebok trainers, there's nothing about Murphy that says Machiavelli or tough ... or change.
When he was Mayor Tom Murphy, his obstacles came from failed Downtown commercial projects such as Lazarus and Lord & Taylor, the fight over public funding for stadiums and especially his all-or-nothing Fifth and Forbes redevelopment plans. He left office in January with the city laboring under two financial-oversight boards. Murphy himself largely dropped out of the spotlight, and began teaching part time at Chatham College.
However, he got a new opportunity in November, when he was invited to be the Urban Land Institute's representative in New Orleans, where planners are trying to help rebuild after the devastation of last year's Hurricane Katrina. ULI is a think tank focused on development and credited with the neo-urbanist term "smart growth." Its 30,000 members work mostly for land-development firms but also for governments, banks, colleges and nonprofits. Of the many re-housing plans offered for New Orleans, the ULI proposal ... crafted in part by Murphy ... has had the undivided attention of Mayor Ray Nagin.
Why choose Murphy for such a key role? "Tom has a proven track record of turning ideas and plans into results," says ULI's chairperson, Marilyn Taylor.
Some Pittsburghers wonder where Taylor found that proof.
"I worry about it," says George Moses, a Hill District low-income housing advocate who has tried to examine the success of one Murphy housing project, the Hill's Crawford Square. "When I look at what [Murphy] claims as his great things he did in Pittsburgh, I still wonder what effects it really had on poor people."
Moses heads the Southwestern Pennsylvania Alliance of HUD Tenants; he also chairs the National Low-Income Housing Coalition board, which focused on New Orleans' future at its recent national conference. He's skeptical about the benefits of Crawford Square to the city's lowest-income residents, particularly those displaced to make room for the new development.
"It's been very hard to get statistics out of Crawford Square," says Moses ... and, thus, hard to gauge its success.
Crawford Square Housing Manager Patty Boehm says her office has not tracked whether residents displaced by Crawford Square chose to, or were able to, return once the project was complete. She does note that 60 percent of Crawford Square units are subsidized for low-income families, while the rest are sold or rented at market rate. Though Moses contends that escalating rental rates have been a burden on poor families, Boehm says the increases have been within the guidelines of the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Housing issues will be even more complex in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina uprooted thousands of the city's lowest-income families, many of whom want to come back to the neighborhoods hit hardest by the flooding. Since Murphy's plan advises against rebuilding in New Orleans' lowest lands, his ideas have met much resistance.
Nagin has agreed in principle to most of Murphy's plan, but he's rejected leaving some of the city's original footprint unpopulated. The plan has also been rejected by city council. To work around a mayoral administration distrusted by the state legislature, Murphy is proposing that re-development be run by a new organization much like Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority.
If the problems Murphy sees in the urban landscape under his charge haven't changed, neither has his m.o.
During the Chatham College class Murphy taught this spring, "Environmental Issues in Pittsburgh," he took his students on a trolley tour of his Greatest Hits: the stadiums, the convention center, the Summerset in Frick Park housing development, the SouthSide Works shopping center, the riverfront bike trails. By week 11 of the course, he was planning yet another class excursion.
"Does April 8 sound good for our canoe trip?" he asked the roughly 25 in attendance. Some didn't respond; of those who did, most said they couldn't make that date.
"The eighth it is," said Murphy. "Now we're going to have to figure out the costs of this."
Flood damage in New Orleans occurred in three-quarters of its 87,000 owner-occupied homes and 70 percent of its more than 100,000 rental units. More than a third of the damaged homes did not have flood and hazard insurance; most of those housed low-income families. Murphy's ULI plan calls for rebuilding 74,000 homes and 47,500 rental units for low-income and working-class residents. It also asks that $6 billion in federal money currently on the table be set aside for low-interest mortgages ... which will make first-time homeowners out of many renters ... along with subsidies to help apartment-building owners make repairs without raising rents.
Many of the properties in the hardest-hit Eighth and Ninth wards of New Orleans consisted of public housing projects. However, HUD and the Housing Authority of New Orleans were going to erase these projects even before Hurricane Katrina did the job for them. HUD had been planning mixed-use/mixed-income housing ... much like the Crawford Square project ... as a way of dealing with blight and concentrated crime.
This echoes what Murphy believes is his legacy of eradicating public housing for good, as he did by tearing down high-rise apartment buildings in East Liberty. In New Orleans, Murphy believes, families whose homes were destroyed by Katrina will soon see the value in what replaces them. They should be aiming for home ownership now, he says.
According to the ULI plan, families who still need subsidized housing will be able to move into mixed-income developments. Nationally, however, such new developments have shown mixed results: While they've created cleaner and safer communities, they have also screened out families who cannot prove that the heads of their households currently are employed or enrolled in school. Minneapolis City Pages cites one such example involving McCormack Baron, the firm that developed Crawford Square.
Susan Eubank, a housing-project supervisor, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004 that only 37 of 213 applicants who had lived in a demolished Atlanta housing project qualified to move into McCormack Baron's mixed-income Centennial Place, which had replaced their homes. The rest had been disqualified by the screening process.
Such "work-preference screenings" are especially unfair post-Katrina, says New Orleans housing lawyer Laura Tuggle. "I don't want to make excuses for people, but I do think you have to have some sensitivity to the world we have to live in now." Families who were displaced after the flooding to, say, Texas will have a hard time finding sustainable employment back in New Orleans, she says. "If there were support systems in place and the housing authority gave [tenants] a reasonable amount of time to get a job ... I'd say this is a good thing, but I don't think the support is really there right now."
Perhaps this is why poor, dislodged New Orleans families are apprehensive about Murphy's proposal. Last month, New Orleans' city council unanimously passed two measures that contradict ULI's suggestions. Under the council legsilation, all neighborhoods should be revived equitably, regardless of how low they lie.
Says Murphy, "People who have an interest in the status quo will fight to keep the status quo, but even those who could benefit from the new situation aren't clear or might not even know they would benefit. So they're less inclined to change things."
Murphy has found many more of Pittsburgh's problems in the Crescent City, including the same faulty state-tax structure, with not enough taxable property, and commuters using services while not contributing enough to the tax base. New Orleans has one of the most generous homestead tax exemptions in the nation: $75,000. That leaves 55 percent of homes free from any property tax.
New Orleans is also facing potential municipal bankruptcy by the end of this month. Meanwhile, there are billions pouring in from the federal government that need proper administration, and Murphy has suggested something similar to Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority: a Crescent City Recovery Corporation, composed of federal, state and city appointees.
Janet Howard, president of New Orleans' nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research, says that while this sounds like a good plan, "there are always risks when you transfer power to private bodies." Given that the Corporation's budget would dwarf that of the city, Howard wrote in a BGR report, the risks include the redevelopment corporation becoming a "shadow government." Such an entity would, she worries, operate without voter accountability, and "could become too developer-oriented and insensitive to local historical and cultural conditions."
Also making it difficult is the state's relationship with the city ... a "historic animosity," as Howard puts it. Mayor Nagin has professed support for the Crescent City Recovery Corporation, but the state is already pushing its own board, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, on the city. Getting Nagin and the state on the same page may prove most difficult; state legislators have about as much faith in Nagin as, well, Pennsylvania legislators had in Murphy.
"I'm concerned that someone coming from a place that's very different regionally, culturally and socially is making these decisions," says Assata Richards, a University of Pittsburgh sociology professor from Houston who's leading a research project to examine the racial implications of rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward. "Pittsburgh has not been able to integrate itself racially," and "no one is talking about how black neighborhoods [in New Orleans] will be restructured: What are the implications for voting, redistricting and political offices? Because now you could be diluting the political power bases blacks had throughout the city."
During the April 22 mayoral primary held in New Orleans, which set up a run-off election scheduled for May 20, Brown University researchers found that the black power base has already weakened. The Brown report found that areas hit hardest by floods ... including the poorer, blacker Lower Ninth Ward ... had far worse voter turnout in the primary than they had prior to Katrina. Voting in some unflooded white neighborhoods, meanwhile, increased.
Despite that show of force, Murphy says white flight is a concern in New Orleans: "If New Orleans doesn't get their act together in terms of how they build housing," new homes will be built in the suburbs instead. "[T]he city will end up being the area of a primarily lower-income underclass, both white and black."
Right now the onus is on Nagin (or his successor) to make any plan work. And Pittsburgh's ex-mayor has familiar advice for the future mayor of New Orleans.
"Demonstrate bold leadership: 'This is what we're gonna do; this is who's gonna do it; and this is what our neighborhoods are gonna look like,'" counsels Murphy. "This plan gives him an opportunity to do that."