For some 8,000 residents of the town of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, and their neighbors just south in the small fishing villages such as Coden and Mon Louis Island, life has revolved around the Gulf of Mexico and its bounty for over 300 years.
Since the modern chemical and oil polluters and large-scale processors arrived in the 1900s, these fisher families and seafood workers have fought for the ecological health of the Gulf with the same fervor they have fought for a living wage and a fair price for their catch. Anthropologist Paul Durrenberger has documented their countless brave battles spanning over 100 years in his book, It’s All Politics: South Alabama’s Seafood Industry (University of Illinois Press 1992).
These same people are now fighting to keep 100 homes granted to them as Katrina survivors accountable to the development’s public purpose and its intended beneficiaries, and are doing so with support from the cooperative movement and from human rights activists across the country.
On August 23rd, 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped out half the homes and nearly all of the work in the region, and a full seven years later, many of the long-time residents of this coastal community are still struggling to meet their basic human needs. As they are fighting for their basic rights and human dignity in the face of unjust evictions, broken promises and local corruption, they fight not just for themselves but also for their children and grandchildren who are growing-up in and now joining the struggle:
“My name is Josie White. I’m eleven years old and vice-president of my 6th grade class. I live with my Naunee [grandmother] Lydia Swift here at Safe Harbor. I don’t want to see her worry anymore. If we get evicted we will have nowhere to go, just like my 9-year-old friend Rebeccalee, who got evicted this summer with her grandmother and two year old sister” (quoted in Cooperative Development Institute Press Release, September 29th, 2012).
IMAGE: 9-year-old evictee Rebeccalee’s crayon drawing of her family’s furniture strewn on the lawn after their recent eviction.
So far, 14 survivors and their families have been forcibly evicted from the development, named “Safe Harbor,” leaving many in a far worse situation than they faced after the initial storm: “…many of them owned their property outright before Katrina. Coerced into moving to Safe Harbor by the condemnation powers of the City, the move transformed them from owners to renters and from those who had lifelong security of tenure to those with the monthly risk of eviction” (National Economic & Social Rights Initiative (“NESRI”) Solidarity Letter to FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), July 10th, 2012).
This is not the first battle Alabama’s fisher families have waged to secure fair public policies in the wake of Katrina. A few months after Katrina, community leaders formed South Bay Communities Alliance to address the significant neglect of several unincorporated communities along the Gulf Coast by public post-disaster rebuilding programs. The Alliance was successful in securing Community Development Block Grant funds from HUD to rebuild over 300 homes in these areas, and continues to advocate for over 700 families who qualified for these federal funds and have yet to receive relief.
Insecurity of Tenure
Central to the idea of “home” is the notion of security of tenure, i.e. a home should be a reliable and consistent place to which you know you can return, and, without the threat of eviction, raise a family and create roots within a community. Housing, and the stability and security of that housing, is a fundamental human need that creates human rights obligations on the part of the government. After nearly half of Bayou La Batre’s residents were left homeless by Katrina, many could not afford to rebuild. By 2006, roughly 350 families remained homeless or were living in inadequate conditions, such as the temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) trailers.
Safe Harbor Landings and Safe Harbor Estates are two newly constructed adjacent subdivisions consisting in total of 100 modular homes that are a significant response by the federal government to Katrina. The Safe Harbor homes were built, with land and infrastructure paid for entirely by a $15 million FEMA Alternative Housing Pilot Project grant and an additional $2 million Community Development Block Grant from HUD. The clear intent of the development was to create “permanent housing” solutions to meet the “long-term housing needs” of struggling fishermen, the disabled and elderly in Bayou La Batre, all still struggling to secure adequate housing in the wake of Katrina.
Though the developments were initially envisioned as a homeownership program, the beneficiaries of the grants were moved into the homes, while still owned by the City of Bayou La Batre, as renters, with promises of homeownership, and long-term security of tenure, through a rent-to-own arrangement. A FEMA publication cites expediency as the rationale for delaying the homeownership plan. Furthermore, says FEMA, a newly created Bayou La Batre Housing Authority would act to ensure rents were limited to residents’ ability-to-pay. Based in part on these promises, many residents gave up property they owned outright in the move to Safe Harbor. Some residents like Belinda Wilkinson, who owned a house and the land beneath it before the storm, share stories of apparent coercion. Belinda explains that she had no choice but to move to Safe Harbor after the City condemned her property and provided her with no options for rebuilding on her own land.
Since October 1st, 2011, the promises of hope, dignity and security have been outright denied to the residents. When the City inexplicably doubled and tripled rents, those unable to find the means to pay the higher rents were forcibly evicted, and some were left homeless.
Lack of Accountability Led to Self-Enrichment of City Officials
The rent-hikes began just one day after Mayor Stanley Wright and City Grant Administrator Janey Galbraith were indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for defrauding the federal government out of funds intended to benefit the Safe Harbor residents and the housing development. Ms. Galbraith has since been convicted, while Mayor Wright’s prosecution is ongoing.
In the midst of the corruption trial, during which Assistant U.S. Attorney George May said, “the federal government will not tolerate profiteers off of that money,” nothing has been done to restore the 14 evicted families back into their homes, stop the threat of future evictions and the unaffordable rents, nor to ensure the development’s governance is restructured in a way that guarantees ongoing and future accountability to the residents and the public. Safe Harbor continues to be owned and managed by the City, under the leadership of Mayor Wright (indicted) and Felicia Douglas, the Director of the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority and a subordinate of Ms. Galbraith (convicted). The Authority’s administration was contracted-out entirely to Ms. Galbraith’s company, shortly after the Authority, made up entirely of Mayoral appointees, was formed.
The City appears to be abusing its position as owner and landlord of Safe Harbor, a public asset created by federal monies, to make further gains at the expense of the Safe Harbor residents. According to an analysis completed by Andrew Danforth of the Cooperative Development Institute, management salaries exceed $130,000, which is four times the average cost of the management of similar property. The conversion of the development into profitable market-rate housing not only thwarts the public purpose of the program under which Safe Harbor was created, but also puts Katrina survivors, yet again, at-risk of homelessness and subjects them to inadequate living conditions. It also appears to be in violation of state law.
A Viable Solution from the Residents
Despite the evident corruption and harm already done, the residents and evictees of Safe Harbor are proposing a simple solution: a non-profit housing cooperative, to be collectively owned and democratically operated by the residents. This solution: restores the residents’ housing rights; fulfills the promise of long-term security of tenure through collective ownership; gives evicted residents priority to return to the development, and, perhaps most importantly, establishes a governance structure that guarantees direct accountability to the residents. This in turn, empowers the residents themselves to provide the much-needed community stewardship over Safe Harbor and ensure its longevity for the benefit of the community and for future generations.
Before Katrina, the residents of Bayou La Batre provided for themselves as fishermen and seafood workers and acted as stewards of the Gulf Coast. They have fought the challenges of Katrina and the BP Oil Spill, which damaged their livelihoods and tested their way of life, primarily via solutions generated for, and enacted by, the community, including the successful Alabama Fisheries Cooperative, whose membership is composed of number of diverse communities.
Since the evictions at Safe Harbor began in 2011, residents have secured the legal assistance of Alabama Legal Services to bring the eviction cases to trial and the technical assistance of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Community Development Institute to develop a viable residents’ proposal for the future of Safe Harbor. They have organized a Safe Harbor Housing Cooperative Organizing Committee and are building support toward a just resolution that is in furtherance of Safe Harbor’s original public purpose.
This summer, NESRI’s Housing Program began working in solidarity with the Safe Harbor residents. The Program recently attended the 45th Annual Meeting of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives with the Organizing Committee in Birmingham, Alabama. The Federation was founded in 1969 on the notion that freedom could not be realized for poor Black farmers in the South without access to land. At their 45th meeting, Safe Harbor residents drummed up support for their coastal struggle, which traverses the boundaries of their various ethnic and racial backgrounds, connecting with the Federation’s notable civil rights leadership and the organization’s over 20,000 low-income, mostly Black, cooperative farmers working throughout the Southeast.
NESRI strongly supports the residents’ proposal for democratic community stewardship of Safe Harbor, and believes it exemplifies the much–needed innovation in accountable governance and tenure arrangements supported by federal housing programs for low- and moderate-income families throughout the United States.
Indeed, with one-in-four mortgaged homeowners likely to receive a foreclosure filing in the midst of the ongoing financial crisis, the American Dream has become a nightmare of huge proportions for many. The U.S. Government’s nearly exclusive focus in past decades on raising the rate of homeownership in low- and moderate-income and minority neighborhoods, promoted immediate access to housing, in exchange for future uncertainty and risk.
The Safe Harbor residents’ proposal presents an important alternative, focused not on the financial characteristics of homeownership, but on securing residents’ long-term dignity in their homes, minimizing the economic exposure of individual families, and re-knitting “community” with an ethos of shared responsibility and mutual support. Given economic realities, this is the kind of tenure alternative the U.S. Government should be exploring in support of the restoration of communities throughout the country, particularly since families and communities continue to be devastated by the foreclosure crisis.
Support Safe Harbor residents in demanding what is just and right by signing and sharing widely their Change.org petition, and find out more about the Safe Harbor residents’ struggle by visiting http://safeharborhousing.wordpress.com.