Our Views: New start for HANO

After more than a decade in federal supervision, the Housing Authority of New Orleans is back in local management — a significant advance for the city.

We hope that the city government and a more normal partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will make the most of this achievement.

The local authority was taken over in 2002 after a long series of scandals. The well-connected were making money as the tenants were in miserable conditions. Many of the housing projects dated from the New Deal, and the decades since the 1940s had not been kind to them — nor to the eroding social structures that plagued the inner city during the same years.

Crime and rats ruled. The sad decline of historic properties was punctuated by headlines in the newspapers about HANO administrators stealing enough from the taxpayer to fund Florida mansions.

There is no one who will say that the arrival of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the collapse of the levees, were a good thing. But there is no question that after major projects remained shuttered for years that the urgency of change was appreciated.

Shaun Donovan, the head of HUD, unquestionably deserves his victory lap as he returned HANO to local control.

He hired an outside contractor as the sole board member and backed the sometimes contentious process of bringing new strategies to the building and management of public housing.

“We’ve been able not only to help it operate more effectively, but we’ve been able to make affordable housing available to thousands and thousands more families,” Donovan said.

It hasn’t been without controversy, but New Orleans has followed the national trends, seeking to end the practice of building project blocks. In their places are a mix of multifamily buildings and townhouses designed to blend in with surrounding neighborhoods.

That means fewer units, about 1,825 compared to more than 6,000. Some complexes remain under construction and others, like St. Bernard, have been restructured to include a mix of public, affordable and market-rate housing.

We think that this is a positive trend, even when there is a serious need for more affordable housing the city.

Across the nation, cities have become concerned that “concentrating” poverty in the projects of old created a new and high barrier for tenants seeking to build better lives for themselves and their children.

If local control is good news, it’s even better that Donovan’s HUD has pledged to stick with the city: A $30.5 million grant through HUD’s Choice Neighborhood Initiative will help fund the redevelopment of the Iberville complex.

It’s one of the highest priorities on HANO’s list, vital to restoring not only housing but commerce and safety to the area.