Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for sticking with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Last April, we bought you the story about a subdivision in New Orleans Desire neighborhood, Gordon Plaza.
Jesse Perkins: We're being told we live on top of a toxic waste landfill. We weren't aware of this when we purchased our homes.
Marilyn Amar: We are the second highest cancer-causing neighborhood in the state of Louisiana.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The residents told us their stories about living in homes that the City of New Orleans built on top of a toxic landfill. They've been in a decades-long fight to get the City to move them to safer homes, and we wanted to bring you an update. This fight started nearly three decades ago, but the story goes back even further than that. In the late 1970s, the City of New Orleans with federal funding chose to develop an affordable housing community on top of land that was once called the Agriculture Street Landfill, which operated for nearly 50 years.
Jesse Perkins: My name is Jesse Perkins. I moved in Gordon Plaza, bought the house for me and my mother back in 1988.
Marilyn Amar: My name is Marilyn Amar. I've lived in Gordon Plaza 31 years. When I bought this property, I was not told that it was on a toxic landfill.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These primarily Black families were unaware that they were being exposed to debris and toxins from the landfill that had leached into the soil over decades. After pressure from environmentalists and residents, the Environmental Protection Agency tested the land. They found more than 140 toxins and hazardous materials, more than 40 of which are known to cause cancer. In 1994, the EPA declared the area a Superfund or hazardous waste site.
Jesse Perkins: We lived blocks away from the community and a Desire project, which was established back in 1955. It was an opportunity to get my mom out of the project and into what I thought was a healthy home. This was our American dream, but for all of us it turned into a nightmare after finding out that we purchased home on top of a toxic landfill consisting of 149 contaminants. It was sobering, very disappointing, left people with a lot of anxiety, trying to figure out where do we go from here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are 67 properties in the subdivision, with 54 families still living there. Since the 1990s, these residents have been fighting to be heard by the City of New Orleans and have been pushing for the City to pay for the relocation. Last June, they finally moved one step closer. The New Orleans City Council set aside $35 million in bond proceeds to buy properties from residents and help them move to new homes. The City eventually plans to demolish the existing homes and develop part of the area into a solar farm. We're still a little ways off from a complete resolution. The City has never done anything like this before. Since last June, some members of the City Council have had nearly two dozen Gordon Plaza taskforce meetings to negotiate details of this process with residents.
Jesse Perkins: The City of New Orleans has made us fight every inch of the way, every step of the way for basic human rights, for our humanity, for our right to be liberated from toxic soil. Here we are today, actually having made a lot of progress, I would say. Have we been successful? I would not call it success until everybody have checks in their hand and are able to move on to those healthy homes of our choice that we speak about. Here today, I'm still committed to the fight.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Because it's taxpayer money, there's been a lot of bureaucratic red tape the residents had to patiently cut through. In the fall, the City hired an appraiser to evaluate how much each property was worth. When residents found numerous issues with the first appraiser, they hired another one. Finally, in April, every resident received their appraisals and an offer letter, which means residents can start closing on their homes whenever they choose. If the City were to buy all these properties, it will cost about $21 million. That leaves money leftover in the Gordon Plaza fund and residents are arguing that there are costs involved with moving from one property and buying another one. Here's Marilyn telling us how she feels about her offer letter.
Marilyn Amar: I'm feeling good about it. I'm not over-excited, but I can move on. I'm saying that we should be able to use the whole $35 million to relocate all of the residents of Gordon Plaza. Of course, there are roadblocks. I can say for Marilyn, that I can move on. I can move on to a healthy home of my choice. Now, it may cost me more but at least I can get out of this situation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, residents have asked the City to provide an additional $25,000 per homeowner for relocation expenses to help with the cost of moving and packing, cleaning and replacing potentially toxic furniture and preparing their new homes for move-in. While the City says they'll pay for a moving company, City officials also say there are legal barriers to providing upfront cash to residents.
Jesse Perkins: Okay, we aware that there are laws that they can't, when you're working with public funds, you have to be very careful. We get that. Also, what we say is, find laws that actually could accommodate us. Stop just using laws as hurdles and barriers and excuses. Until we get the complete package, and that's the relocation cost, the moving expenses, and the rental assistance.
Marilyn Amar: Rental assistance.
Jesse Perkins: That's what's going to be the determining factor for everybody and how they move.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are also ongoing negotiations for rental assistance for tenants who live in these homes. The City is still working on how to provide a down payment for residents before they close on their existing homes. Without some of this information, residents say it's hard to even start looking for a new place to live.
Jesse Perkins: We don't even know if we're going to be able to afford New Orleans at the rate that is going right now, with the way home prices has gone up astronomically. I would love to be able to answer you and tell you, "Yes, I'm going to stay in New Orleans," but I don't know that. Would I like to stay in New Orleans? Yes, New Orleans is near and dear to my heart. This is where I was born and raised. Everything I love is here. My family, my friends, my kids, my grandbabies. It's like I just can't imagine leaving New Orleans, but if I have to leave New Orleans, then so be it. That's what it has to be. I have to move on and go with the flow and just go with the change. I have to accept that at some point. Is it going to be difficult? Yes, it is going to be difficult because I've been here all my life.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For Marilyn and a lot of other residents, they're just not really sure what they're going to do next.
Marilyn Amar: I'm thinking of either moving to maybe another suburbs of New Orleans maybe, or if I find a healthy home in New Orleans. Right now, I'm still in the process of finding a healthy home. I'm not sure where I'm going to go, I'm still looking.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While many of these issues are still being figured out, there are residents making a move. Last week, three Gordon Plaza properties begin the closing process. One is a vacant lot, one is a vacant home and one has a tenant. Marilyn and Jesse hope it's just going to be a matter of weeks for them. Thank you to Jesse Perkins and Marilyn Amar for sharing their stories and updating us on Gordon Plaza. We've also reached out to the City of New Orleans for comment, but we haven't heard back yet.
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