Video: Link housing to willingness to work?

By Martin Savidge Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/21/2006 7:50:04 PM ET 2006-02-22T00:50:04

It was surprisingly tough talk from Oliver Thomas, the president of the New Orleans City Council.

“We don't need soap opera watchers all day,” Thomas said at the council meeting Feb. 20. “We need people who are coming back if you are able.”

Thomas was telling displaced residents if they want to come back — and they want to live in public housing — they better want to work.

“If your legs don't hurt, you can walk somewhere,” Thomas said. “If your arms don't hurt, you can pick something up.”

Before Hurricane Katrina, Thomas might have been slammed for talking so bluntly. But the fact there's been no outcry suggests how dire the situation is. Many of New Orleans' 7,000 public housing units were flooded in Katrina, triggering an extremely tight housing crisis. Some council members want preference given to returning residents who verify they want to work.

Cynthia Wiggins manages one of the city's public housing complexes.

““Some of these people that live in public housing need to get up and work,” Wiggins says. “I think it's unfair to me and a whole lot of people who get up every day and go to work.”

But critics, like public housing advocate Mike Howells, say it’s just another way for the city to select who comes back and who doesn't.

“It's traumatic to be thrown out of your home,” Howells says. “I think they're putting as many obstacles in front of people who they feel are undesirable for whatever reason and they want to freeze them out.”

Errol Sabatier lives in public housing and works, but he's against screening out people who don't.

“If they didn't have a job, they had an apartment. Then they should get their apartment back,” Sabatier says.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans says it has already started asking candidates employment questions, including what jobs they had and what they plan to do.

It’s yet another indication that a new New Orleans is rising from the flood.

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