A prankster posing as a federal housing official took center stage at a New Orleans event with the city mayor and the governor of Louisiana, controversially promising to throw open closed public housing to thousands of poor former city residents.
The stunt, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development called a "cruel hoax," was the latest by an activist group known as "The Yes Men" who have previously masqueraded as World Trade Organization officials announcing they were disbanding the body.
Activist Andy Bichlbaum, pretending to be HUD "Assistant Deputy Secretary Rene Oswin," told hundreds of businesspeople at a forum the agency would reverse policy and reopen housing units now targeted for replacement by mixed-income development.
He promised to "fix New Orleans, not just for the benefit of a few but for everyone."
The audience applauded the speech, and the moderator thanked "Oswin" for the "dramatic announcement."
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin gave the preceding speeches at The Gulf Reconstruction and Hurricane Preparedness Summit, although neither was on the podium when the bogus official spoke.
The summit and action by The Yes Men come a day before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city and led to the closing of New Orleans public housing.
Mixed-income development plan stirs controversy
The federal agency in reality aims to replace much of city's public housing with mixed-income development, arguing that will produce safer neighborhoods and better lives. It confirmed that plan in a statement denouncing the stunt.
But the agency's plans have become extremely controversial, with critics saying low-income people will be squeezed out of New Orleans, since the redeveloped land will have fewer spots for the poorest.
A fake release from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced the purported change.
"Today, it is my great pleasure to announce to you that HUD is reversing our policy. From now on, and beginning at all Orleans parish housing communities, our policy will no longer be to destroy much-needed housing, but to do all in our power to make it work," said the statement.
Group throws barbecue for contractors
Later, the group provided barbecued chicken and ribs to contractors at an open public housing development while a brass band belted out New Orleans jazz.
One contractor lured to the event told Bichlbaum he thought the buildings could be fixed for less than half the cost of new construction. "The main thing is to get in here and get it done," said Jeff Perryman of B3 Construction.
Mike Bonanno, the second "Yes Man," told Reuters the hoax was a bittersweet achievement. "It's helped us to become the people we wish we could be to correct the problems," he said.
The duo has a movie, "The Yes Men."