On September 15, 2005, two weeks after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, President Bush stepped before a dazzling glow of lights in the otherwise dark city of New Orleans and made several promises to those who had just lost so much. One of the most intriguing was a pledge to bring the city's displaced home through a pioneering program of urban homesteading.
Noting that "homeownership is one of the great strengths of any community," Bush described a plan compelling in its simplicity. "We will identify property in the region owned by the federal government, and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery," the President said. "In return, they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity."
Bush's homesteading proposal captured the imagination of Pam Dashiell, a grandmother who fled her rental home in the inundated Lower Ninth Ward to seek refuge in a St. Louis hotel room. Dashiell was eager to take advantage of the opportunity it offered.
"Something like that would have been wonderful," Dashiell says. "It would have allowed people who were displaced to have a real stake in the rebuilding. So much of the emphasis has been on people who already owned their homes, but there were so many renters who loved the city dearly and wanted to come back."
But like so many of the promises made and plans hatched in Katrina's aftermath, the homesteading initiative was quickly abandoned, replaced by a series of scattershot efforts that have kept tens of thousands of people from returning home to New Orleans and other Gulf communities.
"Few of the things that people said were going to happen here actually happened," says Dashiell, who has since returned to another rental in her old neighborhood. "So far there has not been much promise-keeping."
T o look at what happened to President Bush s homesteading promise is to see writ small the larger dysfunctions that have stymied the Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts.
There was precedent for Bush's housing plan. The Homestead Act of 1862 fueled westward expansion by allowing U.S. residents to earn title to up to 160 acres by working it for five years. A century later, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 made urban homesteading a part of "urban renewal" efforts, making rundown houses available at low cost in return for the buyer's commitment to fix up and occupy...