New Orleans Teachers Say Modular Housing Is Too Little, Too Late

Government agencies trying to woo educators back to city with free 'pods.'

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When Louisiana leaders said this month that they would provide 250 modular housing units for teachers in New Orleans, they were hoping to draw educators back to the city’s schools. But the news instead has irked some teachers displaced by Hurricane Katrina, who say that by offering them “storage pods” for homes, authorities are rubbing salt in their wounds.

In announcing the decision to provide the housing units, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, said on Sept. 13 that the state government is “doing everything in our power to provide affordable housing so good teachers can return to the classroom.”

The fully furnished units each have two bedrooms and will be offered rent-free to teachers. A statement from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the planning and coordinating body created to rebuild storm-hit areas in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, said teachers displaced by the storm are encouraged to apply for the units.

But some displaced teachers say the offer comes too late.

Modular Housing Unit

External View
Living Room-Kitchen

Fast Facts:
■ 250 modular units
■ Two bedrooms
■ Fully furnished
■ Rent-free
■ Located on school properties in New Orleans
■ Open to applicants who lived in a storm-impacted parish of Louisiana before hurricanes Katrina and Rita
■ Total project cost: $14 million

Valerie Prier, who taught in the New Orleans schools for 22 years, said she had indicated to school officials in January that she was eager to return to the Orleans Parish district if she could be offered help with finding housing. She said she never received a response.

When the school district fired 7,500 of its teachers in February, she found work as a teacher in the Hammond, La., schools.

Although her heart is still in New Orleans, and her husband still works in the city, Ms. Prier said the housing units are not enough to make her rush back.

“It was almost an insult when I saw what [the units] looked like,” Ms. Prier said.

Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said many teachers wanted to return to help rebuild New Orleans’ schools, but hopes were dashed after they were fired last winter.

Teachers who wanted their jobs back were asked to reapply if they wanted to be considered.

“All of them were told … forget your right to tenure, forget your years of service,” he said, adding that teachers even lost health insurance. The experience, he said, left most teachers bitter.

“Now, when they look at the picture of the pod … they say, ‘We are not going to come back here—you can keep your pod,’ ” he said.

‘A Walk-In Closet’

Since Hurricane Katrina destroyed homes and schools in New Orleans in August of last year, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to leave, the city has reconstructed its public school system, with a few schools managed by the local school board and dozens more managed by the Louisiana Department of Education or charter school groups. ("With an Unusually Hands-On Role, State Feels Its Way in New Orleans," Aug. 30, 2006.)

But like their counterparts in other urban districts, the schools have had trouble finding teachers certified in mathematics, science, foreign languages, and special education.

The modular housing units that the Louisiana Recovery Authority is offering teachers, in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the City of New Orleans, will be installed on properties belonging to the state-run Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish district. They will be available to teachers in regular public and charter schools.

Supplied by FEMA, The units cost the agency more than $14 million, according to a statement issued by the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Siona LaFrance, a spokeswoman for the Recovery School District, said the housing units are being made available as a solution for teachers who want to return to New Orleans but are deterred by the severe lack of affordable housing. Educators are finding they would have to pay twice as much rent as they did before the storm for the same type of housing in New Orleans, she said.

“For teachers who want to come back and have not been able to find housing, this is a very viable option,” Ms. LaFrance said of the modular units. Many administrators and teachers have been forced to live in trailers, she added.

But Ms. Prier said authorities could have spent the money to revive apartment complexes that were damaged because of Katrina and made them available to teachers.

Her anger was echoed by other educators on the AFT’s Web log devoted to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and other issues. One blogger said the unit resembled a “walk-in closet.”

“It looks like a gorilla crate. … This can’t be for real—seriously!” wrote another.

Vol. 26, Issue 05, Page 15

Published in Print: September 27, 2006, as New Orleans Teachers Say Modular Housing Is Too Little, Too Late
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