August 28, 2006

Fake officials “reopen” New Orleans public housing

By Peter Henderson and Matt Daily

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - 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.

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 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

"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.

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."

(Additional reporting by Russell McCulley in New Orleans)