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On The Ground
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Manhattan Institute

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Hero's Task


Hero's Task

April 30, 2006
Urban PolicyCrime

Since Houston opened its doors to tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees, it has faced challenges including transplanted gangs and a spike in violent crime.

From the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina emerges a historic natural experiment: Can one city's good governance help undo what another city's bad governance helped create?

In the decades before Katrina, New Orleans was a place where failed urban policies let social pathology fester. Its economy was listless, its population declining. Free-market employers and middle-class residents shunned the city because its public sector was seen as corrupt, its citizenry was uneducated, and its neighborhoods were crime-ridden. To escape Katrina, about half of New Orleans' population, or about 240,000 people, fled to Houston, whose increasing population and expanding economy have been the inverse of New Orleans' over the past five decades. Houston still remains home to about 150,000 New Orleans evacuees.

Houston isn't just showing its guests some Texas hospitality; it's showing displaced New Orleanians what a difference it makes to live in a city that strives, if imperfectly, to operate upon sound urban-governance precepts – leadership in a crisis, competent policing, a functioning judicial system, accountable urban schools and a culture of private-sector entrepreneurship.

Since multiple surveys of Katrina evacuees in Houston indicate that between half and two-thirds plan to stay, the challenge for post-Katrina Houston is to ensure that the worst elements of New Orleans' crime-ravaged underclass don't perpetuate their dysfunctional habits in Houston. Houston's success would show the rest of the nation how much good government matters – even, or especially, to the toughest population.

As Houston absorbed its new population in late 2005, city leaders began to grasp that what ailed New Orleans' poor before the storm was not so much poverty as violent crime. It followed that the best social program for them would be good policing to protect citizens new and old.

Katrina evacuees pushed up Houston's rates for some crimes, particularly homicide, not just the raw number of offenses. The murder numbers Houston has racked up since Katrina prove that violent New Orleanians haven't changed their ways, but only their scenery.

Since Katrina, Houston police have identified New Orleans evacuees as either suspects or victims (or often both) in more than 30 Houston-area homicides. For an evacuee population of 175,000, this works out to a per-capita annual murder rate of about 34 per 100,000, well above Houston's pre-Katrina rate. Houston's most acute post-Katrina task is to treat its post-Katrina crime problem as seriously as it treated its post-Katrina housing crisis.

Houston's housing-voucher program for Katrina evacuees, a workable solution to an acute crisis, nevertheless proved the law of unintended consequences in even justified government largesse. The vouchers encouraged the incursion of New Orleans' population of criminals into Houston's most vulnerable tracts: acre after acre of two-story apartment complexes that blot Houston's underpoliced southwest and west-side neighborhoods.


In these districts, homicides were up 52 percent for the last months of 2005 over the same months in 2004, and Katrina evacuees accounted for a vastly disproportionate share of the increase. After Katrina, armed robberies in the districts were up 11 percent after an 11 percent drop during the same months between 2003 and 2004. Assaults, flat the previous year, were up nearly 12 percent after Katrina. Weapons arrests, also flat the previous year, rose 31 percent.

Numbers are one thing, but fear is another. By late autumn, New Orleans' underclass wars had come to Houston. The Big Easy's style of crime isn't what Houston is used to. Though New Orleans' gangs, like Houston's, traffic in guns and drugs, their main concern seems to be violence for the sake of violence.

"Murders are just the way this group of individuals resolves conflicts," notes James Bernazzani, the FBI's special agent for New Orleans, who has studied New Orleans' gang culture carefully. One Houston police officer who has done prison details since Katrina mused to me that "hardened Houston criminals" have complained to him of how gratuitously violent the prisoners from New Orleans are.

Good police work

Confronting New Orleans' legacy, the Houston Police Department has shown over the past few months that competent policing can make a big difference in the lives of criminals and victims alike. Some of the HPD's early post-Katrina work was easy. As Officer Orlando Patterson told me as we rode around southwest Houston, New Orleans evacuees don't even seem to know that possessing or smoking marijuana or carrying unlicensed weapons is a crime.

Houston has gone beyond the easy work with a gang-intelligence project. Late last year, the HPD tapped Lt. Humberto Lopez, a 21-year vet, to head its new gang-murder squad. Lt. Lopez's task force is benefiting from a gang database that Agent Bernazzani compiled during the first few months of his now year-old tour in New Orleans.

Houston is using the information to implement a new anti-gang strategy, which involves tracking gang members and working with prosecutors to ensure that individuals arrested for drugs or robbery who have been tagged as violent gang members are prosecuted aggressively rather than released to the streets.

All this good police work actually has an effect in Houston, because, in contrast to New Orleans, it has a functioning prosecutor's office, complemented by judges who actually sentence criminals to prison. Says Lt. Lopez of New Orleans suspects: "They're not used to being policed. ... A lot of them are surprised – and after a few weeks are surprised that they're still in jail. They're not really aware of how Texas works."

How much more effective is Houston's criminal-justice system than New Orleans'? In New Orleans, according to its nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, 7 percent of those arrested for a crime ultimately served prison time, compared with 58 percent in Houston. In New Orleans, only 12 percent of those arrested for homicide are ultimately incarcerated for that crime; in Houston, it's 47 percent. In New Orleans, 18 percent of robbery and 12 percent of drug-distribution arrestees ultimately serve prison time; Houston's numbers are 60 and 71 percent.

Compared with national averages, Houston's results aren't stellar, but the city's obvious superiority to New Orleans demonstrates how poor policing, poor prosecution and poor sentencing nurtured the Big Easy's criminal underclass – and how controlling crime can improve the lives of those who came from New Orleans' worst neighborhoods.

And working-class New Orleanians living in Houston also are learning about something else they didn't have much of back home: economic opportunity.

More jobs

Compared with pre-Katrina New Orleans, Houston abounds with jobs. That's partly why its population has grown 23 percent since 1990, while New Orleans' population, before Katrina, had shrunk by 8 percent. Just since Katrina hit, the Houston area has added 40,000 new jobs.

Despite an enduring myth that New Orleanians are lazy, they're seizing those jobs, and Houston gives those who worked at low-wage jobs in New Orleans the chance to upgrade their skills and move up.

Many evacuees plan to make Houston their permanent home. Satacha Johnson, 28, living in voucher housing on Houston's west side with her 9-year-old daughter, is just one of many young New Orleanians I spoke to who plan on staying; she's been working at a Houston charity as she searches for a permanent job.

"Who doesn't love New Orleans?" she said. "But there's more opportunity for a single mom in Houston."

Better schools

Matching Houston's culture of economic opportunity is the culture of striving in its public schools, which took in more than 20,000 new students after Katrina. Their parents are almost uniformly surprised at the quality of the education they're getting.

Stasia Marie Davis, who evacuated from New Orleans East and was about to start work as a teacher's aide when I spoke to her, said that her two high school-age daughters had been in gifted programs at a New Orleans public school but "are struggling to keep up" at Houston's Westfield High School.

"In New Orleans, they are preparing them for the tourism business. Here, they are preparing them for college," she said.

William Coleman, who has custody of his grandchildren, said that the Houston school the children attend call the house if the kids are late or absent: "They didn't do that in New Orleans," he marveled.

Teachers as well as parents are pleased. Before evacuating, Warren Johnson taught English at McDonogh #35, one of New Orleans' few high-performing public schools. Now teaching at Yates High School in Houston, he's thrilled with the quality of resources and plans to stay. He notes that the school is well-managed and has good security, and the administration works efficiently and "without so much politics."

"I hate to talk bad about my city," he says, but some things in Houston "are a bit more logical."

Houston's schools are not perfect; nor are New Orleans evacuees integrating perfectly. At several schools, New Orleans and Houston kids have engaged in large-scale brawls, and I saw competing graffiti, including a tag that said "NO Boyz," in a stairwell at Yates.

But Houston boosted security quickly after the early fights, and, just as important, it hasn't given up on its public schools, as New Orleans had. It is still innovating in its quest for greater accountability and better results; in January, for example, over the objections of the teachers' union, Houston's largest school district voted to implement a sweeping merit-pay system for teachers.

Further, Texas has nearly 300 charter schools, compared with pre-Katrina Louisiana's 16. After Katrina, Houston started a charter elementary and middle school in partnership with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) college-prep academy and Teach for America, just to serve evacuee students, with teachers and administrators from New Orleans.

Principal Gary Robichaux told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the new charter school, New Orleans West, "functions much healthier than many of the schools did in New Orleans." Mr. Robichaux said that most of his eighth-grade New Orleans evacuees can read at only a fifth-grade level, "if they can read at all."

'A fresh start'

Houston's culture of opportunity leaves little excuse for failure. But Houston must put this philosophy to work in motivating its underclass evacuees.

"A lot of people who lived in public housing and were not working, you have to get them used to a different way of living," says evacuee Ariane Daughtry, who, as a Catholic Charities caseworker, is helping other evacuees settle in Houston.

"The only lifestyle they know is the welfare system, low-income housing. They may be getting help now, but they have to realize they need a plan. [We have to] show them this is a fresh start."

Bob Fleming, Ms. Daughtry's boss, concurs that it will be a challenge "to get down to the 5 to 7 percent who may be dependent. ... That will be the issue in the end."

One measure New Orleans itself is contemplating – barring the unemployed from public housing – will make Houston's job more difficult, as those who aren't working will be likely to stay where they are.

At the biweekly meetings that Mayor Bill White holds on Katrina strategy, everyone knows that this issue is key. Says Jeff Stys, who attends the meetings for United Way, the "main message" for unemployed evacuees now is that "the clock is ticking. Houston has opened its doors. This is time to make sure you uphold your end of the deal."

Houston also has a fiscal motive to ensure that temporary government assistance for Katrina evacuees remains temporary. While the feds have reimbursed the city for many (although not all) of its first-year evacuee costs, they will end that reimbursement once they view the former Louisiana residents as Texans. Louisiana itself has already cut off federal welfare payments to the evacuees, claiming that they no longer live in Louisiana.

Mayor White says he's open to suggestions for Katrina's next phase. This is a perfect opportunity not just for Houston's local charities – including faith-based groups – but also for national social-entrepreneurship groups to help evacuees who aren't used to working or who are difficult to employ, such as convicted felons or illiterates. Even more ambitious social entrepreneurs could help New Orleanians learn that the "normal" New Orleans culture of single motherhood isn't normal at all.

The ultimate challenge for philanthropists and policymakers is to ensure that a new generation of single mothers doesn't set loose another generation of unsupervised violent young men to prey on another city.

Houston's openhearted outreach to New Orleans in its hour of need was an extraordinary gesture, and it saved lives. But Houston will have accomplished a truly heroic task if it can redeem the undereducated, underpoliced and unmarried underclass that made New Orleans a disaster long before Katrina.

Houston approaches this task with a crucial advantage: Its leaders and citizens don't instinctively see big government as the solution – only good government.