If you were to walk, bike, or drive down Chartres Street by the Mississippi River, past the Press Street railroad tracks, towards the Industrial Canal, past the vacant riverfront properties with “For Sale” and various developers’ signs, eventually you would come to a lot bordered by Chartres, France, Royal, and Mazant Streets. The property is grassy with a lone jungle gym on the river side and a few shade trees, swings hanging from their limbs. Just steps away is Crescent Park, which stretches along the river from the Bywater to the western edge of the French Quarter. Aside from the occasional rumbling of the train, it is a quiet place. Only a few signs placed along the edge of the property identify it as owned by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO).
As the housing and eviction crises rage on in New Orleans, the lot is the site for a proposed mixed-income housing development that would take up the entire block. The development would create 136 apartment units, of which 82 (60%) would be earmarked for rent below market rate. It would add 82 affordable units in a city where housing costs have risen dramatically in the last decade, and continue to climb. Not only that, the development would be situated in a historically Black neighborhood, and in an area considered highly desirable, with access to public transportation, as well as two schools.
This May, HANO gained City Council approval to re-zone the lot, meaning that the complex has cleared a major hurdle. Lauded by housing advocates in New Orleans and reviled by a collection of current residents of the Bywater, the development raises some questions: why does public housing look private these days? And does the project—along with the other mixed-income type of developments going up in New Orleans—truly bring New Orleans closer to sustainable solutions to its affordability and eviction emergencies?
LAY OF THE LAND
Although HANO owns the land, a private company, the Houston-based ITEX Group, would own and manage the building. Within the development, 34 apartment units would permanently use project-based vouchers, meaning that the units will be subsidized housing where the tenants will pay 30% of their income as rent. The next tier will be 48 units priced to be affordable to households making 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI). These units would have rent also connected to the tenant’s household income, but the cost of keeping the units below market rate would be partially offset by Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, supplied by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. The remaining 54 units would rent at market rate.
Some critics of the project, such as organizers with the New Orleans People’s Assembly and the New Orleans Workers’ Group, argue that mixed-income developments increase the rate of gentrification through the creation of pricey “market rate” apartment units, while giving tax abatements to private development companies. However, the most outspoken opposition has come from members of the neighborhood, who say the monolithic development is an eyesore and a bad housing option in a city where single-family homes are the norm. Other, more insidious motives are present too—opponents of affordable and public housing developments often deploy rhetoric exploiting the stigma around poverty and the racial anxieties of white people.
Neighborhood detractors raise numerous issues with the project, such as the destruction of live oaks on the property, the height and “massing” of the project, its conversion of rain-absorbing grass to a lot with a large building and parking lot, noise from construction, and the impact on parking and traffic. There are also people who have argued that the new residents might “overwhelm” the neighborhood, or that “crime” might go up.
A press release from the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) outlined the racism of a mostly white community recoiling at the prospect of a housing development that may allow displaced Black New Orleanians to return to the Bywater. At one meeting, an elderly man cried out, “It’s gonna be a ghetto!” before his companion shushed him.
Though some of the opposition may indeed have more to do with the destruction of green space rather than conscious prejudice, privileging trees over people’s right to housing is racist, part of a legacy of the environmental movement that privileges green space over the lives of Black and brown people. At the same time, as New Orleans has turned over its transit authority and public schools to private management and toyed with the idea of privatizing its water utility, private market solutions to a public agency’s failings do demand scrutiny.
BAKERIES AND BREWERIES
The Bywater neighborhood today is a patchwork of pastel creole cottages on streets peppered with new bars, eateries, and cafes. The logic of gentrification means that with every new amenity—Crescent Park, the influx of cafes, a new brewery by the levee—the rent rises, and long term residents, especially poor and working class Black residents, are forced out.
In its hotly-contested space, the Bywater development is neither as bad an idea as its detractors say, nor as good as its advocates claim.
In its hotly-contested space, the Bywater development is neither as bad an idea as its detractors say, nor as good as its advocates claim.
Once a majority-Black neighborhood, the area has seen an overwhelming demographic shift in the years since Katrina, going from 61% Black residents in 2000, to just 25% in 2013-2017. The number of white residents has doubled from just 32% to 67% within the same period. According to data from the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA), from 2010 to 2017 alone, the median rent in the Bywater jumped from $934 a month to $1,024, a nearly 10% increase. The Bywater today seems pleasant to walk through—the sky above the remodeled, low-slung shotguns, the breeze off the river rustling the palm fronds and sycamore leaves overhead—but the halcyon air belies that gentrification is innately violent; a forced displacement of people and communities that privileges whites and the upper class.
The Bywater HANO project is moving forward against the backdrop of an ongoing housing crisis in New Orleans. According to The Advocate, there are a combined 35,000 families on the waitlist for housing vouchers or public housing in New Orleans. HousingNola, a non-profit that works in affordable housing advocacy and education, assembled a “10-Year Strategy and Implementation Plan” in 2015 which showed that over half of New Orleans renter households are cost burdened—meaning they spend over 30% of their monthly income on housing. “New Orleans’ Eviction Geography,” a report from from Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI), shows that the majority of cost burdened renters in New Orleans are Black, and that Black renter households are disproportionately likely to face evictions.
“People ask me all the time if I lived next to this lot, would I support this development, and the answer is yes. 150% yes. 60% affordable units is pretty good,” says Y. Frank Southall, the lead organizer with Jane Place. “I think it’s a great precedent to engage other developers.”
The opposition movement to the Bywater project is marked by contradictions—some attendees at the meetings for the project claim to want the project, but with fewer units and less massing. Others say the development does not have enough units for HANO to justify using the land, converting it from grassy lot to apartment complex. At a neighborhood meeting with the developer several months ago, multiple comment cards—to say nothing of what people were yelling over the presenters—decried the height of the complex, deeming it inconsistent with the bright Creole cottages that would be its neighbors.
At a neighborhood meeting in April, however, one attendee demanded to know why there were 136 units in the plan for the building, and not 150, as ITEX had said there would be at a previous meeting. The reason? ITEX had axed the top floor of units for the project after many people complained about the height.
At the same meeting, several attendees commented that the city should look to build the sort of mid-century housing projects that HANO used to manage, before demolishing the “Big Four” housing complexes in 2007, which housed thousands of predominantly Black households. Pre-Katrina, the Big Four—B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard, Lafitte, C.J.Peete—and others (such as St. Thomas and Desire) were part of a public housing system in New Orleans home to over 5,000 households. That number has fallen to 1,900 in 2015 (according to a report published by NPR), as the Big Four were replaced with mixed-income developments that house far fewer people. The city now relies more heavily on Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8), though the long waitlist is currently closed.
“As we talk about the affordable housing crisis, as people talk about [cuts in HUD funding], where were they when St. Thomas was redeveloped? Were were they when Desire was redeveloped?” asked Andreanecia Morris, Executive Director of the GNOHA. “A series of decisions have been made to get us where we are. Not all were right, not all were wrong. We have to deal with the reality now,” says Morris.
THE REALITY NOW
The large, project-type developments such as the Big Four were built with funding from the federal government, specifically the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This is in contrast to the Bywater development, which would be built and operated by a private company, with some public subsidy. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the federal government built hundreds of thousands of housing units designed to house low-income people.
Starting in the 1980s, then president Ronald Reagan slashed HUD’s spending on subsidized housing to about a third of prior levels. President Clinton continued this process in the 1990s by passing Hope VI, which prioritized demolishing badly maintained housing projects and replacing them with mixed-income developments. Under the current administration, it is highly unlikely that mid-century levels of funding for public housing will be restored.
The May 23 City Council meeting that decided the fate of the housing development was well-attended by members of the opposition, who carried mass-produced signs urging the City to “just press pause” on the development. The majority of the opposition were middle aged and white. For the development to move forward, the property needed to be up-zoned for taller buildings. Many who spoke in opposition claimed to support affordable housing, just not this form (mixed-income), or this location. Julie Jones, the president of Neighbors First for Bywater made a public comment about “mixed-race” development, before hastily correcting herself to say “mixed income.” The overt message was that they would support the development, if only it were 100% affordable.
In support of the project, Breonne DeDecker, program manager of Jane Place, commented: “There is not unlimited public money for affordable housing in the City of New Orleans. There is not enough money coming from the federal government in order to build 100% affordable housing. I know because I am looking at my budgets every day… this idea that somehow HANO can do 100% affordable housing, coming from Ben Carson’s HUD is just absurd… Jane Place has a lot of critiques about public-private partnerships but this is the only game we have in town.”
The zoning change passed 6-0, while the council added some provisos to keep the development at its current size, and increase oversight on the design.
ENVISIONING ANOTHER GAME
When I spoke with P. E. Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, they rejected the fatalistic logic that leads so many housing advocates to the mixed-income solution. Moskowitz agrees that the inability to get HUD funding for significant investment in affordable housing has driven the shift to mixed income developments, but argues that HUD does not have to be the last word on public housing. In the middle of the 20th century, Moskowitz says that the equivalent of “hundreds of billions” were available to build public housing—this is certainly not true today. However, they continue:
“Essentially the feeling of every politician in every city I’ve talked to, is that they have to work with what they have, and to a certain extent, that’s true… but if a city has a high murder rate or, say, is going through a global warming crisis, as New Orleans obviously is, the mayors tend to do more than throw up their hands and say, ‘Well, what can you do about it?’”
This impulse to “work with what you have” is why HANO and the City Council are looking to mixed-income housing and inclusionary zoning (IZ) to create affordable housing opportunities. IZ refers to either mandatory or voluntary policies that set aside a certain percentage of new housing as “affordable.” With IZ, usually between 5 and 30% of new units are reserved for low-income residents; The City of New Orleans passed a mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinance this March, also known as the “Smart Housing Mix.”
Meanwhile, the City has touted the shift away from large public housing developments as a success, despite the fact that there were massive demonstrations protesting the demolition. A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research showed that the destruction mainly displaced Black women and their children.
“I don’t think anyone, including proponents of public housing like myself, would argue that the projects were a perfect place to live in New Orleans or anywhere else,” says Moskowitz. “The problem with the projects wasn’t that they were public housing, it was that they were underfunded and that the people in them didn’t get enough services.”
Moskowitz says that the demolition of the largest housing projects in New Orleans did not solve the issues associated with public housing, but rather redistributed the poor households who called the projects home.
Though some argue that this relocation has the positive effect of housing low-income people in less impoverished areas, Moskowitz takes issue with this philosophy. “The idea that if you put low income people next to middle income people they’ll absorb the ‘niceness’ of the middle class—to me it’s an anti-poor and white supremacist idea.”
Of course, there are benefits to living in neighborhoods with access to schools, hospitals, transportation, and parks. However, the logic promoting mixed-income development is deeply flawed. This is not to mention the fact that mixed-income ultimately will mean a certain amount of higher income residents, which Moskowitz predicts will raise rents in the case of the Bywater development.
RESPONDING TO THE HOUSING CRISIS
The City of New Orleans has taken several different steps towards adding the estimated tens of thousands of affordable units needed by 2025 to resolve the current housing crisis. State and city agencies pledged to build 1,500 affordable units of housing each year for five years, starting in 2015. Though the first year produced 1,439 units, this momentum has slowed, and HousingNola reports that the project has fallen thousands of units behind its goal.
The turn to mixed-income developments and IZ represents a way for private entities to build low income housing, though these types of developments house far fewer people than the projects. There is significant political allure for these types of developments—they require less public funding, as the housing is partly subsidized by the creation of market rate units. Tax freezes or abatements can also help offset the cost of the development. The City Council passed the ordinance in anticipation of a state-level preemption law from conservative-led Baton Rouge that would have barred New Orleans from using IZ.
Proponents of IZ argue that the strategy increases a city’s affordable housing stock without raising taxes or using public money, while attracting economic activity. Opponents argue that this strategy rarely creates sufficient housing for those who need it most, while developing mainly for higher-income residents. In various studies on IZ’s effect on housing there is a general consensus that IZ has done little to substantially increase the affordable housing stock where it has been implemented, even under mandatory policies. One study even showed that IZ was correlated with a slight increase in prices on the existing housing stock, while another showed that IZ can increase prices in a market where prices are rising—which they undoubtedly are in New Orleans.
The Smart Housing Mix study that was the basis for the IZ ordinance included language about maintaining “profitability” for developers, and reasoned that providing housing priced for people that are at 30% AMI or classified “extremely low income” could “offset the developers profit significantly.” The study concludes that pricing for around 60% AMI would be a more effective incentive for the developers. The study also used a 12% set-aside as the goal for New Orleans IZ; however, the ordinance City Council passed will only reserve between 5 and 10% of units, depending on the area.
CAN WE ZONE OUR WAY OUT OF THIS?
The current IZ policy for New Orleans mandates affordability for between 5 and 10% of units in some historic core neighborhoods. These neighborhoods currently have higher concentrations of jobs, schools, and public transportation. Under the new ordinance, 10% of units for new homes would be built in the CBD and French Quarter, and 5% in the Mid-City, Bywater, Marigny Lower Garden District, Uptown, and Treme, according to GNOHA.
“This idea that somehow HANO can do 100% affordable housing, coming from Ben Carson’s HUD is just absurd…”
“Ten percent of units does not a big difference make,” says Kim Ford, activist and director of New Orleans Citizens for a Better Section 8. Ford grew up in New Orleans public housing and worked for HANO as a Section 8 Tenant Liaison. According to Ford, before New Orleans demolished the Big Four, there was less of an outright crisis when it came to housing. To Ford, the idea that the IZ ordinance will truly uplift the Black community in New Orleans is ridiculous.
In New York City, IZ has been used on a large scale to facilitate the construction of below-market rate units. A few thousand of these units have been built, and yet millions applied for the units last year. “That gives you a sense of scale of what the [IZ] tool can do,” says Moskowitz. “If you’re a politician, then a few thousand units of affordable housing looks good to you, but it doesn’t actually make a dent in the actual problem.”
According to Jenny Laurie, Executive Director of Housing Court Answers in New York City, IZ still essentially discriminates against those who need affordable housing the most. “A lot of developers do their own screenings and won’t take someone who fell behind on rent,” she says. As some of these buildings have people apply at rates that are tens to hundreds of times greater than the number of available apartments, those with the most stable incomes and housing histories are those who end up living there. Those with the lowest incomes, as well as those vulnerable to housing discrimination, like survivors of intimate partner violence, are therefore less likely to make the cut.
IZ relies on median income figures provided by HUD to define affordability based on median income figures, though this data has limitations. HUD includes surrounding suburbs in its median income figures, despite the fact that these areas are often wealthier than urban centers. In New Orleans’ case, Metairie (a wealthy suburb) is included in the median income calculation.
One of the problems with this metric is that median income statistics also do not address racial wealth disparities. A study done in 2016 by the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at the non-profit Prosperity Now showed that median income for Black families in New Orleans was less than half of that of white families. The median income for white New Orleanian families was reported at $64,377, whereas Black families clocked in at $25,806. With the income cutoff for New Orleans’ program at 60% median income, this will likely privilege white applicants for the affordable units.
Though the mixed income policies on display in both the HANO property and in the IZ ordinance are budget-friendly, they will always fall short of addressing the dire need for affordable housing in New Orleans. The 82 units produced by the Bywater site will house less than .3% of the people on the waitlist for subsidized housing in New Orleans—and it is much larger than some of the other sites owned by HANO.
The development is moving forward without any systemic plan that would mandate other buildings to include majority affordable housing. Even on land that is currently owned by HANO, only 60% of the units will be priced for residents making below 80% AMI. The rhetoric surrounding mixed-income housing paints a picture where accepting a privatized housing reality is the only option to house low income people and the so-called “working poor” that make up the housing voucher program. In its hotly-contested space, the Bywater development is neither as bad an idea as its detractors say, nor as good as its advocates claim. It is the result of decades of poor housing policy at the city and federal level, which might make it the best option in this moment, but will never make it a stellar one.
“If we had a government that had more power, you wouldn’t have to pit people against each other and say, ‘Well, if you want to have affordable housing, then you need to ruin a park.’ The government could take developer-owned land and build affordable housing, and say, ‘We’re gonna keep our park’… it shouldn’t have to be like that. It should instead be that they take abandoned land, or land used by Airbnbs,” says Moskowitz.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE LOT
What could a plan to truly fix the housing crisis look like in New Orleans? It could look like the city seizing land from out-of-town developers or wealthy Airbnb owners to create housing, as Moskowitz suggests. It could look like a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate blighted and vacant property, one that simultaneously creates jobs for unemployed New Orleanians, while prioritizing assistance to those who cannot afford to renovate their properties, and helping people who lost their property return home. It could look like large-scale investment in community land trusts to preserve green space in neighborhoods as well as affordable housing. It could look like an IZ proposal that flips the script, and reserves 50 to 90% of all new housing units for low-income residents.
New Orleans is home to several grassroots housing advocacy and organizing groups, even if they may not yet have the kind of power that can successfully fight for a radical redistribution of land. However, movements in other countries have had success lobbying for truly affordable housing. In Berlin, a fiery tenants’ movement is working to ban large landlords and nationalize their property. In Singapore, the vast majority of residents live in public housing. In Hong Kong, one half of all new housing must be affordable. Solutions to New Orleans’ housing woes do exist, even if the power to enact them does not—not yet at least. The question is whether we ‘throw up our hands,’ or get organized.
illustrations Rachel Speck