Ida Underlines Housing Crisis Among Cultural Practitioners
A bass player who moved in with his girlfriend after six weeks with no plumbing. A dancer-actress who has to deal with a leaking roof and lack of hot water while she recovers from major surgery. An apartment building full of performers and artists who watched their living spaces take major storm damage despite telling their landlord for years about problems with the building—and now face eviction. A musician who has, post-storm, bounced between friends’ houses and house-sitting gigs for the month-plus it has taken her landlord to make repairs to the roof and render her space livable again. And all of them facing several weeks of lost work and income, a risk that gig-economy workers know is always possible with any crisis and has become even more acute during the pandemic.
Hurricane Ida deeply impacted housing and livability issues for the cultural community, hitting in August 2021 very differently than Zeta in October 2020, in ways beyond Ida’s increased size and intensity. Zeta struck in the middle of the pandemic lockdown, while everyone was in “pandemic hunker down” mode; and while it caused damage and lost opportunities, the effects were folded into the larger forced pause of pandemic life. By contrast, Ida hit at a particularly vulnerable moment in pandemic recovery, as folks were climbing up from the depths of the pandemic and quarantine, when gigs were steadily returning. This poor timing was compounded by the end of federal unemployment benefits, the cancellation of October festivals, and the unease and economic contraction caused by the Delta variant. Over and over in community conversations, the impression is that Hurricane Ida has erased all the “climbing up” folks had been able to do, leading to a notable and pervasive sense of exhaustion, despair, and general grimness which reached far beyond the actual storm damage. Housing is just one piece of the puzzle, but it illustrates the interlocking and compounding stresses faced by the cultural community.
The housing concerns that have become clear in Ida’s aftermath are no surprise to housing advocates, who have been concerned for a long time about unsustainable trends in local housing pricing, location, quality, bad-actor landlords, lack of basic amenities, rising housing costs, and more. According to Cashauna Hill, the Executive Director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center (LaFHAC), “For years, the City has not prioritized the capacity to do inspections, but more importantly, there are no protections against retaliation for renters who seek repairs or report health and safety violations. Renters who do make those reports regularly get evicted. You can’t have a functional code enforcement system if anyone who reports an issue risks being put out on the street. This is a health and safety issue on a good day, but it became a crisis during and after Hurricane Ida.” Landlords are suddenly facing costs of repairs for damage (that in many cases resulted from neglect), but the negative impacts are falling disproportionately on renters in the form of displacement; having to temporarily fix windows, roofs, and other property; living with mold; and the sheer emotional toll of all of the above. Meanwhile, the majority of renters had to keep paying rent for September and October even when their spaces were simply unlivable.
New Orleans had an affordable-housing crisis before COVID started, let alone Ida, and the physical damage and life-disrupting effects of the storm brought the crisis to a breaking point. The cultural community reflects larger local trends, such as New Orleans being a majority-renter city, with added issues that come from gig-based work and a general lack of safety nets. Rental assistance was one main tool for shoring up housing stability during COVID, but despite New Orleans having what Hill calls “one of the most successful rental assistance programs in the country,” it hasn’t gone far enough. “We still don’t have enough money to meet the need and many people are still waiting for assistance,” says Hill.
Now, with eviction protections ended, many housing units rendered at least temporarily unlivable, and rents skyrocketing, cultural-economy workers are faced with shrinking options and sometimes impossible choices, and the risk of homelessness is high. Besides actually being made homeless, there is a whole other category of folks who have to seek temporary housing, are only able to afford a place to live that is far from (or inaccessible) to places of work, have to move in with roommates or relatives, live in a place that feels unsafe in the late-night hours coming home from gigs, or otherwise simply are unable to access a living situation conducive to healthy living. It is important to add here that many cultural practitioners need physical space in their home to be able to work—practice spaces for musicians, enough space for Black Masking Indians to lay out the pieces they are beading, visual artists needing space to create or store works of art, etc. For many people in the cultural economy, being forced to downsize or share space can add additional stress to the logistics of creating art or preparing to perform.
One other important piece of the puzzle: Anyone facing eviction as a renter may then have the eviction listed and counted against them when they are next renting. This is a much larger problem than the cultural community or even New Orleans, but it’s a sharp reminder of how huge the power imbalance is between renters and landlords, and the ways that a lack of resources are often penalized or even criminalized.
In the days after Hurricane Ida, as concern and aid focused on the Gulf South and Louisiana in particular, MaCCNO was able to re-activate our micro grant program, which had been on hold since December 2020 due to lack of funds. (Our micro grant application is open to anyone in the cultural community. The intake process is extremely low barrier, and intended to be as simple as possible—all that is required is a brief phone call.) We did two rounds of “COVID-relief” in 2020, and the round of relief we opened in September 2021 was renamed “Ida-relief” but was structured the same way. It was very telling that within the 30 hours that the application was open, we amassed a list of nearly 600 applicants, indicating that pretty much everyone across the community was in need after the lost weeks of work, displacement, and property damage caused by the storm. We are now fundraising and working through this third round of micro grants. As part of our work, we try and amplify any other resources that may be applicable to folks, and it has been striking during this third round how few resources there are. “COVID relief,” in many cases has ended, but the impacts of COVID have not, and Ida brought compounding challenges.
We know a $250 micro grant is not going to fully resolve the compounding challenges of damaged living spaces, neglectful or bad-actor landlords, or spiking rents. Many more structural and systemic resources need to be applied to these problems, because without stable, safe, and affordable housing, the cultural community of New Orleans can’t live in New Orleans—which means the culture can’t either.
Please see MaCCNO.com for updated lists of aid and information for cultural practitioners.
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.
This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.