A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL

Warning:

Whether you want to rent your house to vacationers or sell ice cream, Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs are facing perilous times in New Orleans.

And the very people that unashamedly campaigned for our votes are now comprimising our livelihoods for the political expediency with the same boldness.

In last month’s edition of The New Orleans Tribune, our publisher lamented that New Orleans no longer seems to be a place for small local interests—business, property owners, everyday residents—to thrive or even survive.

As she put it, they just don’t fit in. 

It certainly seems like those in power are content to pile the odds a mile high against those “others” who, with scarce resources, cannot withstand a fight.

Of course, none of this is new. For quite some time now, those with the least have been getting the worst treatment in New Orleans.

That is what we have seen happen time and time again. 

When traditional public housing was demolished to make way for new, mixed-income developments, it was happening.

When our public education system was seized and our schools raided by fake reformers out to make money on the backs of our children, it was happening.

We saw it coming as our historic neighborhoods began to swell with gentrifiers who invaded prime, but undervalued locations, driving up taxes and driving out long-time residents.

Those were easy targets: poor people, public housing tenants, elderly residents, school children and their parents, most of whom weren’t even in New Orleans at the time those in power made ominous decisions that spelled disaster for them, having fled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and scattered in cities of refuge across the country.

Former state lawmaker Richard Baker, a Baton Rouge Republican even commented after Katrina that God had done what they couldn’t do, referring to clearing the city of public housing residents to demolish those buildings. 

The same FAQ makes clear that the motion calls for the planning commission to recommend possible changes to the City’s comprehensive zoning ordinance. And that is the caveat of which business owners should be wary. We have no doubt that any zoning ordinance changes, if recommended by the commission and adopted by the Council, would impact businesses both existing and new across the city, not just in District C. 

We are reasonably certain God takes no credit for this foolery. Still, that sort of successful coup d’état emboldens. And now, our so-called leaders no longer have to wait for a natural disaster to clear the city in order to overthrow the people. They can do it right here and now, in front of our faces, with the stroke of a pen and the bang of agavel. Indeed, who is here to speak out against it. The poor have been disregarded. The middle class has been decimated. And the newcomers, in the spirit of Christopher Columbus, are free to “discover” and remake New Orleans with no consideration for the people who are here and whose families have been here for generations.

These facts have converged to make it easier to marginalize just about every one else. One of the latest targets has been small-time, residential property owners who had the audacity to think they could use their property to build wealth and take part even in a small way in the city’s lucrative tourism economy.

They thought wrong. Small-time residential property owners have now been pushed out of the short-term rental market while big-time developers with buildings filled with hundreds of housing units are allowed to grow unchecked. Towering buildings filled with STRs practically litter the CBD and Warehouse District. In the meantime, if you are a local resident with two or three houses that you have invested in over the years, the New Orleans City Council, using phrases like “neighborhood character” and “affordable housing crisis” as scapegoats, has made it impossible for you to put those houses on the short-term rental market. Yet, developers with deep pockets can to turn entire buildings into short-term rentals right in the heart of the CBD, a place where thousands of local, underpaid, hospitality workers commute to and from daily to earn their wages—wages that are not enough to comfortably afford to live in the city.

Surely, it cannot get any worse. Or so we thought. 

Mind Your Business

At a meeting in early June, the New Orleans City Council approved a motion made by District C City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer directing the City Planning Commission to conduct a study and hold hearing on a possible amendment to prohibit businesses that are adjacent to residential areas from playing live music or having outdoor dining in a side, rear or front yard. The motion specifically applies to the Tremé, Marigny and Bywater areas and is set for the planning commission’s Aug. 13 docket. 

Obviously, some residents have been complaining to their council representative about the music or loud, offensive chewing noises, which prompted Palmer to make the motion ultimately approved by the Council. We wonder, however, just how these “aggrieved” folk missed the fact that they were purchasing or renting property in any one of the city’s oldest communities that have been for nearly three centuries the incubators of the city’s culture.  Tremé, Marigny and Bywater are neighborhoods where the music and the people have long poured into the streets. 

To be sure, this action has stirred worry among many small business owners—those scratching out a living by making the most of what New Orleans offers—music, food and fun. 

From sidewalk seating, to garden dining to rooftop bars, outdoor dining has become quite popular in New Orleans. Additionally, the narrow thoroughfares in the neighborhoods that are the targets of this motion require business owners there to do more with less—turning courtyards into concert venues and patios into dining rooms to attract and accommodate patrons. 

For her part, Councilwoman Palmer has insisted that this measure would not apply to existing businesses.

An FAQ issued by Palmer’s office details a list of things that Motion M-19-238 “DOES and “DOES NOT” do. According to the FAQ, the motion does not affect existing businesses or apply to any properties outside of District C. However, the motion does ask the planning commission to recommend possible changes to the City’s comprehensive zoning ordinance. 

We aren’t convinced. 

The same FAQ makes clear that the motion calls for the planning commission to recommend possible changes to the City’s comprehensive zoning ordinance. And that is the caveat of which business owners should be wary. We have no doubt that any zoning ordinance changes, if recommended by the commission and adopted by the Council, would impact businesses both existing and new across the city, not just in District C. 

This is not harmless exploration for the sake of discussion. To be sure, we would strongly encourage any small business operating in these areas and anywhere else across New Orleans to double-check your permits and licenses to ensure that everything is in order for the manner in which you operate. And to show up at the Aug. 13 planning commission meeting in droves. It is time to mind your business, protect it and speak out because speaking up and out and fighting for your space at the table is vital.

The Big Freeze

The story of New Orleans resident Reginald Commodore’s foiled efforts to open an ice cream parlor is yet another egregious example of everyday New Orleanians getting pushed out and sidelined in their own city.

We have read with a great deal of interest media reports surrounding Commodore’s effort to get his business approved by the City. It’s been an ongoing saga for nearly two years ago

In September 2017, Commodore, a local engineer,  began his efforts to get approval to turn the building he owns at 940 Louisiana Ave., which once housed a neighborhood grocery into Love Kreme, a gourmet ice cream parlor. There was some back and forth about the project, especially because Commodore initially also wanted to operate a couple short-term rentals there as well, the revenue from which would have helped support the ice cream business in the early stages. Finally in May 2018, he was granted a conditional use permit by the City Council to open the shop after abandoning the plan to include STRs. 

So based on the plan approved by the City Council in May 2018, he would open an ice cream parlor… just an ice cream parlor. Who doesn’t love ice cream?

Apparently, a handful of folk that live in the Faubourg Delachaise neighborhood were dead set on thwarting Commodore’s business. Still, these neighbors complained about the short-term rental aspect of the plan, which actually no longer existed. Purportedly, they feared that the ice cream parlor was just a front to operate short-term rentals.

Of course, it stands to reason the ice cream business or any business could be a front for short-term rentals. That would make sense if Commodore ever hid the fact that he once planned to operate short-term rentals. But he had not; and when it became evident that his plans would probably not get approval with the STRs attached, he sought only the conditional use permit to sell ice cream. There was nothing concealed, cloaked or veiled about his endeavors to sell frozen epicurean delights in Faubourg Delachaise.

Just so we are clear about the neighborhood in question, here are some details about 940 Louisiana Ave. and its surroundings. It is located at the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Constance Street. It is two blocks from Magazine. It is a block away from Atchafalaya Restaurant, which clearly attracts tourist traffic based on its proximity to Magazine Street and the number Yelp! reviews from out-of-towners.

Commodore’s building is also about a block from Dat Dog, another restaurant on Magazine Street. And check this—it is directly across the street from GR Automotive, an automobile repair shop. 

No slight against the car repair business or the eateries, but we are having a very difficult time here wrapping our heads around the idea of Faubourg Delachaise’s residents living happily amid busy restaurants and a car repair shop, yet refusing to allow an ice cream parlor. There is commerce of all sorts all over this neighborhood. Why is the ice cream shop such a bad idea? Could it be because the owner is Black?

Of course, residents have a right to have some say in what happens in their community. But what about Reginald Commodore’s rights. He has owned the the property at 940 Louisiana Ave. for 15 years. 

After months of wrangling with the city to get approval for his business through a conditional use permit, the city council gave Commodore’s plans a first approval in May 2018. 

According to media reports, when a half dozen neighbors spoke out against Commodore’s ice cream shop at that May 2018 meeting of the council they were concerned that there were no “assurances” that he would follow the rules or his stated plans regarding his conditional use permit to sell high-end ice cream. According to reports, these neighbors suggested that once Commodore got his permit he could do whatever he wanted. He didn’t have to sell ice cream. 

What if he was pulling the old bait and switch?

What if he opened a restaurant instead? 

What if he turned into a grocery store again? 

What if he really wants to sell pizza? Or scented candles? Or batteries? Or gold-plated nutcrackers?

What if he gets the conditional use permit, then flips the property? What if, what if, what if . . .  

Hell,  if “if” was a fifth (of whisky), we’d all be drunk! And by the way, by definition flipping occurs when an asset is acquired then quickly resold for a profit. Commodore has reportedly owned the building since 2004. Even if he sold it today—after some 15 years of owning it—and made a few bucks for his trouble, it would, by definition, not be flipping. 

After that initial approval in May, Commodore’s building started getting citations from the city, according to media reports. Then in August 2018, the City Council rescinded its earlier approval of his conditional use permit. It doesn’t seem fair that his plans were snatched away from him because the City Council decided to cave in to nuisance neighbors, who obviously had more pull with the lawmakers than Commodore commanded.

Since when has it been okay to base another individual’s business plans on what someone else thinks might happen or what someone else thinks is needed?

According to reports, those handful of residents in the Faubourg Delachaise neighborhood (bounded by Magazine and Tchoupitoulas and Louisiana and Peniston) were also concerned about tourist traffic that STRs, which have become the new scapegoat for everything that is wrong with New Orleans, would bring to the neighborhood. Never mind the fact that Commodore was no longer seeking approval to operate STRs. Nonetheless, their unsubstantiated suspicions and “what ifs” were enough to propel the city on a citation-writing campaign against Commodore that the City Council would later point to as its reason to back peddle on its initial approval. 

Commodore didn’t think it was fair, so he sued the city. A civil district court judge ruled in his favor. But the city appealed the ruling. And Commodore braced for a fight.

Earlier this year, a Go Fund Me page with a goal of $35,000 was launched to help with the cost of Commodore’s court battle. The page characterized Commodore as David in an epic contest against Goliath (also known as the city of New Orleans).

Unfortunately for Commodore, his story does not end like the biblical account. 

This David lost his battle after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the City Council did nothing wrong when it rescinded its initial approval. 

That is no surprise. It seems it also did nothing wrong when it approved short-term rental legislation that opened the door for residential property owners to legally participate, then issued permits to residential property owners across the city to legally operate short-term rentals, then placed a moratorium on the program, then called for further study and hearings and recommendations that resulted in an entirely new law that effectively prohibited residential short-term rentals with no regard for the investment of time and resources on the part of those property owners that legally obtained STR licensees.

It’s funny how no one in power in this city seems to ever do anything wrong, but the people of New Orleans keep getting wronged.

According to reports, Commodore has given up his fight.

It is especially disconcerting that small business owners and entrepreneurs in New Orleans are now finding themselves on the outside looking in. In fact, Black owned businesses are still the second largest employers of Black people. And while the struggle to maintain a place in New Orleans,  those with the deepest pockets and the greatest influence get to shape a new city. 

As a 2015 Data Center report on minority-owned businesses in the metro area points out, small businesses create more than their share of new jobs, serve as a source innovation, and have an important effect on political decisions, while self-employment is also a way to combat poverty unemployment and discrimination in the job market.

And because of that, the elected officials that campaign on promises to champion the needs of small businesses and work in the interest of all the people of this city, only to get elected and forget what they said in order to serve their own interests, need to be called out because serving the people of New Orleans should be the only “business” an elected official in this city has.

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