That’s what we said when it was recently reported that the New Orleans City Council amended a zoning ordinance to allow multi-unit housing developers in an area known as the River Overlay District to build taller buildings without setting aside any of the units for low-income residents—a stipulation that was supposed to be required in exchange for getting to construct six-story buildings instead of four story ones.
So not only do developers get to build taller buildings and create more luxury, high-priced apartments in New Orleans, but they get to do it all without creating any opportunities for the folk that can’t afford to pay $2000 a month in rent to live in there.
That would be fine . . . if New Orleans did not have an affordable housing problem. But it does. In case anyone needs reminding, here is just an overview of the challenge our city faces. While home values have risen 54 percent and rents are up 50 percent since Katrina, 71 percent of workers in the city still earn on average $35,000, which is less than the $38,000 studies have said is needed to afford rent in New Orleans. Twenty-eight percent of New Orleanians live in poverty; the city only has about 47 affordable rental units for every 100 low-income residents; 37 percent of households in the city are using half their income on housing costs; 36 percent of renters are using more than half of their income on rent. To be sure, this isn’t just a poor people’s issue. Whether its high rents or rising property taxes, there are plenty of working and middle class New Orleanians struggling to keep up with the costs of keeping a roof over their heads.
The Stuff People Say
We have not forgotten that it was a City Council (a different incarnation, of course, than the one that recently voted to relax the rules on the riverfront development) vote that made way for the demolition of traditional public housing and the replacement of those units with fewer dwellings, only a portion of which are available for low-income renters. So when we read current council members excusing their actions by reportedly saying they are not sure if a poor person would want to be one of just a few poor people in an upscale development along the river, we cringe. Say what, now? So let us get this straight, renters who can afford market rate have no problem living in what used to be traditional public housing now that those sites have been demolished and rebuilt with all sorts of amenities and features in the new New Orleanians. But poor people, naw, they don’t want to live in anything that remotely looks like luxury around a bunch of well-off people. And here we thought that the de-concentration of poverty was all the rage.
All of this is exacerbated by what has been the unchecked growth of the high-end rental market in recent years. As of late 2016, $543 million had been invested in roughly 60 new multi-family rental developments in the New Orleans area, creating about 7,500 housing units. But with rents that often range from $1,200 for one-bedroom units to as much as $2,400 for larger units, much of the new development in the city is out of the price-range of the average New Orleanians.
So we were also dumbfounded when we read that developer Sean Cummings said that removing the affordability requirements were necessary to see properties develop over the next decade. Huh? Development of properties has not been the issue. There have been 7500 new units in 10 years across the region. The problem has been affordability. We have no doubt that development planned for the River Overlay District—properties located between the river and Charters or Decatur—will follow suit. They will get built. They will be luxury. But who will be able to afford them?
And with this latest, puzzling move by the City Council, we are really beginning to question the city’s commitment to addressing affordable housing. It seems our leaders like to give lip service to the issue, but can’t find it in themselves to match actions with words.
According to the report we read in a local daily, there is one thing members of the City Council said on which we concur. We agree that these inclusionary zoning ordinances and affordability bonuses that give builders some sort of incentive for including affordable units in their developments are just tiny drops in huge bucket when it comes to the affordable housing issues facing New Orleans. Such programs usually set aside about 10 percent of the development’s units to be rented at more affordable rates. Let’s say a development has 200 units, that’s only only 20 apartments. And it is usually only for a prescribed amount of time.
But hell, that’s still 20 apartments! And every drop of water makes a difference—especially in a desert. In this case, it was the only leverage the city had to ensure that developers in these riverfront projects did something to help address the affordable housing problem that looms over our city.
Try Being Faithful Over the Few
City council leaders have time and again given the people of New Orleans their word that they are taking affordable housing seriously. They make it a plank in their platforms when vying for votes, to be sure. But when push comes to shove, they can’t even be trusted to require developers to make a paltry 10 percent of their units within reach of low-income New Orleanians despite the fact that they relaxing zoning codes that cap the heights of buildings in the area being developed.
It’s no small wonder that local housing advocates have criticized what the deem as the failure of the city leaders to address affordable housing adequately in its budget. If the people of this city can’t trust its elected leaders to do the little things, like require developers to set aside affordable units in exchange for relaxing the rules or for huge tax breaks and financing opportunities, how can they trust you to do the big things like allocated funding at the proper levels to help shape real solutions to the problem.
Members of the City Council, with all due respect, you have earned the side-eye glance for sure because you seem to have no problem giving big-time breaks to and making all sorts of allowances for big-money developers while making private homeowners and the short-term rental market the scapegoats for all that is wrong with affordable housing in the city.
The affordable housing issue that the city faces are complex and multi-layered. We will never fully address them unless and until we address education, economic equity, wage and pay disparities. We can’t deal with quality affordable housing without talking about crime and blight. It cannot be addressed until we focus on training and employment opportunities in industries outside of tourism. And it will not be fully addressed until more New Orleanians have paths toward homeownership. All of these things will take hard work, real skin in the game and a serious fiscal commitment. They are the difficult things to do, especially when compared to requiring developers to include affordable units in exchange for incentives.
So forgive us if we have a hard time believing that a group of folk that don’t have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to developers and make them put a handful of affordable units in the buildings are actually willing to do any of the really hard stuff.