Fifty-one percent of New Orleanians that voted in last December’s runoff election came out against the renewal of a millage that would raise revenue to help the City of New Orleans address affordable housing.
The revenue raised by that millage—about $4 million annually—would have helped to eliminate blight, finance affordable housing and provide rental assistance to New Orleanians facing eviction.
Voters said “NO” to that.
Yet, if you ask any New Orleanian to name the top issue facing the city right now, the likely answer will be crime—violent, senseless crime that has residents scared to go to the gas station at night or frightened of stray bullets as they drive on the interstate.
Everybody is talking about the crime problem these days, and we should be talking about it.
There were 218 murders in New Orleans in 2021—the most since before Hurricane Katrina.
Carjackings have increased from just over 80 in 2019 to 202 in 2020 to 210 in 2021. And they are becoming more brazen—with the perpetrators, all too often armed teens, jacking cars from motorists at gas stations, in their neighborhoods, right in front of their homes at all times of the day and night. It seems no place is safe.
To be sure, we should be talking about crime; but, let’s see . . . how can we put this so as not to offend or unnerve?
Who are we kidding? We’ll just say it: If you are ranting and railing about crime in New Orleans, but voted against the affordable housing millage—YOU ARE A PART OF THE CRIME PROBLEM.
If you have been sitting back for the last 16 years acting as if everything is all good while our public education system has been turned into a corporation that treats students like commodities while disregarding parents and education advocates—YOU ARE A PART OF THE CRIME PROBLEM.
If you stand with the business lobby that consistently comes out against raising the minimum wage across the state of Louisiana, YOU ARE A PART OF THE CRIME PROBLEM.
If you sat back 16 years ago in silence, or even worse, you encouraged the razing of traditional public housing that was replaced with “mixed-income” units without a plan or even the intent to provide enough affordable housing for the poorest residents displaced by the redevelopment—YOU ARE PART OF THE CRIME PROBLEM.
You are charging $1500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a city where the median income among African American households is only $25,806, compared to $64,377 for white households, and where there are six times as many African American households living in income poverty than white households.—YOU ARE A PART OF THE CRIME PROBLEM.
If you said nothing as the Black middle class was weakened by the firing of nearly 7500, mostly Black veteran educators—YOU ARE PART OF THE CRIME PROBLEM.
If you are still shouting “all lives matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter,” ignoring the disproportionate danger and disrespect Black and Brown people continue to face at the hands of rogue law enforcement and domestic terrorists in a country built on White supremacy and institutional racism—YOU ARE A PART OF THE CRIME PROBLEM.
How many times have we heard an elected official or political hopefuls repeat adages such as “nothing stops a bullet like a job” or “we are not going to arrest our way out of crime.” We agree that we have got to work on the socio-economic factors that contribute to violent crime if we are ever going to lessen its impact on our communities.
We know that those solutions require long-term efforts. Thing is, we have had a long time to work on this; and it seems little has changed.
Guess what else seems to work pretty effectively at stopping a bullet? Knowing that your family won’t be evicted tomorrow and that you at least have a warm place to lay your head. Still, 51 percent of voters decided that a millage that raises some revenue to help address the housing crisis was not worthy of support.
We can’t help but wonder just how many of the no-housing millage voters are the very ones crying about crime.
Violent crime is not happening in a vacuum. It is the result of willful neglect and the failure to address injustices and socio-economic inequities.
In other words, crime is the punishment. More specifically, it is OUR punishment. As Malcolm X once put it—it is the proverbial chickens coming home to roost.
For decades, we have talked a good game. But here we are in 2022, and New Orleans is still battling longstanding issues of inequity and injustice across every sector of life.
What follows are just a few examples.
We have shared this statistic more times than we can count in the past year. We’re not tired of sharing it. If we don’t shout it from the rafters, who will? So, we will share it again. In New Orleans, 24 percent of all residents and 32 percent of Black residents live at or below the poverty line. The median monthly income for Black households is about $2,150 a month. And for too many families, more than half of that is going to keep a roof over their heads. We will talk about that more when we look at the affordable housing crisis.
For now, let’s focus on the link between economic inequity and crime.
Countless researchers have looked at the link between poverty and crime. One 1986 article that examined census data and a decade’s worth of crime reports from several American cities showed a correlation between poverty and violent crime. The article suggested that socio-economic policies that increased employment and reduced poverty should reduce the crime rate. Problem. Solution.
So why did the federal Wage the Raise Act hit a wall in the U.S. Senate last year? Better still, why won’t the Louisiana legislature raise this state’s minimum wage on its own?
As long as people in power think $7.25 an hour—$290 for a 40-hour workweek—is okay, someone somewhere is going to get knocked over the head (or worse) for their car or what’s in their wallet. It’s not right. We don’t condone. But it is what it is.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would lift up to 3.7 million—including an estimated 1.3 million children—out of poverty. Additionally, raising the minimum wage to $15 would help ensure that more low-wage workers are paid enough to cover basic living expenses.
The reaction of our own federal government to the COVID-19 pandemic is the best argument we can offer for guaranteed minimum incomes and for ensuring that anyone who works receives a living wage. When it was clear that the pandemic would lead to closures and layoffs, state unemployment benefits were boosted by $600 by Congress to ensure that those impacted would be able to meet the basic needs of their families–housing, utilities, food.
Until we get serious about wage disparities and economic inequity in this country and in New Orleans, we will have a crime problem. Contrary to what some New Orleanians seem to believe, we cannot deconcentrate poverty. We have to get rid of it.
Too many New Orleanians seem to be fine with what has become of public education in our city since Hurricane Katrina. We say it is the biggest criminal act that has taken place in New Orleans in 20 years. Our schools–students, facilities, and resources–were stolen. It would be one thing had they improved educational outcomes. That is not what has happened.
Based on 2019 School Performance data, 49 of the 66 charter schools operating under the Orleans Parish School System (NOLA Public Schools) earned letter grades of C, D or F (essentially, mediocre to failing). NOLA Public Schools dares to brag that fewer schools are failing when compared to 2005. But it’s just smoke and mirrors as state leaders define and redefine “passing” and “failing” to muddy the narrative surrounding this so-called reform. Nearly 30 of the schools have SPS scores lower than 60—scores that would have gotten them taken over by the Recovery School District 16 years ago. Before Hurricane Katrina, only five Orleans Parish Public Schools had SPS scores of lower than 60. But to facilitate the wholesale takeover of public education here, the minimum passing SPS was raised to 87.4. It has since been lowered again–now down to 49.9 In order to mask the failure of the charter school experiment.
This “reform” has failed. When we are ready to do something about this, then maybe we will one day see the needle move on crime.
A 72-page report by Stanford University shows that public schools in New Orleans are highly stratified by race, class, and educational advantage. That same report also indicates that 26,000 New Orleanians between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted by the census as “disconnected” because they are neither working nor in school. At least one elected official, state Sen. Bouie suspects that rising crime in New Orleans, particularly involving young people, links back to some of those “disconnected” youth who have been failed by the so-called education reform movement in New Orleans.
State Sen. Bouie has called the privatization of public education in Orleans Parish the worst thing that our government has done since the Tuskegee Experiment, adding that it has put the “school to prison pipeline on steroids”.
We are inclined to agree.
According to the most recent data, New Orleans has only 49 affordable rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households. Moreover, about 66 of Louisiana renters with extremely low incomes are severely cost-burdened and at risk of homelessness. Severely-burdened means that these renters are spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing, leaving little else for any extras such as saving for a rainy day.
The New Orleans Tribune predicted tearing down traditional public housing without a plan to accommodate residents who depended on it would be disastrous way back when the St. Thomas was torn down to make way for River Garden. We joined our voice with a number of housing advocates across the city to decry the redevelopment. Our warnings fail on deaf ears.
Of course, we know that affordable housing is not just subsidized housing for the very poor. It is much more. It is a housing market that allows working and middle-class New Orleanians to buy or rent a safe and comfortable place to call home without spending most of what they earn.
Yes, the very poor should be able to live in our city. To be sure, we are struggling with that. But when teachers, police officers, and firefighters can’t afford rents and mortgages in the city they serve, the problem is deeper.
And as far as we can tell, not enough is being done to address it.
The lack of affordable housing in New Orleans has been created—arguably intentionally—by a combination of at least two occurrences. First, traditional public housing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was demolished and replaced by the mixed-income, mixed-use redevelopment model embraced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and egged on by private developers eager to benefit from the tax breaks and incentives that came with it. Secondly, other new development has focused on high-end, luxury apartments for market-rate renters, with little to no attention paid to meeting the housing needs of poor and low-wage earning residents by either the developers as they counted their profit or city leaders as they approved construction plans and permits.
And while some of these developers disingenuously set aside a few units at affordable rates for a limited time in exchange for federal and state incentives and tax breaks, the numbers still do not come close to helping ease the city’s affordable housing crisis. Last we checked, the City of New Orleans received an “F” on the HousingNOLA 2021 report card, missing the mark in almost all of the seven categories scored, which include preserving and expanding the existing supply of affordable units; preventing future displacement, enforcing and promoting a fair housing policy, encouraging sustainable design and infrastructure; increasing accessibility for all; setting strategic goals; and improving quality of life.
SOLVING OUR PROBLEM
The good news is that because we are all–in some way or form a part of the problem, we can also be a part of the solutions.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can?
Communities and the systems they support must provide quality education and opportunities that prepare the workforce for jobs in current and emergent career paths.
A really good place to start is demanding the return of real local control of our public school system and voting for school board members that are actually interested in governing schools.
One of the issues with New Orleans’ economy is that far too many of its residents are dependent upon jobs in low-wage earning industries because of disparities, inequity, and the lack of opportunity.
If our cultural economy is so important to us, let’s act like it. Businesses and corporations must pay people what they are worth based on the value they bring to their operation and offer employees benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, sick leave, and guarantee a 40-hour workweek so that they can build better lives and support their families.
Practical application: You own a business that employs workers at less than $15 an hour? Stop that!
And to elected and appointed officials—individuals in decision-making roles that have control over the policies that change lives: STOP TALKING ABOUT IT AND JUST BE ABOUT IT.
Raise the minimum wage. Create policies that provide entrepreneurs the ability to build businesses that employ our residents at livable wages.
Ensure equitable participation of Black and other minority-owned businesses in the lucrative contracts that can be economical game-changers for our community.
Make certain that our parks, our libraries, and our healthcare systems are on the same page. That page is one that is all about building and sustaining healthy, engaged communities for thriving families. You want a real reduction in crime, then build a strong community that helps its people meet and even exceed their needs.
Banks and lending institutions must do their part in making homeownership an attainable goal for every hardworking person who wants their piece of the American dream.
Developers must build for the people of New Orleans and not with an eye on gentrifying our historical communities, further marginalizing those who have called this place home for generations.
And if you are thinking that you are just a citizen and you don’t have a role in the crime that is impacting us all, you are wrong.
The way that you vote and the act of holding those you vote for accountable for the policies they enact are critical.
In other words, actually, build the New Orleans you want to see because it’s true–we cannot arrest and jail our way out of crime. If we don’t start taking these steps now, we will still be writing about brazen carjackings and escalating murder rates 20 years from now.
We all have a role to play.