Earlier this month, a headline in the local daily read, “New Orleans 2022 murder rate likely leads nation”.
Well, that is an interesting spot for the word “likely”.
We are not entirely sure when major daily newspapers started printing probabilities as hard news, but don’t worry. We have some facts for you:
• Fact: At more than 18 percent, Louisiana has the second highest poverty rate in the entire country.
• Fact: The minimum wage across the state is still $7.25 an hour.
• Fact: Nearly 24 percent of New Orleanians live at or below the poverty line, according to the most recent Census data.
• Fact: At 33 percent, the poverty rate among Black New Orleanians is even higher.
Do we want a safer city? Do we want to see violent crime curtailed in New Orleans? You better believe it! But talk is cheap.
Of course, everyone has a job to do. But finger pointing at the police or the mayor or the DA or judges is senseless. Unless we start making policy decisions that improve education outcomes, create economic equity and eradicate poverty in New Orleans and across the state, we are in for a never-ending cycle of violent crime. We can conduct an intergalactic search for the next NOPD superintendent and it won’t change a thing.
That is why in 2023, we are lifting up two words. The first one is “truth”. The other is “consequences”. The truth is that our issues with crime and violence are the consequences of failing to invest in, protect and prepare our young people for the future. The crime and violence are the consequences of poverty, economic inequity, holes in mental health care, a failed education system, and an affordable housing crisis exacerbated by bad policy decisions and unchecked gentrification. And until our leaders fully address those issues, they are talking loud but saying nothing . . . and doing even less.
We just can’t shake déjà vu. It feels like we have said this before. We at The New Orleans Tribune are tired of saying it. But not that tired. So let’s talk Truth and Consequences.
The takeover of public education in New Orleans has been a disaster. Taxpayer funded facilities and resources, which have never been equitable, were pillaged and plundered on the heels of Katrina by corporate raiders masquerading as education advocates and reformers. Veteran educators were summarily fired without cause to make way for untrained “recruits” in our classrooms. Neighborhood schools were eradicated and OUR children were bussed all over the city. All of this was orchestrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the people of New Orleans were strewn across the country, fleeing the flooded city and fighting barriers to return. What’s worse is that their leaders did nothing to stop it! Some were even complicit.
Instead of accepting the failure of this reform, its leaders dug in. New Orleans became an all-charter school system and a group of independently operated charter campuses led by unelected boards were “returned” to the “control” Orleans Parish School Board.
Nearly 54 percent of the schools in the all-charter NOLA Public Schools earned D or F ratings in the 2022 School Performance Scores. Another 26.4 percent are barely getting by with C ratings. In other words, folks, more than 80 percent of NOLA public schools are performing somewhere between mediocre and failing. Now, ain’t that a blip!
According to a report by Stanford University, some 26,000 New Orleanians between the ages of 16 and 24 are considered “disconnected” because they are neither working nor in school. There was no miracle—just a mirage, and now we are in a mess. Are some of those disconnected youth responsible for the violence in our streets? Well, let’s just say that it’s likely . . .
Our schools are as segregated now as they have ever been, with White students disproportionately filling seats at a handful of top-performing schools while the vast majority of Black students are relegated to poor performing campuses. NOLA public schools can change the name of its application process all it wants to, what is needed is the transparency and accountability that comes with real local control, a return to neighborhood schools, and the provision of resources at each and every one of those schools that gives students the opportunity to reach their fullest potential.
Here we are, almost 18 years after Katrina; and if the same standard that was deliberately changed to takeover and destroy public education in Orleans Parish in 2005 were applied to the 65 public charter schools operating under NOLA Public Schools today, a full 61 of those schools would be considered failing by the state right now.
Yet, few seem interested in correcting the injustice done to our children. Of course, state Sen. Joe Bouie has tried, but the very board that is duly elected to govern public education in New Orleans refuses to support his legislative efforts to return failing charter schools to local control.
The consequence of this epic failure is real. We are feeling it right now. The school to prison pipeline does not mean that every child failed by the public education system leaves high school and voluntarily reports to the state Department of Corrections the very next day. That’s not how it works. But they are placed on a path that starts at the schoolhouse door and meanders through the streets of the city. We cannot and will not get a handle on violent crime in New Orleans without fixing the injustices of our education system. Period.
How’s that “de-concentrated poverty” and “mixed-income housing” working out for y’all these days? Surely, it has helped address crime and quality of life issues for all residents across New Orleans, right? Isn’t that why leaders wanted to tear down public housing in the first place, why some felt smug enough, including former city councilwoman, Stacy Head, to mock public housing residents even as they bulldozed their homes? In fact, the feds implemented HOPE VI with the ostensible purpose of eliminating distressed public housing, de-concentrating poverty and displacing crime from what was labeled as high-crime neighborhoods.
The truth is that as a nation and a city, across all sectors—both public and private—y’all messed this one up. Big time.
At The New Orleans Tribune, we voiced our serious concerns in 1999 when the New Orleans City Council approved the Hope VI revitalization of the St. Thomas Housing Development despite vehement protests of residents at the time. As phrases like “de-concentrated poverty” and “mixed-income” were thrown around by wealthy developers as the answers to society’s ills, developer Pres Kabacoff of HRI Properties was given the green light to convert the St. Thomas into River Garden. We cautioned that it was the first step in pricing and pushing the poorest New Orleanians out of the city and with nowhere to go. We were not alone in our cries of warning. Some 20 years ago, a study titled “Smoke, Mirrors and Urban Mercantilism” was released, wherein economist Broderick Bagert, Jr., who now serves as lead organizer for Together Louisiana, noted a significant need for affordable housing and recommended putting 572 affordable units back into the St. Thomas. It was a proposition that Kabacoff scoffed at, calling it “unrealistic”, “unaffordable” and “the wrong thing to do.”
Talk about the wrong thing to do!
The wrong thing was to demolish public housing without concern for public housing residents.
Never mind that the original HOPE VI grant application submitted by HANO to HUD for the redevelopment of the St. Thomas called for 50 percent public housing, 30 percent low-income housing tax credit units, and 20 percent market rate housing. What was left after the former St. Thomas’ 1,510 units were leveled and resurrected as River Garden was 606 units of which not even one-third were opened as public housing.
Before traditional public housing in New Orleans was demolished, 10 housing developments provided more than 12,000 public housing units. Yes, they were in disrepair; but we contend that was by design, the result of purposeful neglect. Don’t misunderstand our position. The redevelopment of the complexes, which were not destroyed by Katrina, was not the problem. Prioritizing profits over people was.
Today, those redeveloped properties offer just over 2,000 public housing units, while another 2,000 plus units are rented at market rate. The razing of traditional public housing was disguised as an opportunity to improve the lives of public housing residents, when in reality, it was a land grab by private developers who benefited from tax credits and other incentives to build market rate housing and make all the money the law would allow, while pushing New Orleans’ poorest residents out.
Meanwhile, it took city leaders in New Orleans nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina and the vote to demolish the Big Four housing Developments (C.J. Peete, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte) to even begin to say the words “affordable housing crisis” and “New Orleans” in the same sentence.
And let’s be clear about who was disproportionately harmed by the decimation of the city’s public housing stock – Black female heads of households and Black children under the age of 18. Together, they were more than 75 percent of the residents in the Big Four developments prior to Katrina, according to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
From public school policy to public housing policy, it seems as if the very leaders purportedly elected to help our communities have had no problem hurting our children. Perhaps we should stop pretending to be so surprised when these very children turn to crime.
Moving beyond the clear message of disdain and contempt that razing public housing sent to the young Black children who called those buildings home, this poor planning has made living in New Orleans economically unmanageable for many of the low-wage and even moderate-income earners that are the driving force behind the tourism economy.
Many of the city’s renters and even some homeowners are housing-cost burdened, spending more than a third of their income on housing costs. Some are severely housing-cost burdened, spending half of their income on a place a to live. In addition to the decimation of public housing, unchecked gentrification has invaded neighborhoods, inflating property values and driving up tax bills.
Oddly enough, another expressed goal of the federal Hope VI redevelopment was to phase public housing residents off of their dependence on government assistance. How simply displacing poor residents would make them more self-reliant without a clear policies focused on economic equity is mind-boggling, and brings us to yet another glaring truth and consequence our city and state must own.
You are not ranked the second most impoverished state in the nation by accident. Nope, you have to work hard at that.
You have to do some real backwards things, like refuse to raise the state’s minimum wage above the paltry $7.25 set by the federal government. Now, if you really want to be as thorough as the Louisiana legislature is, you pass a state law preventing municipalities from establishing a higher minimum wage in their communities based on what their markets can bear and cost of living standards.
Elected officials aren’t the only ones to blame. There’s plenty to go around. If you really seal your state’s position as the second poorest in the nation, then you go all in – ten toes down—and do things like have an entire business community happily lobbying state lawmakers to keep the state’s minimum wage at the bottom because they contend it would hurt their business operations (i.e. profit margins) if they had to pay living wages.
With so much being said about the city’s likely rank as the nation’s murder capital, we believe it’s only fair to note that New Orleans also rounded out the country’s top 10 cities for income inequality in 2022, coming in at a strong #6, according Forbes magazine. And according to WalletHub, the state of Louisiana as a whole, ranks 7th worst in economic racial equality. In other words, economic inequity and the racial wealth gap are deeper than the Mississippi River here. So if we are going to talk about how we rank as a city and state, let’s talk about it!
According to the Data Research Center, in 2020, the median household income for Black households in New Orleans was $24,813, compared to $69,852 for White households, $55,616 for Asian households, and $38,487 for Hispanic households. Let’s talk about ‘dat!
We won’t say that economic segregation and inequity, in and of themselves, breed violent crime. But they sure don’t help. There is enough data to indicate that in places where resources and opportunity are greater and fairly distributed, crime is lower.
Let’s face it: New Orleans has an economic equity problem. And it seems no one is exempt. Hell, a Black-owned company that has held a city contract to collect household garbage for about 16 years is getting paid 40 percent less than both of the White owned companies recently contracted to do the same work for the same city. We’re not sure about trickle-down economics, but we know all about trickle down inequity. When Black-owned businesses can’t get contracts, are looked over or treated unfairly, Black workers earn less and have fewer job opportunities available to them. Let’s not forget that Black-owned businesses, as a whole, are the second largest employer of Black people. When they prosper, our communities prosper.
Thirty-three percent of Black New Orleanians live in poverty.
So here we are – still putting profits over people, unwilling to establish and sustain a more economically equitable condition for all. We find it very interesting that just a few months after organizing, the NOLA Coalition, a group of local businesses and organizations that formed last June to help “address” public safety issues, is well on its way to raising $15 million over three years to invest in youth social services. Of course, we applaud the effort. We need all hands on deck.
But perhaps, the NOLA Coalition might also consider using its influence and some of the money it’s raising to lobby the state legislature to do right by Louisiana’s working people and raise the minimum wage. Increasing the earnings of young people’s parents increases their ability to provide for their children. As a matter of fact, research shows that family income has a positive correlation with academic performance. So if y’all want to help some children and therein reduce juvenile crime start with working to ensure that their mothers and fathers earn the wages they need so that their families can thrive. That will do more to help youth than any program or community center ever could.
Where in the world was a NOLA Coalition when our schools were being pillaged? Where was this organization or one like it when mothers and children were tossed from public housing?
We need every elected official and leaders from all sectors to understand the importance of equity across all areas and to fight for it. Only when everyone does well, regardless of where she lives or how he looks, will New Orleans be a world-class city.
LET’S CLEAN UP
WHAT WE MESSED UP
As we have said, no one wants a safer New Orleans more than we do!
But police are not crime fighters. They are first responders — emphasis on the root word “respond.” And while community policing has its place, let’s get serious. The concept of community policing has been around for more than 30 years. If putting cops in neighborhoods with more foot patrols and substations and random traffic stops and bias policies like stop and frisk that go along with all of that were the answers to our woes, major urban areas would not be dealing with rising violent crime rates they are experiencing today.
Unless and until New Orleans deals with poverty, inequity and education, there will never be enough police to deal with violent crime. We could have 2,000 police officers today and it would not matter. Quite frankly, while the Mayor’s Violent Crime Task Force might make some gains in getting a few violent offenders off the street in the short term (and we hope it does), it will do little to keep violence off of our streets in the years to come.
Today, we are facing the consequences of long- ignored truths and problems that have festered more than any two or three years as some, such as Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission and others, including members of the NOLA Coalition, would have us believe as they still attempt to focus the blame for the rise in crime solely on the current administration.
Note to the NOLA Coalition: If you really believe that the problems we face today developed over the course of two or three years, you can disband and go home right now. Your shortsightedness and inability to be honest about how and why we just might be the 2022 murder capital of America makes you ineffective.
Not being able to see beyond the end of our noses is why we are in this mess. Where we are today is the result of decades upon decades of poor policy decisions, mismanagement, and, quite frankly, healthy portions of greed and neglect.
Our crime problems and our quality of life problems, in the words of Brother Malcolm, are chickens coming home to roost. We don’t like how the chickens are behaving? Maybe we need to build a better nest.