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Broad Community Connections is a non-profit community development organization whose stated mission is to revitalize Broad Street “as a vibrant, equitable, and inclusive commercial corridor by promoting the health and economic, residential, and cultural development of its diverse surrounding neighborhoods.”

BCC is requesting an amendment to the South Broad Cultural District to include the historic B.W. Cooper public housing site in its boundaries. And they want to get public input.

So glad they asked.

Of course, we question why the BCC is so interested in expanding its footprint to include the former B.W. Cooper site.

Their stated mission sounds nice and noble; but as we watch what has happened and is happening across our community—gentrification, encroaching newcomers, skyrocketing tax bills that threaten the security of longtime homeowners, a dearth of affordable housing in a community where 24 percent of all residents and 32 percent of Black residents live at or below the poverty line—the bottom line for us is how does BCC expanding its footprint to include the targeted area help and what does it mean for affordable housing?

As best we can surmise, BCC is specifically looking at the area where the three historic B.W. Cooper buildings sit. One of those buildings, according to a statement that BCC issued by e-mail seeking community input on its plans to expand the organization’s boundary, is already slated to be rehabilitated as housing victims of domestic violence, and state historic tax credits will figure into the project financing. If BCC expands its boundary, it seems it may also have access to the state historic tax credit program.

It was news to us that one of these historic buildings is slated to be turned into a domestic violence shelter with help from the state’s historic tax credit program. We can understand why BCC would want to get in on the benefits of the “historic” designation. However, in our opinion, if any of those historic buildings are vacant, they could and should be used to provide affordable housing to as many New Orleanians as possible.

That’s the reason were pleased with BCC’s recent selection of its new executive director, Dasjon “DJ” Jordan. We know him. We like him. He is well-educated, experienced and prepared; and we believe he is firmly entrenched in the community, understanding and appreciating its needs and will be committed to ensuring that BCC’s mission does more to help the Broad Street corridor, residents of the adjacent communities, and New Orleans in general. We look forward to working with him.

Still, we get a bit concerned anytime anyone mentions one of the former housing developments or eyes certain communities for “change” or “redevelopment”. Early on, The New Orleans Tribune decried the pre-Katrina redevelopment of the former St. Thomas into what is now River Garden. And it wasn’t because we didn’t want to see new housing units built for residents. It was because we did the math. We understood that fewer units in a mixed-income development meant that a good number of former St. Thomas residents would be left without an affordable place to stay. To be sure, when developers and those pushing the change started throwing around phrases like “deconcentration of poverty”, we knew the impoverished were in trouble. And we were right.

Then, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Big Four—C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, Lafitte and St. Bernard—were all demolished. In the same way as the St. Thomas before them, they have been turned into mixed-income housing that feature only a portion of the units that were available prior to their razing. 

The Big Four, which when originally built totaled 5,300 public housing units, were subsequently replaced with just more than 1,900 units. Only 706 of those, less than 37 percent, are designated public housing units.

The Fischer and the Iberville have also been redeveloped—with each only providing a fraction of the housing units they once offered. And the former 742-unit Florida is currently being redeveloped with plans for a mixed-income complex about half that size.

Now every one is wringing their hands about a lack of affordable housing. Come now, what did we expect. And, to us, it doesn’t appear as if leaders, policy makers, elected officials, developers, planners, business leaders and community organizations are taking the problem seriously enough. 

According to a report released in July 2021, full-time wage earners in New Orleans need to earn $20.73 an hour in order to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment at fair-market rent rates. For the rest of the state, that figure is a little lower— but not much less at $17.48 per hour.

The “Housing Wage” was revealed in the Out of Reach 2021 report released jointly by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC); HousingLOUISIANA, a state-wide network of nine regional housing coalitions, and it’s local regional partner, HousingNOLA.

In a statement released with the report, HousingNOLA’s Executive Director said, “The federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 an hour without an increase since 2009, not keeping pace with the high cost of rental housing. In no state, even those where the minimum wage has been set above the federal standard, can a minimum wage renter working a 40-hour week afford a modest two-bedroom rental unit at the average fair-market rent. Working at the minimum wage of $7.25 in Louisiana, a wage earner must have 2 full-time jobs or work 80 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment and for a two-bedroom apartment it would take 2.4 full-time jobs or a work 96-hours per week.”

This year’s release of the Out of Reach report coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, whose impact has further exposed deep issues of inequity and insecurity related to housing for the most vulnerable.

As the report shows, having a stable place to live was out of reach for millions of people before the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, more than 7.7 million extremely low-income renters across the U.S. were severely housing-cost burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on housing costs, which typically leads to sacrificing other necessities. High job losses and the lack of access to proper healthcare—all exacerbated by the pandemic—further depleted already limited resources.

According to the Out of Reach report, the economic downturn spurred by the coronavirus further increased the risk of housing instability for millions of low-wage renters at a time when stable housing is vital.

New Orleans’ Housing Wage means that in the middle of a pandemic –and the worst decline of tourism the city has experienced since Hurricane Katrina– New Orleanians must find a job paying an hourly rate of $20.73  to afford a two-bedroom apartment. 

The typical renter in Louisiana earns $14.64 an hour, which is $2.84 less than the hourly housing wage needed to afford a modest unit.

A recent analysis found that Louisiana ranks third in the nation for having a high risk for evictions due to job losses, with 130,000 households across Louisiana at risk for eviction. 

Almost half of all renters in New Orleans spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs (rent and utilities) before the COVID 19 pandemic. And about 36 percent of renters in New Orleans are severely housing cost burdened—spending 50 percent of their income on housing costs.

The last time we checked, New Orleans had less than half of the affordable housing units it needed to make a dent in this crisis—about 47 for every 100 low-income residents. So, we are also tired of these plans that offer tax credits and incentives to developers in exchange for a few units temporarily offered at affordable rates. Obviously, that method does not work.

With all things considered, our primary focus has been and remains on urging the City of New Orleans and various agencies and entities, including Broad Community Connections, to do everything within their power to ensure that quality, affordable housing is available to residents that need it most.

That is the plan we are anxious to see come to fruition because expanding affordable housing for the residents most in need of it is far more important than any organization expanding its footprint.