By Edwin Buggage
A Tale of Two Cities
The City of New Orleans is celebrating its 300th Anniversary. Residents are also witnessing the end of the Landrieu Administration and the beginning of a new one with the election of its first female mayor Latoya Cantrell. While we are ushering in a newly elected leadership in the coming months; many citizens are concerned can a City move closer to solutions to the problems that plague our City; crime, poverty, educational inequality etc. While these have been on the front burner; one of the problems that are essential to the future of New Orleans that is not getting much attention is the crisis surrounding affordable housing.
In a recent survey of likely voters, it showed the need for affordable housing ranked only second to crime and public safety. The same survey results showed that 93% of respondents agree or strongly agree that access to affordable housing is important. It is something that is strangely ironic for a City that only a dozen years ago one could rent an apartment for 300 or 400 dollars a month and today that same apartment could rent for 1200 dollars or more in some cases. This burden is something that’s caused many former residents to not return and conversely, caused many who have come here to leave because the City is unaffordable. And for those who live here many struggles, in some cases working multiple jobs to cover the higher cost of living in New Orleans.
Andreanecia Morris: Leading the Battle for Affordable Housing
Andreanecia Morris, President of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA) is one of many who is on the frontlines of the fight for fair housing in New Orleans. She began her career working at the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). Many locals know these as the projects that were site-based scattered throughout New Orleans built after World War II through the 1960’s where working class people both Black and White lived although segregated at times. In the beginning, this affordable housing did not have the stigma that would later become associated with it as many who went on to become City and business leaders were raised in these brick structures throughout the City. “I didn’t know much about them,” she says of the projects of New Orleans. Of what would become her life’s work she says “I had a lot of great mentors including Kim Brown who I worked directly with her and learned how to help craft policy. I also had great teachers including the residents themselves. I understood early on that I was there to be of help to them.”
Since that time Morris has spent her career working to create affordable housing in Metro New Orleans. Post Katrina, she has either directly implemented or advocated for programs that created 500 first time homebuyers, disbursed $104.5 million soft-second subsidies for Metro New Orleans and provided support services for approximately 5,000 households—homeowners who were struggling to rebuild and renters who required wrap-around services. Morris was lead organizers for the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA) when it started in 2007 as the collaborative coalition of non-profit housing builders and community development corporations and, since its incorporation in 2012, Morris has served as GNOHA’s Chair.
She has been working to eradicate housing discrimination in a City that’s had a history of racial exclusion. And while there have been strides by some in the African-American community, there are still far too many who have been left behind in this sad tale of two cities characterized by a few that have and too many who do not have enough to survive or barely scraping by. “There is a problem with systemic racism and classism in New Orleans and unfortunately a lot of scapegoating of the victims saying it’s their fault. But in truth, the system in many ways is rigged and we’ve got to change it. We have continued to go and speak to our elected leaders and say no longer will you ignore this issue because you are ignoring me,” says Morris.
Putting Housing as Top Priority First is Key to Full Recovery for New Orleans
Morris is leading the Housing First Campaign that’s goal is to secure the commitment of 80,000 registered voters to support GNOHA’s advocacy efforts and the implementation of the 10-Year HousingNOLA Plan. That can ensure that City leaders will prioritize safe, affordable, healthy housing for all in New Orleans. They are asking people to sign up and get involved and support candidates and hold elected officials accountable who will help residents stay in our neighborhoods and make them better; help citizens of New Orleans live close to good jobs and use tax dollars collected to make communities strong! Speaking of the Housing First Campaign she says, “We are pushing our Housing First Campaign because every time we vote or make a decision you have to put housing first. That doesn’t mean ignoring the other issues; the City Council is working to approve a Masterplan and we have made suggestions and the one we are going back and forth about is giving people a chance to live in neighborhoods that are closer to where they work that’s affordable. We are in the greatest housing crisis post-Katrina as it relates to affordable housing in”
NOLA: Is It Worth the Cost
Post-Katrina the City is changing dramatically as there are limited affordable housing options. It seems today things are not so easy in the Big Easy. It is a City where some, even those who are college educated in some instances are cost-burdened where more than 50 percent of their income is going towards rent or a mortgage. “61% of renters are cost-burdened in this City. Most people who come here for new jobs rent, now some may be fortunate and access money and buy. But many struggles and become disenchanted and leave,” says Morris dispelling the myth that it is only rich people from out of town coming and taking over neighborhoods.
Alexis Sakari is a college educated woman in her 30’s who moved to New Orleans from Atlanta and graduated from Southern University at New Orleans with a degree in Social Work and Counseling. After years of working in her field; she found herself still having to supplement her income with work in the hospitality industry to make ends meet.
This is the story of many who come to the City both Black and White; who love the culture and lifestyle but cannot live off an economy where well-paying jobs are scarce and affordable housing today is even scarcer. So, after a decade in New Orleans Alexis decided she would leave the City because it was unaffordable and lacked opportunities. “I love the City, its culture, and the people, but coming from Atlanta, where jobs and affordable housing and quality schools are everywhere and because I want to start a family I’ve decided to leave New Orleans.”
Building a City for All the People
Even before Katrina, there were plans on the table by some who wished to make New Orleans wealthier and Whiter. Much of this is evidenced by the mismatch in the building of new residential structures many of which are luxury, above market rate and not affordable. Also, this City, where there are not many high paying jobs is second only to San Francisco in most cost-burdened cities as it relates to housing.
Some would say if a City was a body then New Orleans is in critical condition when it comes to many things. And housing is key; because if people do not have safe affordable decent places to live how can it prosper? Jeffrey May is the Principal of International Development and Planning (IDP) and the Former Head of the Fair Housing Action Center in New Orleans. He works across the country working in communities helping cities craft policies that prioritize resources that help build better communities for all its citizens. “Yes, like many other cities across the nation and world for that matter, the City of New Orleans is in an affordable housing crisis. This has been a longstanding issue in the City. However, in recent years, it has been primarily caused and exacerbated by low livable wages, housing discrimination, an aging housing stock and other factors,” says May.
“To first address this problem, job creators: the private sectors and government officials need to understand the inextricable connection they have with low-income and middle-income households in who produce and purchase their goods and services. Townships, counties, cities, and states need to view themselves as a living organism or system. If one part of the organism or system is sick the whole will not function properly and can lead to entropy eventually killing itself.”
“Second, it needs to analyze its anatomy to determine where its greatest disparities, challenges, or impediments exist; and how has it invested public and private dollars. With a focus on examining areas identified under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule, Racially and Ethnically Concentrated Areas of Poverty, cities, and states can undertake this examination every five years by completing an Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice (AI) or as stated under the AFFH Rule Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH). Any public and/or private initiatives that reinforce production and compliance with these guiding documents should be extolled. A best practice example is the work done by HousingNOLA’s Executive Director, Ms. Andreanecia M. Morris and the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance. The coalition has drafted a document and community engagement approach that supports, complements and builds upon this AI/AFH study in it the HousingNOLA 10-year Strategy and Implementation Plan to address Affordable Housing in New Orleans.”
A New Orleans Without Those That Makes It Special?
Can the City move towards solutions to the affordable housing problem? Moving forward this will have to become a top priority if New Orleans is to survive because the direction it is going in as far as the lack of affordable housing is unsustainable. And if New Orleans will continue to be the great historic City it’s been for the last 300 years it must address this issue, or it will become something unrecognizable with those who have shaped the culture of it absent.
We must ask ourselves where will the next Satchmo, Wynton Marsalis, Bo Dollis, Monk Boudreaux, Tootie Montana, Irma Thomas, The Neville Family, Trombone Shorty, Lil Wayne, Kermit Ruffins or any of our culture bearers come from if they are no places for them to live and nurture our history and preserve our cultural heritage. We must ask ourselves is it worth it to build luxury apartments and unaffordable housing at the expense of losing the soul and heartbeat of our City; the everyday people, the hospitality, the food, the families, and the love of people that’s the ingredients in the gumbo that define who we are and that keep people coming back to the City.