Building a Solid Foundation for a Better New Orleans

Andreanecia Morris Executive Director, HousingNOLA

Housing Insecurity Threatens the Future of New Orleans
New Orleans has faced various struggles over its 300-year history, and most revolve around its treatment of African Americans. Before Katrina, New Orleans had a problem with Affordable Housing, but, like most urban cities, it focused on other social issues such as crime, education, and healthcare, without recognizing that the lack of housing security is the root cause of most of those issues. Last year, as the COVID-19 Pandemic cast a spotlight on the need for Affordable Housing in New Orleans, we saw state and city leaders wildly fail to keep their commitment to provide Affordable Housing. We are all told to “Shelter at Home” because that was our best option before the COVID-19 vaccines became available. Last year, HousingNOLA found that the “the system was broken before, and now it’s even worse because our leaders are failing us and spectacularly mismanaging the resources they have.” We hoped, in vain, that our warning would be heeded, and leaders would seize the chance to finally commit to ending housing insecurity as it would only serve to worsen the spread of COVID-19.

It is evident that housing affordability is increasingly out of reach for people, especially for those working minimum wage jobs. Based on the most recent reports, people need to make approximately $20 per hour to rent, however the minimum wage in Louisiana is $7.25. We know that housing stability has demonstrable economic impacts. Renters could be contributing even more if it were not for skyrocketing rents and stagnant wages. When the rent is too high, little is left over for basics like food, transportation, health care, and education.

For the past 15 months, rental assistance has been as much a health solution as a housing one. Keeping families in their homes and off the street or from doubling or tripling-up with relatives is a preventative health measure that will keep not just the renter’s family safe but also help minimize the spread of the virus—particularly for vulnerable populations that can’t get vaccinated (small children, immunocompromised individuals, etc.). COVID Relief Funding issued in 2020 to the State of Louisiana should have been used to stabilize renters and now, that there are millions of dollars in the hands of local and state officials, expressly for rental assistance, they struggle to get the funds into the hands of landlords to stave off the onslaught of evictions.

Those who own their homes are not exempt from the impacts of the city’s Affordable Housing Crisis. Homeowners have also been ignored by inadequate support from federal, state, and local COVID relief efforts. This is ironic as hundreds of homeowners, who rebuilt their houses after Katrina, are now being sued by the State of Louisiana for failing to run the gauntlet of the Road Home Program. Despite its successes, the Road Home exemplifies how well-intentioned policies can fail the most vulnerable by failing to account for systemic biases. Almost 16 years after Katrina’s floodwaters retreated, the failed program design and two separate contractors now imperils hundreds of homeowners. For this reason, the precious funds allocated in the American Rescue Plan Act must be managed better than other relief dollars and we need leaders to heed the recommendations from advocates and community members to ensure and effective an equitable program design and administration. We have seen some of the same issues and actors involved in the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina and want to ensure the disaster profiteering does not usurp effective management and investment of the American Rescue Plan dollars in the communities that need the most help and support.

Without a guarantee to house all and the funds necessary to ensure that renters and homeowners can remain housed, we will be facing a dramatic increase in the number of homeless people. Indeed, many landlords have been able to circumvent the moratorium and evict tenants which has caused dramatic overcrowding and a visible increase in the homeless encampments across the city.
The City of New Orleans is a study of contradictions. It’s a party city but people are ready and willing to fight for and about how much to love it. Once, it was a central point of the transatlantic slave trade and now it’s a majority African American city with the distinction of being the “Soul of America.” Rising out of the swamps, New Orleans built levees so it could grow, and those same levees amplified Hurricane Katrina’s impact. The city’s problems were on display for the world to see, but the people didn’t yield, they fought their way back. That resilience inspired the world…but leaders used “the myth of New Orleans’s exceptionalism” to gloss over their own failures. The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina to neighborhoods in New Orleans is still seen today throughout the city by way of blighted and abandoned properties and the high levels of poverty – particularly in majority African American parts of the city. But the impact of Katrina also inspired resident leaders who rose up to advocate and fight for their rights to a dignified quality of life that includes safe, healthy, and Affordable Housing for all.

Put Housing First
With the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter Movement took center stage across the world. But despite the willingness to examine systemic racism in policing, we still ignore our most basic system: housing. We can no longer ignore the failures of our leaders. Guaranteeing housing for all as the Delta Variant surges is not an impossibility—it is a moral imperative and key to our recovery. Nothing else is acceptable. We can accomplish the seemingly impossible here and there is no excuse to not #PutHousingFirst.

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