New Orleans creates plan for affordable housing

(MacKenzie Coffman/Medill) The sun rises over the Algiers Point neighborhood in Algiers, the only Orleans parish on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. The parish was heavily segregated during the Jim Crow era, and Algiers Point remains a majority-white neighborhood. Other neighborhoods have gentrified, increasing housing prices and reducing racial diversity.

By MacKenzie Coffman
Medill Reports

A brand new three-bedroom house stood for sale in the little New Orleans neighborhood of Freret. Yet, at an asking price of $599,000, this home carried a price tag 169% more expensive than the median home cost in the city. It mirrors an issue familiar in New Orleans and cities across the country where dwindling affordable housing both reflects and amplifies rapid gentrification.

“We are slowly chipping away at the systemic bias that makes this kind of reform almost impossible,” said Andreanecia Morris, the executive director of HousingNOLA. The organization was formed by New Orleans citizens groups to partner the communities, investors and other organizations in identifying and building affordable housing. “We are showing people that there is a path; there’s a logical, sensible and practical path that can do this.”

Morris blueprinted this path in Housing NOLA’s new Housing for All plan, released Feb. 21, which asked for $37 billion in investments to end the city’s affordable housing crisis. The plan outlines four priorities: decreasing the housing affordability gap, closing the racial wealth gap, boosting housing stock resilience and combatting displacement. To do this, Morris said, the entire community will need to fight together. 

“Everybody’s getting beat on. We’ve got to turn to fight; we’ve got to stop blocking blows. And at the end of the day, this city has a fighting chance because of the work that we are doing. It didn’t before,” Morris said.  

Like the new constructions at skyrocketing prices and house-flips by speculators who never lived in the home, organizations fighting to make housing affordable and prevent displacement are also growing across New Orleans. 

The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, a civil rights nonprofit that focuses on housing discrimination cases and creating policy to protect renters and homeowners, has been a part of this fight for 27 years. 

In December, the organization helped approve $2 million in city budget funding for a right to counsel and eviction court program in response to the pandemic-triggered evictions that left people with nowhere to go. Initially, the city had promised just a quarter of that funding for the program, and when Maxwell Ciardullo, the director of policy and communications, found out the full budget had been approved, he said he was in disbelief. 

“We told everyone to stay home and to keep everyone safe, and then we couldn’t figure out how to make sure everyone could stay in their home,” Ciardullo said. “So it felt really good to, at the very least, make sure everyone has an attorney.”

Recently, the city also passed a law mandating that homeowners cannot rent out their property on sites such as Airbnb unless it is the only house they own. Such an ordinance will benefit the gentrifying Tremé-Lafitte neighborhood especially. Michelle Shoriak, who runs the revival grants program at the Preservation Resource Center, used to live in Treme and saw the housing issue firsthand.

“People were just buying up houses and renting them out. I lived in Treme for a little while, and myself and our next-door neighbor were the only people that actually lived on the block. Every house around us was an Airbnb,” Shoriak said.

However, Morris, of Housing NOLA, said the city has been too focused on this particular issue. Short-term rental owners are not, as she put it, “the evilest evils that have ever eviled.” Instead, she said with proper regulations, short-term rentals can fund more critical housing policies and projects, like building affordable housing and filling existing vacancies.

The city also passed a zoning ordinance in December granting construction of triplexes and fourplexes as long as one unit is affordable for renters making no more than 80% of the area median income, which is about $39,000 per individual. It also allows one unit to be used for short-term rentals. While such policy can take years to affect the community, this ordinance is an exception — one new development is already poised to break ground. 

“We’re not talking about simply passing a policy and checking a box on the progressive, social justice bingo card,” Morris said. “What I’m talking about is changing the lives of New Orleanians.”

MacKenzie Coffman is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Mac_coffman.