Dispatch from New Orleans: A Report on Affordable Housing

During the 2014 New Orleans Fall Study Tour, Jim Stockard (LF '78) took a field trip organized by Neal Morris (LF '10) to look at housing and community development. There was much to learn from the star-quality panel of experts who have been involved in recovery activities since Katrina and Rita changed the landscape in the city.

Affordable housing and community development is a hot topic in New Orleans. Where did people go after Katrina and Rita? Who came back? Where did they–or could they–come back to? What happened to the 4 large public housing sites that were a major resource for low-income households? What have race and class had to do with the planning and the execution of those plans since the storms? How are housing opportunities different today from before the crisis? Are things better or worse?

Neal Morris (LF’10) assembled a diverse panel of people to talk about these questions with a knowledgeable and interested group of Loeb Fellows during the New Orleans Fall Study Tour in October. Panelists included Jeff Hebert, director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority; Jim Grauley (LF ’02), a partner in Columbia Residential; Kathy Laborde, director of the nonprofit developer Gulf Coast Housing Partnership; Michelle Whetten from the regional office of Enterprise Community Partners and Neal himself.

Very short comments from the panelists established their credentials. Jeff has led the public agency that has shaped the recovery effort in all dimensions–focussing on affordable housing development, community corridor revitalization and land stewardship. Jim is the developer of the St. Bernard site, one of the “big four” public housing developments that was cleared after the storms. Kathy has redeveloped numerous mixed-use buildings in a surgical manner–doing what was needed to help bring a particular neighborhood back. Michelle has acted as a true intermediary, bringing resources, capacity, expertise and support to numerous nonprofits in the area to speed their activities. And Neal has single-handedly saved a remarkable number of residential structures, large and small, and returned them to the fabric of the city with a strong focus on low- and moderate-income households.

The panel was first asked to tell the audience what about their work is not widely understood by the press and the public. They listed the complexity of the regulatory environment, the very demanding time pressures, the difficulty in finding residents with whom to consult (because so many had left) and the financial crisis that happened just as many large revitalization projects were trying to secure their final financing. Mostly the panel stressed how each of these “wicked” problems interacted with the others: the solution to one might make another worse. For example, the regulations meant to protect against fraud slowed things down to the point where even solutions that should have been easy were painfully slow in their execution. And the panel guessed that they didn’t actually eliminate any fraud.

Another question asked of the panel was whether they agreed that the competing dialogues in New Orleans were “the most efficient and sustainable development patterns” vs. “the right of pre-Katrina residents to shape the rebuilding plans to their own interests.” For the most part, the panelists thought there were solutions available that could have merged these points of view. But they again said that the pressures of time and conflicting regulations made it difficult to reach them. There was generous funding available...but only for certain solutions and in certain time frames. There were numerous people who came to town to help...but they had to return home at the end of the semester or some other deadline. Sometimes resident groups could be assembled...but they needed to make important decisions about their future without the time to learn about and become comfortable with the consequences of their choices.

One of the audience members noted that this crisis will happen again and asked the panel what New Orleans should do to get ready for that. To a person, the group indicated that the preparation could not be left to the structural engineering solutions of the Corps of Engineers. They cited the work being done in the Netherlands now to “let the water in” rather than build higher and higher walls to try to keep it out. They also said there are elements of the built environment that can be made a standard part of the rebuilding process in such a way that they can survive the next storm and recover more quickly.

After an all-too-short time with this excellent panel, the group headed out to visit some of the projects. Before we boarded the bus, we looked around the building we were in – a dramatically mixed-use development that houses the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, an elderly housing complex, and several community facilities. Kathy’s organization had developed it. It was planted in a neighborhood to get the revitalization started. Across the street, an abandoned school has been turned into a local, healthy food emporium with stalls, small shops, and offices. Things are happening.

We saw some non-residential activities, such as the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra Concert Hall that Neal is redeveloping and the hospitals that have been lost as well as the new ones that are rising from empty lots. At the site of the former LaFitte public housing development we saw a new mixed-income development completed by the Providence Community Housing Corporation with help from Enterprise Community Partners and L&M Development from NY. The folks from PCHC explained that the phasing of the project and the segregation of different housing types (ownership and rental, market rate and subsidized) was not what they wanted, but the timing of the tax credits and other financing made it impossible to complete the project in any other way. Many in our group were skeptical about this and wondered if something else could not have been done. On the other hand, the outreach to former residents here was excellent. They reached between 550 and 600 former residents and had design charrettes in Baton Rouge and Houston as well as New Orleans. In the first phase of the redevelopment, 95 of the 134 apartments were occupied by returnees. They also followed the lead of the neighborhood and fought hard for a new school in the development, and the NORA used CDBG funds to make that happen.

Jeff showed us the other activities in the neighborhood that NORA had helped to facilitate. A shopping center had the second “urban model” Whole Foods store in the nation.   This model focusses strongly on locally sourced foods and prices compatible with neighborhood income levels. The Whole Foods is a hub surrounded by other small stores, a kitchen for training young people in culinary skills, and the offices of other food-related organizations. The building is owned by the local CDC. Jeff explained that to decide where to invest the block grant and other funds, they look for places where there is a strong neighborhood organization, an inventory of property that NORA controls, and the possibility of outside investment. In places where they cannot justify major investments, they work hard to take over vacant lots, provide landscaping and maintenance and carry out a holding operation until it is this neighborhood’s “turn.” We saw several very nice examples of this strategy, especially in a corner of the Gentilly neighborhood.

We ended our tour at Columbia Parc, the redevelopment of the St. Bernard public housing development site by Jim Grauley and Columbia Residential. It is a most impressive and handsome complex that includes 466 apartments in its first phase. Eventually, the development will include 1,325 homes – up from the 984 who lived here when Katrina hit. Columbia went to great lengths to find former residents and has given all 984 households top priority for an apartment when they decide they would like to return. We were impressed by the idea that that priority does not expire. This development is thoroughly mixed with deep subsidy, tax credit and market rate apartments in every building. It also has integrated an innovated child care center and given residents top priority for admission if they are income-eligible. The amenities and resident services are impressive. On a site that was the scene of considerable crime–violent and otherwise–before Katrina, there have been almost no such incidents since Columbia Parc opened its doors.

Huge thanks to Neal Morris LF’10 for assembling such an interesting group of panelists and leading us on an honest and informative tour. We saw and heard numerous examples of good solutions to the housing and economic development problems in New Orleans. The people with whom we met are clearly doing good work. But they would have been the first to say that there is a great deal more to be done. They argued passionately at every turn for the reduction of the bureaucratic barriers that keep good work from being accomplished or slow it down so much that it fails some of the people who need it the most. We came away with the conviction that we need to attend to that issue in our own cities before the next “Katrina” overwhelms business as usual at home.

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