The cost of home is big but not easy for residents of New Orleans

May 29, 2017 | By

At Fannie Mae, we are always looking to find ways to provide affordable housing for the nation’s workers. So it was a special occasion recently when we received a presentation on the housing and economic situation in New Orleans from Suzanne Mobley, community engagement manager at the Tulane School of Architecture’s Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design.

Along with many employees at Fannie Mae, I was further drawn into Mobley’s conversation on affordable housing because I have a personal connection to New Orleans. Mine goes back to attending college at Tulane. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I joined the rebuilding efforts of the more than 1,300 Fannie Mae employees who traveled to the Gulf Coast as volunteer workers. We repaired homes, restored community gardens, stocked food banks, and tutored children.

Low Incomes to Blame

The sad fact is that New Orleans ranks as the second least affordable housing market in the country. Mobley points out that 58 percent of the local population is rent-burdened. That means that more than 30 percent of their income is going to housing.

And she reports one amazing finding:  The incomes in the city tend to be just plain low. “We came up with data that was apparently a surprise for everyone,” she says.

A full-time salary for a typical daycare worker is about $16,000 a year. A musician makes about $17,800, a police officer less than $39,000, and a teacher about $43,000.

“We’re still at a wage base that doesn’t work for most people to have affordable housing no matter how much subsidy we’re looking at,” she says.

“We are still way too dependent on tourism and we need to diversify our economy,” she adds. “We also need to work on what the tourist economy pays. $2.13 an hour as a base wage, even if you get tips, is just never going to get you what you need.”

The Cost of Home

Mobley and many others at the Small Center worked last fall to mount a digital exhibit on how the city landed where it is today and what it needs to do to dig itself out.

The exhibit is called “The Cost of Home.” It includes a historical timeline tied to housing. It also provides descriptions of many possible models for addressing housing needs.

Mobley has lots of engaging stories to tell. Some come from her professional ties back to Habitat for Humanity following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Others she describes as “stories of friends across New Orleans who have been struggling to find a way to stay in the city and keep their families stable.”

The Decline of Public Housing

Even before Katrina hit in 2008, she says, housing policies for the city were veering in a new direction. The year before, the city council approved the demolition of the “Big Four” housing projects in New Orleans.

Over the next four years, that resulted in the demolition of 4,500 public housing units. Several of the former public housing sites were near the tourist and business districts where low-income New Orleanians often work. Mixed-income neighborhoods and housing vouchers replaced them.

At its peak, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) managed nearly 15,000 units in 10 housing developments and smaller scattered sites, according to “The Cost of Home.”

By 2014, the number of families HANO served had risen to 19,175. But only 9 percent of those families remained in publicly owned and managed public housing.

The rest received support through the voucher program. Today, there is a concentration of voucher families in nine census tracts. Seven of those tracts are in New Orleans East – the most “far-flung” part of the city.

An inadequate public transportation system raises an additional challenge. By and large, most of the families HANO serves are now farther away from their jobs. Getting to work can be relatively difficult.

What the Future Will Bring

The city has seen population decline since 1962, but its future housing requirements are immense. The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance calculates a need for 33,000 housing units over the next 10 years.

The exhibit looked at the solutions – ranging from inclusionary zoning to higher density housing. All of them have advantages, and drawbacks.

Post-Katrina rebuilding efforts put a focus on non-profit single-family homeownership using thousands of volunteers from across the country. However, Mobley voices concern over this approach to creating affordability. It “has proved really vulnerable,” she says. “Increasing costs for land and materials have driven up the cost of building, particularly in once low-income neighborhoods. And volunteer numbers have declined substantially.”

Furthermore, the rising costs of property taxes, insurance, and maintenance “can make a house a burden rather than an asset for some families. Another concern is that the process of building units is slow. It doesn’t scale up to meet the scope of our affordable housing need.”

HANO’s mixed-income development does have one advantage. “They have scale,” Mobley says. “They have the potential to hold both more low- and moderate-income families as well as to be more flexible over time in a way that other models don’t necessarily have.”

At the end of the day, an important question for Mobley is “how can our small inventories add up to something big enough to meet such enormous needs.”

She may not have a definitive answer. “But I think we’re going to start seeing new models emerging out of need. And I am excited to see what some of those are.”

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