Building Hope

A look at the initiatives underway now to address New Orleans’ affordable housing crisis

It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which is a time of celebration. But the vibrant colors, boisterous marching bands, decadent desserts, and larger-than-life characters mask a stark reality lying beneath it all: Hardly anyone can afford to live here.

“Most of the people in New Orleans can’t afford their housing,” said Andreanecia M. Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, a 10-year partnership between community leaders and public, private, and nonprofit organizations that’s working to solve the city’s affordable housing crisis. “You shouldn’t spend more than a third of your income on housing — that calculation lets you cover your biggest expense and have something leftover for other necessities.”

HousingNOLA issues an annual “report card,” which grades the progress of commitments to affordable housing made by officials and city and state agencies. This year, for the fourth year in a row, the city received an “F.” Advocates like Morris are calling for city leaders to fund affordable housing units and help keep longtime homeowners in their homes — as well as ensure safe and healthy conditions inside rental homes and units.

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Housing insecurity is a problem in much of the United States where there isn’t a parish or county where you can rent a one-bedroom apartment and pay utilities on a salary of $7.25 per hour — the federal minimum wage. Morris said New Orleans isn’t any different, but “things have gotten worse with insurance and utilities [going] through the roof.”

Right now, the city has just 158,828 total rental units, according HousingNOLA. A report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition says New Orleans needs more than 47,000 additional affordable rental units to meet demand.

Creating more access to quality, affordable housing isn’t just about providing literal shelter from the storms, it’s also about dealing with the trauma that housing insecurity can inflict, and the way that society attempts to handle it.

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“Instead of compassion, we react with fear of ‘could this happened me?’” Morris said. “We need to provide all victims of housing insecurity with a safe, decent home and the tools to address the years of trauma and the impact it has had on their lives.”

For Morris, the biggest challenge is what she called the “stubborn failure” of officials to recognize and adequately address the problem.

African-Americans disproportionately struggle with housing insecurity, but Morris said decision-makers continue to place the majority of the blame on individuals while refusing to accept that there are inherent flaws in the system.

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“That’s because of systemic racism — not any failing in Black folks,” Morris said. “Even when the problems are so severe that they affect all of us, like insurance, there is still hesitancy to invest in the most vulnerable. [Our leaders] make excuses and continue to focus on the wrong part of the problem.”

Addressing a complex problem like affordable housing requires a multi-solution approach that encompasses all aspects of the crisis. That mindset lies at the heart of HousingNOLA’s “10-Year Plan” and its follow-up, the “Housing For All Strategy.”

Morris broke the organization’s plan into three parts.

“First and foremost. . . we want to know what is needed and what will work. Second, and equally important, is sharing that information with community and decision-makers.”
Andreanecia M. Morris,
Executive Director of HousingNOLA

Morris added that while it would seem this would be easily managed by developing solutions in partnership with all affected necessary parties, those blind spots can be “stubborn.”

“That’s why the third part is critical,” Morris said. “We have to research and educate, but we must also strategize and win battles. Most people call that advocacy, but it’s really a war. And you win wars by fighting a series of strategic battles — some by choice and others not. We help folks understand the battle ahead and respond when they’re attacked.”

Some city officials share Morris’ convictions and commitments to addressing the challenges around affordable housing in New Orleans. City Councilmember Lesli D. Harris, representing District B, — which includes Central City, Broadmoor and parts of Mid-City and Bayou St. John — has made the issue a focal point of her service.

“All New Orleanians deserve well-functioning and interconnected communities,” Harris said. “Infrastructure improvements and new affordable residences will hold enormous possibilities, especially for those in our hospitality industry, who keep our great establishments open and running.”

Harris said the current crisis goes back almost two decades. “Since post-Katrina, affordable housing has been hard for our residents to secure,” she said. “Many cannot afford housing near their employment and have had to move to areas where their commute time continues to increase.”

She also echoed Morris’ and others’ concerns about inflation and insurance rates making housing access more difficult and making new projects harder to finance. There are also zoning barriers that Harris said the City Planning Commission and the City Council are looking to tackle to address density allowances, parking requirements, lot sizes, and so much more.

She also said it’s important to note that some affordable housing funding comes with strict requirements that make it difficult for people to qualify.

“This also applies to zoning,” Harris said. “Around the city, many zones only allow for small, multi-family housing, which creates density issues since multi-family housing does not reflect the size or population of an apartment building. However, many funding sources prioritize projects that provide the density of a larger apartment building rather than a house with four to 15 units.”

As part of her efforts, last year Harris’ office partnered with District A Councilmember Joe Giarrusso to introduce the Affordable Housing and Workforce Housing Gap Financing Fund, which dedicated $32 million to support affordable and workforce housing projects that are in gap financing for completion.

Harris’ office also worked with Mayor Cantrell’s administration to create Office of Homeless Services and Strategy, which she said has led a concerted effort to ensure that unhoused residents no matter their circumstances are connected to permanent housing opportunities and the services they need for long-term success.

“This is something we will be working to provide to all unhoused individuals in our community, so the City of New Orleans can achieve low or no homelessness in 2025,” Harris said. “I’m committed to leading this initiative, and to leading the council’s progress toward increasing affordable housing availability across the city.”

The New Orleans City Council passed the 2024 budget on December 1, and several of Harris’ priorities were included. Her office secured $17 million for the newly created Housing Trust Fund, considered to be an important start toward securing a dedicated stream of funding from the city’s budget to help support affordable housing projects.

“This is a huge step toward creating desperately needed affordable housing,” Harris said. “These funds will be used to both maintain and rehab existing units and create new units to come online. Investments like these will help us take meaningful steps toward getting the housing we need.”

Mayor Cantrell’s office supported the fund’s creation, with one city official calling the housing trust fund a “game changer.” But there are still some questions about whether or not the money would be taken from other existing programs, as well as how much money might be allocated for the fund each year.

In its report card, HousingNOLA called for the city to create a trust fund that would generate more than $17 million a year to develop and repair up to 1,500 affordable housing units each year. The new trust fund passed by City Council could eventually fund new affordable housing as well.

For advocates like Morris, the failure to guarantee affordable housing is at the heart of every challenge the people of New Orleans are facing.

“Whether it’s crime, education, climate change or politics,” Morris said, “we need to address housing in order to ensure other systems work and work well.”


Did you know? In 2022, the City of New Orleans Office of Community Development funded 35 affordable housing units. In 2018, OCD funded 142 units, the most, by far, of the past 20 years. The second highest was 74 in 2015.

 

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