lowernine.org Expanding Work to Bring Lower 9th Ward Back


To this day, many people do not realize that pre-Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward was a vibrant if impoverished neighborhood that was home to many multi-generational homeowners. The fact that 17 years later it remains barely a shell of its former self is deeply disturbing.

There are many issues at play in the neighborhood, ranging from immense difficulties proving ownership and title for many properties to a grave lack of resources of all kinds.  Underlying it all, however, is one simple fact.

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“Nobody is doing the work,” bluntly stated Laura Paul, executive director of lowernine.org.

Born out of the first disaster relief responses to the post-Katrina levee breaches and catastrophic flooding, lowernine.org uses volunteer labor and – as much as possible – donated supplies to repair and often completely rebuild houses in the neighborhood. The primary focus is helping pre-Katrina residents return to properties that, in many cases, have been in their families’ hands for generations.

While the scope of the problem is enormous, Paul and her team simply focus on what they can do next.

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“We built our first house in 2007, and formally incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2008,” she recalled. “By now we’ve built or almost completely rebuilt 91 houses for legacy residents, and done major repairs on more than 300 more houses.”

Paul is frequently frustrated by the pace of restoration in the Lower 9th, both in terms of physically rebuilding dwellings and also in bringing back the strong sense of community that enlivened the area. However, progress on both fronts is about to accelerate: lowernine.org is nearing completion of a new headquarters/volunteer dormitory/community space on Jourdan Avenue, directly across from the large section of the Industrial Canal levee breach that was the epicenter of the devastation.

When completed, the upper floors of the building will provide accommodations for up to 16 volunteers, including a full kitchen and a dining room/living room area. Aside from some office space for the organization itself, the ground floor is dedicated to supporting the community. Included in this is a food pantry, a community kitchen and a meeting area.

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Along with the space, Paul plans to provide classes and programs for nearby residents, on relevant topics ranging from homebuyer training to credit counseling. “We just do not have places here where people can come together,” she noted. “We want to be a true community center.”

The building itself is a pilot for a new approach to homebuilding in the area. Constructed in partnership with Shibusa Systems, a recently-formed entity dedicated to helping alleviate the general shortage of affordable housing in the New Orleans area, the structure was largely pre-built and is simply being assembled on the site.

According to CEO and co-founder Katy Reynolds, “Shibusa was launched in 2019 to work on affordable housing issues in New Orleans. We decided to look at the Lower 9th Ward initially, and identified lowernine.org as the ideal partner.”

Reynolds and her partners, construction expert Michael Gwynn and local architect and planner Steve Bingler, saw the lowernine.org project as an ideal pilot for their innovative approach. The firm donated the labor and design work, while lowernine.org raised funds for materials, systems, furnishings and so on. The largest source of the funding was the Lowe’s Foundation 100 Hometowns initiative, whose $275,000 donation was the largest that foundation has ever made.

Because this approach brings most components of the house to the site already fabricated, construction time is dramatically reduced. “We can build an entire house with five people in two months,” said Gwynn, “compared to at least six months using normal construction methods.”

There is a jobs component to this as well. The construction industry is struggling greatly at present trying to fill the many skilled labor positions required in the typical building process. The Shibusa approach includes creating computerized model instructions for assembling their buildings, reducing the need for such highly skilled workers. The firm is not only training workers for the skill levels their work requires, it is advocating for a new licensing option relating to building assembly.

Looking at the dozens of vacant lots still dominating much of the neighborhood, it’s not easy to envision streets full of life and a bustling community. That does not deter Paul and her colleagues, who remain passionate about restoring the Lower 9th Ward. She is constantly lining up more volunteers, from across the world and across the southeast Louisiana region. Donations large and small keep the momentum going, just like Paul and lowernine.org keep going.

“We haven’t run out of work yet,” she concluded.



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