Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Politics, Race, Class, and Building Permits Collide in New Orleans East

Yesterday, State Rep. and current Mayoral candidate Austin Badon, State Senator Ann Duplessis, and State Rep. and erstwhile candidate for Congress Cedric Richmond held a press conference to blast Mayor Nagin's decision to halt the issuance of all building permits in New Orleans East for 30 days or more.

Within hours, the City of New Orleans reversed its policy and agreed to once again issue permits.

Very interesting stuff, since the City of New Orleans had originally adopted the policy to halt building permits in the East as a result of a law put in place by those very same group of legislators, with support from Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis.

It all stems from the controversial Levy Gardens project under construction directly adjacent to the wealthy enclave of Eastover. Levy Gardens is controversial because it is a multifamily, mixed-income development, which means that there will be low income residents directly right next to an exclusive golf course community.

It lead to the establishment of the Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission and the passage of a state law last year by Duplessis, Richmond, and Badon that gave that commission the power of review for before the city can building permits in the area.

It's a fascinating controversy on many levels. For one, there is the city's acute affordable housing crisis and its impact on poor and minority communities:

James Perry, head of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, said Duplessis is missing the point. The Fair Housing Act covers a policy's impact, not its intent, and blocking multifamily housing disproportionately hurts minorities, he said.

Perry also doesn't buy the argument that multifamily housing causes concentrations of poverty. He said apartment complexes thrived in the east until the local economy, once humming on NASA and oil industry jobs, tanked.

"The role of community leaders has to be to show we're open for business and say, 'If you come here with your business, we have enough rental housing for your employees, ' " he said. "But for now, it's been that New Orleans East is open if you bring homeownership, and that says, 'Don't come here, don't come here, don't come here.' "

But the intersection of race and class doesn't break down into the too-typical poor blacks v. rich whites paradigm. Residents of Eastover, the aforementioned cooperative between Richmond, Badon, Willard-Lewis, and Duplessis, and the Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Committee are primarily black but also primarily wealthy. The developers of the Levy Gardens are white and wealthy but the future residents would likely be poor and black.

The other element is planning policy. Aren't residents supposed to have some say over the types of developments built under the zoning master plan being put together by Goody Clancy? Does the fact that building permits for Levy Gardens had already been issued prior to the zoning master plan ordinance make moot the right to review being asserted by Eastover residents?

The whole thing seems wrought with double standards on all sides. How do we solve the city's affordable housing crisis without building affordable housing units? What what are the different development restrictions on multifamily construction in places like Uptown and the French Quarter? With so much hurricane damage in the East, shouldn't all residential construction be welcome? Hasn't New Orleans East been the slowest neighborhood to recover population? Plus how do you handicap the politics of the situation? Badon, Richmond, Willard-Lewis, and James Perry are running for higher office or were running for higher office as this controversy has unfolded.

A lot to consider, no?


Anonymous said...

Stacy Head just killed a Volunteers for America affordable housing proposal in the Lower Garden. But none of the local bloggers mention this clearly racist action. It is the NIMBY movement uptown that is forcing affordable and subsidized housing into the East--and they already got all the section 8 housing when Desire and St. Thomas closed. People in the East have a right right to keep yuppie developers from using the East as a dumping ground for rentals. Want to find housing discrimination? Just walk down St. Charles Avenue and look both ways. FHAC documented that housing discrimination is as bad in New Orleans as it is in the suburbs.

Puddinhead said...

Ain't no doubt...the East has been the rest of the city's "dumping ground" for more than actual trash for way farther back than Katrina. And no--apparently the residents of the East do NOT have the same say-so regarding development as do those, say, upriver of Canal Street. But then, this is New Orleans...there's ALWAYS been two sets of rules, with Canal roughly dividing their implementation. And as long as there are dollars, there will always be those two sets of rules.

Anonymous said...

District B has the largest concentration of "affordable" housing projects in the City.

mominem said...

The process of citizen input should come as part of the master plan which should govern how land is used. Things like use and density.

It should not allow for a prior of review of pojects that comply with the master plan. That type of busy body review is what got things so screwed up in the first place.

The Master Plan should be flrxible enough that things can be built.

Under the old scheme, if you were connected or popular anything would get approved. If you were from out of town you couldn't get anything done with out a "fixer".It was ham handed obvious odious and corrupt.

Neither can we afford to completely stop construction entirely while the Master Plan is developed and ratified. That will probably take two or more years.

celcus said...

Eastern New Orleans was/has/and continues to be zoned for the classic suburban model, much like Jefferson Parish, and very unlike the older model "inside the bowl" neighborhoods.

Residents, much to the consternation of many activist, seem to generally like it that way. However the suburban model is not without its issues, even for those who generally like it and choose to live there over other older neighborhoods.

These super-large complexes pose a significant issue, and the history of them after the brief period of the oil boom, has been problematic. But poor management had as much to do with that as any "class" war, and the poor management followed the decline in rental income as the boom ended.

And on a related note: If you have not been out on I-10, lately, a good number of the older complexes have been or are in the process of being completely renovated. This is something that most people have missed - a tremendous number of housing units (and not luxury condos) have been put on the market, which can only help the overall housing situation in the city.

And the VOA development in the Lower Garden District was opposed because it sought to build a ten story tower in a low rise historic neighborhood. The neighborhood was clear when it opposed the tower element, not the whole development which was in scale. But the pull out probably had more to do with national economics than a neighborhood groups complaints.

mominem said...

Its entirely possible that VOA's model couldn't work with a lower density.

I think the addition of significant numbers of housing units in the east, the significant number of new luxury units under construction and a steady return of damaged smaller units to the market will bring about a significant reduction in average rents in the next 12 months.

Mark Folse said...

Curious how any of these anonymous commenters (or anyone else) would help me differentiate this from the policies put in place by St. Bernard Parish to quash rental housing. And we all know how well that was received.

Puddinhead said...

"Curious how any of these anonymous commenters (or anyone else) would help me differentiate this from the policies put in place by St. Bernard Parish to quash rental housing."

I'm only semi-anonymous, but I'll take a shot. In St. Bernard the parish government in an attempt to "ensure that the nature of St. Bernard Parish not be changed for the worst" attempted by ordinance to prevent individual homeowners of single-family dwellings from renting their properties to any other than "blood" relatives. You can speculate as to any thinly-veiled motives. I work down here every day; I don't think much speculation is really necessary.

In the New Orleans East situation a problem had clearly already existed (definately in the minds of New Orleans East homeowners, anyway) prior to Katrina in the sheer volume and density of apartment complexes that had been converted over to subsidized housing and then subsequently essentially abandoned by their individual managements. Many would blame the lack of market rate interest in these complexes on the oil crunch of the 80s, but I would contend that demand for apartments in NO East (again, at market rates) was already flagging in the 70s, in response as much to the increasing African-American presence in the complexes as anything else. White flight doesn't only work with homeowners in neighborhoods; if an apartment complex becomes known as a "black" complex many white renters will avoid it entirely. With the "white segment" of the renter population now headed to Metairie, Slidell, etc., the owners of the NO East complexes really didn't have a lot of choice BUT to begin to dip into the subsidized housing market. They were sitting with huge complexes with no demand for their apartments at market values. What the complexes evolved into once this became the "norm" for NO East apartments was a bastard child with plenty of neglectful parents, unfortunately. It wasn't anything close to what had been planned for the locations at the time the complexes were built...but, there they were.

Fast forward to post-Katrina, and the apartment complexes are empty...many rendered uninhabitable. Several were eventually razed. As the complexes sat beside the interstate mostly abandoned, many of the neighborhoods beyond the interstate were being repopulated as much as in many other NOLA neighborhoods people came home to sink their sweat and money into their own home.

When word became known that a development (Levy Gardens) that had originally been presented to the people of NO East as a mixed-income, mostly-single-family-dwelling project had somehow morphed into an all apartment, all subsidized housing developement, many of the homeowners' groups clamored for some say-so in the planning for the redevelopment of their part of the city. Initially, at least, the response from the rest of the city was to tell them that they should essentially just can it, because they're just New Orleans East. Why should they have the same input on their area's development that someone in, say, Broadmoor or Mid-City would expect to have?

Anonymous said...

Re Folse:
The St. Bernard "blood rental" law as, as councilman Lynn Dean said (see The Nation, Lizzy Ratner story), was intended to keep the Parish white. Obviously black homeowners in the East are not trying to keep out blacks. So one action was racist, the other not. That's a pretty clear difference. Are middle class in the East trying to keep out their disproportiate share of the poor? Sure.
By the way, you can't see the river from Coliseum Square, and it was that neighborhood assoication that blocked the VOA project. We already have high rises on the river like saulet and the river front is the only above-sea level land to build subsidized and affordable hoursing. Why drive out the poor so yuppies can run their dogs along the river?

celcus said...

I understand that Monkey hill might qualify as a "mountain" in New Orleansians minds, but the three story Saulet is not a highrise.

The only highrises on the riverfront between the CBD and riverbend are the two condo's by the zoo and Lambeth house, with One River place by the Riverwalk and just about in the CBD.

The neighborhoods along the river have been remarkably consistent in opposing all forms of highrises, no mater what market they are intended for. But I understand that when the words "low income" are attached to a project it is rendered above all reproach.

Puddinhead said...

By the way....did James Perry really say that "he doesn't buy that multi-family housing causes concentrations of poverty"??? Please tell me that's not an accurate quote from a guy who wants to be mayor...

I can confidently say that I have NEVER heard anyone say that "multi-family housing causes concentrations of poverty". I HAVE heard a whole lot of people say that the "concentrating of poverty into huge multi-family housing situations often leads to a proliferation of societal ills" that are easier addressed when not so concentrated. But some others think "warehousing" is a cool concept.

Also by the way...Levy Gardens isn't "controversial" because "it is a multifamily, mixed-income development". It's controversial because it was initially pitched to the community and brought before the city's planning community as a "mixed income, multi- and single-family development". After receiving at least begrudging acceptance from the community and getting all of the necessary OK's from the City, the development suddenly "lost" it's single-family and market-rate components, and became an entirely multi-family, entirely subsidized rent development. The developers knew they'd never gain community acceptance with an above-the-board, honest approach, and therefore used the same-ol', same-ol' New Orleans back door route. I'm dissappointed that darling-of-the-progressives Perry would hitch his wagon so soon to the "by any means necessary" engine...

Anonymous said...

In December 2007, nearly a full year before it was "officially" selected as the "preferred" location for the new LSU/VA medical complexes, the footprint bounded by Canal,Tulane, Claiborne and Rocheblave had its hands tied by ordinance 22,944 m.c.s. Endorsed unanimously by the full City Council, 22,944 decreed that no building permits were to be issued within that area.

Puddinhead said...

"In December 2007, nearly a full year before it was "officially" selected as the "preferred" location for the new LSU/VA medical complexes, the footprint bounded by Canal,Tulane, Claiborne and Rocheblave had its hands tied by ordinance 22,944 m.c.s. Endorsed unanimously by the full City Council, 22,944 decreed that no building permits were to be issued within that area."

Which has nothing to do with the parcel being largely composed of isolated occupied residences sprinkled among vacant lots, abandoned businesses, and vacant and unlivable structures long BEFORE Katrina rolled through....