Thursday, March 8, 2007

New Orleans Public Housing

I've decided to put together a well thought out take on the public housing situation in the city. It's be a major source of debate in the city.

Before I get started, I'd like to put forward MY definition of two important terms:

Affordable Housing- Housing for families of semi-skilled workers. Focus on home ownership or reasonable (but not subsidized) rent. Think about a Pre-Katrina $500 rental or a $100,000-175,000 Pre-Katrina home. The majority of Lakeview, St. Bernard Parish, and parts of New Orleans East fit this model.

Low Income Housing- Very cheap homes, majority are rental in the $100 a month range. Almost always subsidized in some fashion. All of the public housing stock (except for River Gardens) fits this model.

Public Housing stock- A term of convenience I'll use for the two or when it's not clear which is being effected.

I don't know what the industry terminology is, but this is what I'll use. I think establishing these two terms is incredibly important to any discussion of public housing.

The debate thus far has been extremely heated all around.

On the anti-public housing side, there have been moves by St. Bernard Parish, Jefferson Parish, St. Tammany Parish, and even New Orleans East to drastically restrict public housing stock.

The suburban Parishes are BLATANTLY saying, "Keep it in New Orleans." Let's be clear, this isn't something where people are saying NIMBY when it's actually safe, like say a nuclear power plant. Both blacks and whites have a serious NIMBY-thing going on. There are very real reasons not to want public housing near you. Homes are generally the largest investment a person will make in their lifetime. Part of appraisals take into account the value of nearby homes, so the price of your largest investment goes down. Crime is a factor. Just look at the Pre-Katrina crime near the old public housing sites depicted in this map. You've got numerous other side issues like how unfair it is for these people to get free utilities while we're paying utility bills that are close to house notes. There are plenty of perfectly legitimate arguments in the anti-public housing camp. Also, dare I say this, but the majority of the residents of New Orleans, white and black, are opposed to reopening public housing (at least in its old form) and we live in a democracy. Majority rules.

In the pro-public housing camp, you've got the huge housing crisis in the city. There's been an explosion in the homeless population. I work in the Lower Garden District and live in the French Quarter. Both areas have seen a huge boom in the homeless population. I can personally attest to that fact.

It's also wasteful to tear down structurally solid housing in a hurricane-vulnerable city. I've heard a little bit about the construction methods used in the homes, but don't have a full set of data. From personal familiarity of construction from the same era (the Huey Long Bridge) I have no reason to doubt these claims. In fact, I have a strong feeling figure HUD released for the cost of demolition is a low end figure. I suspect the oldest units are built like bomb shelters and will be quite expensive to tear down. There are other reasons, but I don't have the time to write a book right now. I'll just blow you in the direction of one of their websites.

So, what to do, what to do?

Step 1- Both sides need to stop and take a deep breath. There's been a lot of hot air generated with little accomplished. Let's create solutions and not waste oxygen.

Step 2- Tear down the newest projects. These were built in the late 70's and were notorious for substandard construction methods and outright fraud. These were some of the high rise type towers that you used to be able to see near Simon Boliver. There were kickbacks on kickbacks on kickbacks when these were under construction. They've got to come down. Fortunately, there isn't much dissent on that issue and it's already nearly complete.

2- I think the loss of affordable housing is incredibly detrimental to the long term future of the city. The focus should be on affordable housing first and foremost. This would be the housing for the construction workers, nurses, tradesmen, and other semi-skilled workers that are vital to the recovery of the city.

How about an out of the box solution? "The Bricks" haven't been renovated in over 60 years. No matter what happens, they need extensive renovation just to bring them up to fire code. How about spending a little more money to make them really nice and sell them. I'm not the first one to come up with this idea. I'll bet if the renovations are nice enough, there's good landscaping and marketing, the city will actually be able to turn a modest profit on the project. I propose these units be approximately equal in cost to the Habitat for Humanity homes and be run in a similar model. Habitat for Humanity, while not reaching the poorest of the poor, has been extremely successful in helping 'teach people how to fish, instead of just giving out fish.' Less than 2% of Habitat homes suffer foreclosure.

3a- There could be a certain percentage of the larger complexes reopened. One possibility would be to decentralize the unit by simply moving them. It would be challenging, but it's technically feasible. Whatever profit the city gets from selling the Bricks could be plowed back into these homes. I refuse to accept the number of new low income housing units should be equal to the number Pre-K. I propose that the number be capped. I propose to somehow equate this cap with the funding for social services available to the residents. I strongly believe that some basic medical services (like a nurse on duty) and social services (like child care) must be included in the reopening. Tie the number of units reopened to funding for these services, that way nobody is completely "stuck" at the bottom. Also, shake surrounding parishes down for money. They'll gladly contribute some money if it means keeping poor people out of their neighborhood. If not, threaten to build a HUGE Cabrini-Green type public housing block right on the parish line. That'll get them to kick money into the pot.

3b- Partial opening in NO East. Sorry, but there's so much housing stock nearing completion that it just can't be ignored. Thousands and thousands of units... At least some of them must be reopened. No where else in the city can you reopen so many units in such a short period of time at equal quality of the units that are about to be finished. Might I suggest screenings for those with outstanding warrants/violent criminal backgrounds, like, say this guy. There is a criminal element that's quietly hoping the projects are reopened to strengthen their "business." Let's institute some basic checks in the process.

4- Something interesting with squatters rights. This will help out those at the lowest rung in society. We've got a lot of abandoned buildings and I bet we could come up with something interesting. Unfortunately, Squatters Rights/Adverse Possession is a tricky legal area in which I hold no expertise. I've got to differ to the legal minds out there. Someone want to take a stab at it?

Some people are going to complain that what I'm proposing is unfair. Yes, it is. But guess what, we've got bigger problems right now and worrying about public housing is, at best, a secondary issue.


Clay said...

That took a long time to write. Whew.

Adrastos said...

It was really good, Clay. I agree with at least 85% of it too. The British have had a pretty successful experience with fixing up council housing (their term for public housing) and selling them to the working poor and just plain working folks.

Leigh C. said...

Every time I see all those houses just sitting there, I think along your same lines.

Clay said...

What's the 85% you like? What's the 15% you don't like. Got any other ideas?

Adrastos said...

I was more or less spitballing. I took another look and didn't find much to disagree with. I'd prefer to see the bricks that are habitable preserved and used in a different fashion. I hesitate to use the term mixed income because it's such a buzzword.

Clay said...

...Which is part of the reason why I didn't touch the term "Mixed Income"