Amid a pandemic that has deepened economic hardships for thousands of New Orleanians, city leaders have come up short in their goals to build affordable housing, according to a new report from affordable-housing advocates.
Advocacy group HousingNOLA gave the city’s progress toward creating 7,500 affordable housing opportunities in 2020 a failing grade in a report out this week, saying the various agencies working on that problem have so far created only about 1,500 affordable homes.
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It’s the worst grade the group has assigned to public agencies charged with creating affordable housing since it began tracking government progress to relieve housing insecurity in New Orleans five years ago. Last year, the group awarded the agencies a D grade.
“This is not simply a COVID grade,” HousingNOLA Executive Director Andreanecia Morris said. Instead, the COVID-19 crisis and related economic restrictions have exacerbated the housing problems the city has long had, she said.
To improve that outlook, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration should move forward by January with incentive programs that encourage developers to build low-cost housing in high-income neighborhoods, the group said.
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The city should also earmark more funds for vulnerable populations in need of housing, such as essential workers earning minimum wage. And state lawmakers should authorize rental assistance payments for landlords, so tenants continue to be housed even if they have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and cannot afford to pay rent, the group said.
City officials did not respond to a request for comment on the report. But the city allocated more than $35 million this summer for housing initiatives amid coronavirus, and Cantrell on June 4 called such a step “essential to making our residents whole, and essential to getting our city through this crisis.”
HousingNOLA, an initiative formed in 2015 by dozens of local organizations to help guide New Orleans’ progress to build affordable housing over a decade, uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, city agencies and other sources to compile its reports.
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The housing opportunities the group counts in their tally don’t necessarily mean a brand-new home. They could also include homes where the city has provided new rent subsidies, or cases where it has provided utility assistance.
In earlier reports the group has said New Orleans needs roughly 33,600 more affordable opportunities by 2025 if it is to remedy a housing shortage caused in part by what critics argue has been a lack of state and federal housing investments since Hurricane Katrina. But this year’s report offers a revised estimate of nearly three times that amount.
The group said its new tally of 92,000 opportunities over that period uses updated Census estimates, and accounts for additional housing needs created by the pandemic. That means each year, the city must subsidize over 18,000 homes to keep pace.
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“Affordable” homes by the group’s definition are those where a person earning up to 80% of the area’s median income — roughly $39,450 per year in 2020 — can spend less than 30% of their gross income on the unit.
The group reviews the work of the city of New Orleans, the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the Finance Authority of New Orleans and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. It also takes aim at the efforts of the Louisiana Housing Corp. and the state Office of Community Development.
According to the new report, there was a net loss of housing opportunities for the third year in a row. The city had a loss of 31 affordable homes during the 12 months that ended in August.
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“We have actually lost ground, which has been a problem,” Morris said.
Morris’ group said the city should work more quickly to realize plans it has already created to mitigate the problem, such as rules aimed at encouraging developers to build low-cost housing in high-demand areas. Though the City Council passed that “smart housing mix” plan last year, it hasn’t been fully implemented.
New Orleans and the state also need to provide rental assistance for people who are struggling, the group said. Such programs offered by the city and state have quickly run out of funding. Cantrell has called for private donations to help bridge the gap.
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Amber Peterson, who lost her job at the Maison music club on Frenchmen Street amid coronavirus restrictions, said she hopes such help comes soon.
Peterson was one of the lucky few who received rental assistance for three months, thanks to a Louisiana Housing Corp. program that was so swamped with applications it had to shut down earlier this summer.
Before that help came, she was struggling to make an $800 a month rent payment with dwindling unemployment benefits.
“I miss my job. I loved my job,” she said. “And it’s hugely difficult to bear the financial burden of what’s happening.”