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The tenant skipped out before the end of the month. New Orleans landlord Donald Vallee wasn’t too surprised. He’d seen it before — and in post-Katrina, recession-era New Orleans, he’d seen it quite frequently. This time around, the tenant left behind a $643 per-month three-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot townhouse in eastern New Orleans. “It was a reasonable rent for the unit, but still [the tenant] couldn’t afford it,” says Vallee, the former president of the New Orleans Landlords Association,  a member of the Road Home  Corporation Board of Directors and an outspoken player in the increasingly heated debate over the construction of new affordable housing.

A reasonable rent. The term is one that means increasingly little in today’s New Orleans, a place of $850 Central City one-bedrooms and $700 St. Roch — or should I say New Marigny– shotguns. Vallee wants to change that. The question is how.

Last month, Vallee, who was nominated for the Road Home Board by Speaker of the House Rep. Jim Tucker (R-Algiers),  called on members of the State Bond Commission to temporarily halt the development of new, subsidized affordable housing by putting a moratorium on the approval of new bonds. Vallee called the city’s rental market “overbuilt” and requested that a comprehensive study of the housing market be completed before approving any new bonds,  sentiments echoed by Tucker.  “It is a misnomer that we need more affordable housing. There is tremendous vacancy in the region. What we need is to look at the entire community and identify the needs before we continue to build stock that won’t be absorbed,” he said. Following the push  from Speaker Tucker, the moratorium was approved.

Yet while the halt on affordable housing has gained favor among those who oppose new housing for the poor, Vallee approached The Lens with a more nuanced question: How do we make the housing that already exists affordable enough for people to live in?

“People are doubling up.We are going to see more homelessness,” he said. “I am not saying leave [ the housing market] alone and let the economy take care of it, but throwing more product or housing at it is not the solution.”

Then what is? Vallee advocates for a WPA-like solution wherein the federal government would subsidize job-generating public works projects.  In his view, the incomes created by the new jobs could help cover rent costs, solving one piece of the housing puzzle. “We have to give people an opportunity to take pride in what they do and how they live,” he said.    The approach, however, looks none too likely to take hold in Louisiana given Gov. Jindal’s aversion to President Obama’s public work project-y stimulus package.  Plus, if there is any takeaway from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka “the stimulus”), it may be that throwing money at industries and expecting them to create jobs doesn’t work quite as smoothly as Vallee wants.

There are no hard numbers on how many people in Orleans Parish have been evicted or made homeless in the last year, but statistics gathered by Unity, a homeless outreach and advocacy organization, point to upwards of 11,000 individuals living on the street or in abandoned houses.  Of those New Orleans residents who do rent homes, nearly 40 percent are classified according to federal standards as “low-income.”   Of these, another 41 percent spend a majority of their earnings keeping a roof over their head,  according to the Greater New Orleans Data Center report released yesterday.  The price of that stretched-thin wallet?

It’s impossible to fully quantify the impact of having a large transient population on a community. Housing advocates say that frequent moving often leads to poor school performance because of frequent school changes and higher healthcare costs.

“My clients like to say they live pillar to post,” Southeast Louisiana Legal Services housing attorney Alice Riener told the Lens yesterday. ” They don’t often have a real place to stay.  It causes enormous mental and physical stress  and you can see the impact of that stress.”

Research backs up the anecdotal evidence. According to a 2004 report by the San Francisco Department of Public Health,  there is a direct link between a lack of of affordable housing and inadaquate nutrition, especially among children. The report goes on to mention a study  demonstrating increased child growth among low-income children receiving housing subsidies compared with children whose families were on a subsidy waiting list, citing it as further evidence of a relationship between hunger and insecure housing. A decade before the city of San Francisco released its research on public health cost of  unaffordable housing, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report exploring the impact of on frequent school changes on education.  The conclusion? Kids who move more often are “more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school than nonmobile children,” the report stated. The GAO also found that children who switch schools frequently “are more likely to have behavioral, nutritional, and health or hygiene problems.”

That point is one that can’t be overlooked in the current debate, says Riener.  Yesterday the advocate attorney advised a single mother who is facing eviction with her three daughters, one of whom is nine months pregnant. The family, which pays their rent with federal housing vouchers, expects to be forced out of their uptown apartment on Monday. They are being evicted because the apartment did not pass an inspection required for all housing paid for with federal vouchers, meaning that the house failed to meet the standards of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Doctors have told the woman  that her daughter is likely to go into labor on Sunday.

The question left hanging in the air: Who will pay the tab on another night in the hospital or a shelter when the newborn baby and her mother have no home to return to Monday night?

–Ariella Cohen

Photo by: Alysha Jordan, http://www.flickr.com/photos/neworleanslady/1424661703/in/set-72157602116287478/