By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
Despite the demolition of the city’s four largest public housing developments, New Orleans has more subsidized housing for its poorest residents now than it had five years ago. But even after spending billions to tear down the old projects and issue vouchers to encourage low-income renters to settle in better neighborhoods, the Housing Authority of New Orleans continues to see these clients concentrated in the city’s poorest areas.
As of September, 1,841 occupied public housing units and 14,000 Housing Choice Vouchers were in use in the city, according to HANO. By the end of the year, another 3,000 vouchers will be made available – bringing the number of vouchers in the city to an all-time high – and 2,000 public housing units now under construction should be finished. That will be a total of 20,841 subsidized units.
Before Hurricane Katrina, HANO had 5,100 occupied housing-development units and 8,500 vouchers, for a total of 13,600 units.
The vouchers are meant not only to replace public housing units that were torn down after the storm, but to achieve federal housing goals of deconcentrating poor people, and integrating them into the rest of society, socioeconomically and racially.
Yet with even more government-subsidized housing than ever before, housing experts, residents and developers say those goals aren’t being met. They blame property owners who don’t maintain their properties or refuse to rent to Section 8 households and continuing failures in HANO’s bureaucracy for limiting residents’ choices. And in some cases, the residents themselves are thwarting the effort. That’s because, researchers say, they’re hesitant to leave areas where they’re comfortable and where they have strong social support networks.
“In theory, it was a good idea. Something had to change with public housing,” said Amanda Golob, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, a law clinic that provides free legal representation to low-income people. “In practice, it has not changed very much. Everyone is in the same neighborhoods. I see the same addresses, the same landlords over and over again.”
It is impossible to paint a complete portrait of the thousands of New Orleans families that pay their rent using vouchers because HANO won’t provide addresses of recipients, citing rules that protect their privacy. But using other data provided by the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the U.S. Census, certain patterns emerge. Here is a summary of findings:
- * The ZIP codes with the highest concentration of housing listed by HANO for rent specifically to Section 8 voucher holders are among the city’s most poor and least racially diverse. The two with the most are 70117, which includes the 9th Ward, and 70119, which includes the 7th Ward, Esplanade Ridge, parts of Mid-City and parts of Gentilly. Trailing these two areas is the 70122 ZIP code that includes the majority of Gentilly.
- * While a public perception exists that Section 8 housing is concentrated in eastern New Orleans, HANO does not advertise more units there than in any other part of the city. The advertised units that do exist there are dispersed across neighborhoods. In eastern New Orleans, the area with the highest concentration of units listed with HANO is the 70127 ZIP that includes the neighborhoods of Lake Forest East, Eastover and Donna Villa neighborhood. There, HANO lists 127 units, while the bordering 70128 area encompassing Edgelake/Little Woods and Lake Carmel has 85.
- * HANO’s list of voucher-friendly housing available is rife with outdated information. Out of a randomly selected sample of 10 listings now online, four units were no longer available, one landlord phone number didn’t work and four property owners did not call back. Only one landlord called back to say her unit was available.
- * The areas with the largest concentration of Section 8 units and the best access to public transportation, grocery stores and functioning parks are near former pubic housing sites.
- * Interviews with voucher recipients reveal that many feel their choices are limited because landlords in more affluent neighborhoods do not accept vouchers, and that recipients tend to look for housing in neighborhoods they are familiar with or have family or friends, which means that many move to areas with demographics similar to the community they left.
In response to recent demands from the City Council, HANO said it would create census-tract-level analysis of voucher use so policymakers could see whether Section 8 units are, in fact, clustered.
HANO spokesman David Jackson said recently that HANO is working to create such a map, but he could not say when it will be complete. Jackson did not respond to multiple requests for an interview made over the course of a month, or answer specific questions e-mailed to the authority more than a week ago.
Moving to Opportunity
After a year on a waiting list for a voucher followed by six weeks of house hunting, Kenda Brown, 24, moved to a new home in the east this week. Sitting in HANO’s office on a recent Friday, she told a reporter she felt blessed to finally have a decent place to rent with her $800-per-month subsidy. With one eye watching her son Kendall, 2, chase a shiny balloon around the fluorescent-lighted waiting room, she recalls growing up among the well-kept lawns and quiet driveways of the Lake Carmel subdivision off Bullard Drive.
“I wanted to find someplace like that, more middle class, like a place where you want your kids to grow up,” said Brown, who also has a 5-year-old son.
She said that the list of rental options that a HANO caseworker gave her was full of homes in “really bad neighborhoods.” She went another route and found her new house, a single-family home on a quiet block near Hayne Boulevard, on Craigslist.com.
“I was lucky,” she said.
Brown is not alone in her struggle to find decent housing through the voucher program. One of Golob’s clients recently showed her a loose-leaf notebook filled with addresses of apartments for rent and the phone numbers of potential landlords.
On page after page, addresses were crossed off, notations jotted in the margin. The notes said things like the apartment was taken or it doesn’t take voucher, or was in a bad neighborhood, Golob recalls.
“By now she’s ready to move into a place she’s never been inside,” Golob said.
Another client, a single mother, recently came to her for help filing paperwork to move after someone was shot outside of her voucher-subsidized apartment. After telling authorities how unsafe she felt, she was allowed to move without losing her voucher.
The new neighborhood, however, ended up not being much different than the one she fled, her lawyer said.
“It’s not the same block, but I don’t know if it is any safer or better for her,” Golob said.
By giving people the freedom to leave traditional public housing without losing government assistance, policymakers hoped to help families resettle in places with better schools, less crime and more access to economic opportunity. The approach is one that has gained traction nationally since 1992 when President Bill Clinton initiated the Hope VI program to transform public housing by building mixed-income communities in its place. Since 2006 alone, 196,000 public housing units have fallen to the wrecking ball nationally and more than 200,000 additional units are slated for demolition, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Studies show that people who move from public housing to more economically diverse areas see their socioeconomic station in life rise. But research also shows that Section 8 recipients tend to settle in neighborhoods facing many of the same problems as the areas they left.
In Atlanta, a large majority of residents who moved out of public housing during the past 15 years of redevelopment have settled in 10 of the city’s poorest ZIP codes, according to an analysis of housing authority data by the Atlanta’s alternative weekly, Creative Loafing.
“Most of the former residents end up within three miles of the original public housing development,” said Lesley Reid, an urban sociology professor at Georgia State University. “The level of segregation is about the same. The poverty rate is a little less but it is still considered a high poverty level.”
The income requirements and rent scale in public housing and in the Housing Choice Voucher Program are the same – a household cannot earn more than 50 percent of the area’s median income. In New Orleans, that’s $37,000 for a family of four. Each household puts no more than one-third of its income towards rent, with the housing authority paying the balance up to a limit based on the average rent in the area.
The tenant’s rent contribution is based on income, employment eligibility and number of children in the household. A typical voucher will provide families with roughly $500 to $800 per month, according HUD. In both Section 8 and traditional public housing, a tenant can end up paying anything from zero to $500 or $600 a month.
The main difference with a voucher is that tenants must pay their own utilities.
Yet even as millions of taxpayer dollars flow to New Orleans landlords, HUD audits confirm that HANO has failed to hold landlords accountable to federal standards meant to ensure that people are living in high-quality housing. In 2008 and 2009, eight out of 10 randomly assigned voucher households were living in units that did not meet program standards, according to HUD.
And even when units are up to snuff, the agency doesn’t have the paperwork to prove it a third of the time, according to an operational assessment of the authority done in February by HUD. In addition to doing a disservice to tenants who deserve to know their housing is safe and up to code, the delays cost landlords who cannot get paid until inspections are complete and records are in order.
“They are extremely disorganized,” said Natashia Paul, a property owner with two Section 8 units in Gentilly. “They’ll tell you they are coming in a certain four-hour window and that you have to wait there for four hours and then no one shows up.
“It takes three, four months to get the inspection done and every month that goes by is another month not getting your rental payment,” she said.
Last year, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center issued a study that found more than 60 percent of available Section 8 units are located in areas classified as “low opportunity,” based on indicators for education, the economy, housing, health and the environment.
The study placed blame on HANO, concluding that sloppy administration of the program has made landlords reluctant to participate in the program, unless, of course, it is the only option.
“We get the calls all the time from people who have vouchers and simply cannot find a landlord to rent from,” Perry said. “And in many case, the landlords, the ones that have decent units that they can rent on the open market, are saying they don’t want to deal with HANO”
Or in the words of Gentilly landlord Paul: “As bad as people need somewhere to stay, you are not making it easy for us to participate.”
A choice, but who is making it?
Patricia Claiborne grew up in the St. Bernard public housing development and left for a decade while she was married. However, she returned to public housing – first the Desire development and then Lafitte – after a divorce made it impossible for her to support herself and her three children.
Now she lives across the street from the redeveloped St. Bernard, now called Columbia Parc, in a tidy, carpeted two-bedroom house she rents with a voucher. On a recent Monday, she shrieked at the sight of a snake writhing through the tall grass covering an abandoned lot next door. While her landlord rebuilt after Katrina, not all property owners have come back or renovated. That relative desolation combined with such headaches as utility payments and lawn maintenance, which she didn’t have to deal with in public housing, are among her reasons for considering a return to public housing.
“I like the house,“ she said. “But the grass and all that, I never worried about grass cutting before. Private house. Private drive. Everything private. I like it here, but I may just go back.”
Glancing over at a muted television in the middle of her unadorned living room, she said that she thinks she’d rather be in Lafitte, even if it means living in a smaller apartment without relative luxuries, such as a washer and dryer, that she enjoys now.
“I’d rather be in the middle of everything,” she explained.
Claiborne’s logic is not unusual, said urban sociologist Reid.
“People who are poor don’t depend on incomes to get by,” she said. “They depend on social networks: the person that is taking them to grocery store, the auntie who is watching their child. If that is how you are surviving, you are going to move to be close to that community.
“When we started this, we expected the choice to be constrained,” Reid added. “But we expected the constraints to be structural. What we’ve found is that the situation is far more nuanced.”
Reid said that the experiences and desires of low-income people must be figured into the policymaking process in a deeper way, if cities want do more than simply relocate poverty.
“We need to be talking to the people that are affected by policy,” she said.
Changes at HANO
By all accounts, HANO knows the challenge it faces. Last week, the authority sent a letter alerting landlords enrolled in its Section 8 program that changes are being made to the program’s administration.
“It basically said that HANO is incompetent and they have a big job ahead,” landlord Eddie Sheppard said. “I laughed because HANO is one of the most dysfunctional operations I have seen, and I didn’t need a letter in the mail to tell me that.”
The question now is how to solve the problems that plague the authority even after nearly a decade under a federal takeover that has brought in directors appointed by Washington and intense auditing. Last fall, the White House sent in a new administrative receiver, David Gilmore. As HANO’s seventh director since HUD put the agency under receivership in 2002, Gilmore faces a massive challenge. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
An operational assessment of the authority done in February by HUD raised multiple questions about its ability to manage the voucher program. The assessment noted severe administrative shortcomings ranging from an overreliance on outside contractors to the fact that there were 12 unfilled positions in the department managing the program’s operations to poor bookkeeping.
The assessment also raised concerns about overall dissatisfaction of property owners such as Sheppard, who HANO relies on to make the Section 8 program work.
This “factor which negatively impacts HANO’s ability to attract and retain quality property owners to [the program] and inhibits voucher holders’ ability to find and secure decent housing,” the assessment notes.
When a reporter read the HUD observation to Sheppard, he chuckled knowingly. He’s been waiting since Oct. 1 to be paid rent on an occupied Section 8 unit in Gentilly, he said.
“The caseworker told me she had done everything to get me paid up, but when I went in there, I was told the caseworker had not even prepared the packet,” he said.
Another tenant had all of her paperwork put into another person’s file because they shared the same name.
“It was five, six months before I got paid,” he said.
When that study was released, Gilmore told The Times-Picayune that voucher program was “without question, broken.” He said then that if the report was accurate “then it is further evidence of the problems within the program and the need to correct them.”
HANO General Counsel Laura Tuggle said last month that the authority is completing a work plan that will address some of the concerns raised by Sheppard and the City Council, including increasing the agency’s ability to discipline landlords who do not properly maintain Section 8 units.
“I think we can strengthen our procedure if we get repeated complaints for an offender or an address,” she said. HANO did not respond to requests for more details on planned changes.
But James Perry said that deeper structural changes must be made if HANO wants to change the reality of families like the Browns. Perry advocates for lawmakers to pass legislation barring discrimination based on income or the source of income. The approach has worked in other cities struggling to give options to choice voucher families.
“The only cities that have seen success truly integrating Section 8 households into neighborhoods are cities with laws that allow someone to sue if a landlord discriminates against someone using a voucher,” he said.
Perry conceded, though, that most critical to bringing more landlords into the program and expanding options for renters is improving HANO.
“HANO has performed so poorly that in some respects it’s valid for a landlord to not want to accept vouchers,” he said. “If you don’t have a functioning housing authority, you can’t have a voucher program that desegregates poverty.”
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