Bywater affordable housing development takes a big step forward

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Michael Isaac Stein

The lot where the proposed Bywater affordable housing development would be is currently open green space.

On Thursday, the New Orleans City Council approved a zoning change that would allow the Housing Authority of New Orleans to move forward with a housing development in Bywater that would provide 82 affordable housing units.

The proposed four-story building would take up an entire city block bordered by Chartres Street, France Avenue, Mazant Street, and Royal Street. The land is owned by HANO, but the development would be constructed and managed by ITEX Group, a Houston-based private development firm.

The developer wants to subsidize the affordable housing units with a variety of government funding mechanisms, including low-income housing tax credits and HANO’s project-based voucher program.

At Thursday’s meeting, the council also passed a motion that initiates a “planned development process” that gives the council much tighter control over the project’s details. It directs the City Planning Commission to hold a public hearing and publish a report on whether the development is compatible with the neighborhood’s character. The commission will have to consider the development’s architecture and the effect the building will have on green space, storm-water management, and public transportation.

The proposed development has been in the works for over three years, but it grew contentious in recent months and nearly fell apart in the last couple weeks.

A last-minute proposal by Councilwoman Kristin Palmer lowered the maximum number of units allowed on the site and gave the council more control over the final design. It sailed through with a unanimous vote. Councilman Joe Giarrusso was not present.

Proponents argue that the project is vital not only to address the city’s overall affordable housing crisis, but to try to tackle the rapid demographic and affordability changes in Bywater specifically. According to the Data Center, 61 percent of Bywater residents were black in 2000. Taking the five year average from 2013 to 2017, that number dropped to just 25 percent. In that same time period, the average household income in Bywater rose from about $39,000 a year to more than $64,000.

“Part of this work is ensuring that elected officials understand that they must meet obligations to address and remediate segregation,” said Cashauna Hill, the Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “This has been a very long road… This road needs to lead to approval and completion of this project so that working class and African-American families can again have access to the Bywater neighborhood.”

The building still has a ways to go until it gets the final green light. But if the city follows through on the current proposal, the new development would have 136 units, 54 of which would be rented at market rate. The rest would be reserved for low-income residents.

In March, the City Planning Commission recommended the zoning change that would allow the development, finding that it would have “a substantial public benefit providing long-term affordable housing.”

But not everyone sees it that way. A coalition of Bywater residents under the banner of Neighborhoods First for Bywater has put up a staunch opposition. They argued that the large structure would stick out like a sore thumb in a neighborhood dominated by single and double family homes.

Opponents have also raised concerns about the impact on the community as well as the residents of the new development. They argue that the development would isolate the lower-income residents from the rest of the community, creating an intra-community division. They have also raised concerns about higher crime rates.

In a recent op-ed on The Lens, Bywater resident Frederick Starr said that residents “fear that HANO’s megastructure will turn out to be an isolating ghetto.”

Affordable housing advocates have charged the project’s opponents with racial animus and “NIMBYism,” a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude. At Thursday’s meeting, Councilman Jay Banks raised concerns about some of the language used by opponents.

“This discussion has been very enlightening and I’ve been taken aback,” he says. “Affordable housing is by no means a dirty word… And I guess I’m a little concerned about some of the comments. I’m hoping and praying that at some point we get past that kind of belief.”

The fate of the development was thrown into doubt on May 14, when Councilwoman Kristin Palmer sent a letter to the Executive Director of HANO stating her opposition to the zoning change. She said that while she supported the construction of affordable housing units, she was concerned about the density on the site. Palmer represents District C, where the development would be.

Meanwhile, the council was up against a deadline. If it did not vote on the issue this week, the zoning docket would have expired, essentially killing the project and sending HANO back to square one.

But a last minute compromise, announced by Palmer late Wednesday evening, saved it.

The Compromise

The issue at hand at Thursday’s meeting was about the property’s zoning. It was one of many obstacles that HANO and ITEX has to clear before they can start laying bricks. It does represent a major step forward, however.

Before Thursday’s vote, the land was split between two zoning designations — Historic Marigny/Tremé/Bywater Commercial District (HMC-2) and Historic Marigny/Tremé/Bywater Residential District (HMR-3).

The HMR-3 zoning was the main impediment. That designation only allows for smaller residential buildings with four units or less. The City Planning Commission suggested that to deal with that zoning constraint, the entire property should be changed to a Historic Marigny/Tremé/Bywater Mixed-Use District (HM-MU).

According to Palmer, that would allow 189 units on the site, well above the proposed development’s 136 units. Palmer raised concerns that this would leave room for ITEX, the private developer, to change course and build an even bigger building.

The compromise that was approved on Thursday modified the City Planning Commission’s recommendations. Instead of changing the entire property to an HM-MU district, the portion that is currently zoned as a HMC-2 district would remain the same. The portion zoned HMR-3 would be changed to a Historic Marigny/Tremé/Bywater Commercial District (HMC-1).

These changes allow 143 total units, Palmer said. A representative from ITEX, Will Moyers, told The Lens that the company doesn’t expect the last minute changes to prevent any part of the development as currently planned.

While Palmer endorsed the zoning change, she said there were still areas of concern with the overall development. To deal with those remaining questions, the council passed a motion that will allow it to add provisos that would put certain conditions on the project, such as a height limit and the mandatory addition of a covered bus stop.

“I’m also highly concerned that affordable housing developments like this try to skimp things like design and basic amenities that can make improvements for livability,” she said. “I believe it is this uncertainty combined with past issues involving the housing authority and an out-of-state developer that has contributed to resistance to this project.”

Hill was glad to see the project move forward, but is worried that the planned development process could be used by opponents to stall the project.

“GNO fair housing will want to ensure that this planning development process doesn’t threaten the financing already in place, that any continuing opposition from residents doesn’t derail the process, and that the agencies who have final design approval make that decision in good faith,” she said.

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