(Photo by Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

In 2016, then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu adopted a five-year housing plan featuring a commitment to “build or preserve” 7,500 affordable housing units by the end of 2020. But with the deadline right around the corner, the city won’t come close to meeting that goal. 

In fact, the city lost 351 affordable housing units in just the last six months, and 671 over the last two and half years. 

That’s according to a new semi-annual data report from HousingNOLA, an affordable housing advocacy non-profit. HousingNOLA issues comprehensive annual report cards on the city’s progress battling the city’s affordable housing crisis, as well as semi-annual data reports to give people an idea of what to expect when the full report comes in the fall.

“Yesterday we learned that African Americans make up 70% of the coronavirus deaths in Louisiana,” said a Tuesday press release from HousingNOLA. “There is also a striking disparity when it comes to race and affordable housing in New Orleans. African Americans have experienced an increase in housing insecurity, both from declining rates of home ownership and increasing cost burden rates for renters. These economic factors can’t help but have contributed to the disproportionate number of African Americans who have been struck by COVID-19.”

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards has temporarily suspended all evictions and foreclosures in the state. Morris said that while that was a good step, some renters are still slipping through the cracks and being kicked out. And, she said, much more assistance will be necessary to stabilize residents not only through the coronavirus health crisis, but the economic crisis that will follow.

The report calls for federal, state and local governments to work to provide rental and utility bill assistance, put families eligible for Section 8 housing vouchers into vacant homes, defer mortgage payments until the end of the loan and establish a dedicated revenue stream for the state’s housing trust fund

Andreanecia Morris, executive director of Housing NOLA, told The Lens that while the news was bleak, it was also expected.

“This is the moment that we have unfortunately been predicting with these reports,” Andreanicia Morris, executive director of Housing NOLA, told The Lens. “We were headed for a disaster and the disaster has arrived right on schedule.”

Previous report cards from the group also showed net losses in affordable housing units in the city. But the erosion over the last six months exceeded the losses from the preceding two years, signaling an accelerated decline. 

“This is the snapshot of what everyone was living with on March 1. This was housing insecurity running rampant for homeowners and renters that COVID-19 exploded into,” Morris said. “What we’re looking at is people being on their knees not being able to recover even when we get out of this pandemic.”

Morris pointed to a number of reasons the city is losing units, including issues at the Housing Authority of New Orleans, an explosion in short-term rentals and this year’s controversial property tax assessments. But she said the issue is much more deep-seated than that, and derives from a long-term lack of attention, urgency and funding by state and local governments.

“We’ve got the perfect storm here. The 2020 assessment, on top of years of bad policy, our leaders not putting housing first and then a pandemic that requires that people have housing,” she said.

Landrieu’s 2016 commitment was to add or preserve 1,500 units a year on average for five years. Morris said HousingNOLA includes investments to preserve units depending on the longevity of the investment. A one-time rental assistance payment, for example, would not qualify. 

The city got close to its annual 1,500-unit goal in the first year of the five-year plan with 1,439 new units, according to the HousingNOLA report. The next year the city only added 488. 

“At that point we knew we were in trouble,” Morris said. 

Since then, the city has bled units. Over the past two and half years, according to HousingNOLA, the city has lost 671 units, leaving a net 1,274 new affordable housing units since the genesis of the city’s five-year housing plan in 2016. 

“We’re pretty unambiguous about the fact that this is a horrible situation,” Morris said. 

The biggest reason for the losses is the shrinking number of utilized Section 8 housing vouchers. There were 413 fewer housing vouchers being utilized on March 1 than six months earlier, according to the report. 

But that isn’t because there were fewer vouchers available, however. HANO has 18,054 available vouchers, according to Morris, but only 17,012 were utilized, down from 17,425 six months ago. It’s not that the demand isn’t there either, Morris says. Rather, those losses are due to mistakes by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which manages the voucher program for the city.

“HANO’s been taking us negative for the last two and a half years. They have obliterated any positive progress,” she said. “The issue with inspections has been a big problem. We think that’s the biggest part of this.”

Section 8 vouchers are tied to specific housing units, Morris says, and it’s HANO’s responsibility to inspect those units, forcing prospective renters to wait to take occupancy of homes. Last year, an internal review found that HANO was only inspecting roughly half of what it was supposed to every day. In September, HANO decided to outsource the entire inspection process to a private firm for roughly $1 million a year. 

HANO spokeswoman Lesley Thomas defended the agency’s record on getting residents into Section 8 housing. In an email to The Lens, she said that local housing agencies are allocated a certain amount of Congressionally approved funding each year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to subsidize rent for tenants participating in the program.

“According to HUD, a Public Housing Authority’s utilization is measured by the percentage of funds allocated divided by funds spent,” or the number of vouchers divided by the amount allocated, Thomas wrote. “It is important to note that the Agency’s budget authority for 2019 totaled $158 million and its corresponding spending utilization was over 100% for the calendar year.”

Morris said she wasn’t surprised by the loss of overall units. But she was caught off-guard by a different statistic included in the report: the number of vacant homes in the city.

According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, New Orleans had an average 37,702 vacant housing units at any one time from 2014 to 2018. Over half of those are categorized as “other vacancies,” which includes blighted homes. However, the more telling number for Morris is the 7,360 vacant units that are actually on the rental market.

“That we had 7,300 apartments that are occupiable is breathtaking. I knew we had a lot, I did not know it was that many,” she said. “This isn’t a market that we can tweak. These aren’t systems that need a little patience. These systems need to be massively retooled, because they are broken.”

This story was updated after publication to include a comment from HANO.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...