(Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens) Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

American families and policy makers are simultaneously facing a public health crisis, criminal justice reform and global economic issues. National, state and local leaders need to look at using our tax dollars to make thoughtful investments in our cities and communities that address more than one societal need and contribute in multiple ways. Look no further than quality, affordable housing – something our city is severely lacking. 

The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance estimates that the City of New Orleans currently needs 33,000 additional affordable housing units. More than 60 percent of renters in the city are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Thirty-five percent are severely cost burdened, spending more than 50 percent on housing. It’s forcing more and more families who have lived in New Orleans for generations to move out of the city. Researchers tell us that New Orleans has lost 671 affordable housing units over the last several years. 

Stable housing is the strongest predictor or social determinant of good health, growing family wealth and increasing educational outcomes. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.  For housing advocates, this isn’t a new concept. There are decades of research and a continuously growing body of literature that affirms if a family has affordable, stable, good quality housing, it increases their chances of doing better in school, employment, and overall health.  

We’ve known this for a long time at Crescent City Community Land Trust (CCCLT). That’s why our vision for New Orleans is to help create a resident-led city where every New Orleanian can afford to live, work, and thrive in a community of their choice for generations to come. We pursue this vision through the community land trust model of affordable housing, which entails permanent affordability coupled with stewardship and community building.  

Government and academic research, along with common sense, illustrates that the use of our tax dollars for affordable housing promotes life stability. It is also an indirect, yet positive, investment in people’s education, employment, wealth development and health.

  • According to Voight, Shinn, & Nation, “Low income children who switch schools frequently due to housing instability or homelessness tend to perform less well in school, have learning disabilities and behavioral problems, and are less likely to graduate from high school.”
  • Carolina Reid states that, “…residents reported that the stability of rent payments allowed them to develop intentional strategies for employment and advancement.” 
  • And Thomas Kottke noted that, “Access to affordable housing promotes health and well-being and reduces hospital visits” 

It’s clear that making affordable housing more available will help people in numerous ways, but too many of our current efforts to create it have an expiration date. These efforts represent what we in the community land trust world call “temporary affordability.” 

Most affordable rental units in New Orleans are developed using a tax credit program that creates 15 to 30 years of affordability. For example, in 2017, after 15 years of taxpayer financed affordability, 50 low-to-moderate income families were kicked out of the American Can apartment building on Bayou St. John. As a result, New Orleans lost 50 affordable units that year, and the Bayou St. John neighborhood lost some of its socio-economic diversity and, likely, some racial diversity, given how closely linked income and race are in Louisiana. 

On the affordable homewonership front, single family homes purchased with taxpayer-funded soft second mortgages help families buy homes; move into areas they might not otherwise be able to afford; and grow a family’s wealth. Nonetheless, after the ten-year affordability compliance period ends with a soft second mortgage and/or after the that family sells the home, the affordability also goes away. We, as taxpayers, must then fund another soft second mortgage in order to maintain the total number of affordable units in our community. Assisting low-to-moderate income families in growing their wealth is an excellent reason for taxpayers to continue supporting the use of soft second mortgages. Taxpayers should also want more alternative, efficient and potentially permanent tools to create quality, affordable housing within the public policy toolbox.    

CCCLT’s mission is to ensure permanent affordability in housing and commercial spaces for generations to come through equitable residential and commercial development, land stewardship, and housing advocacy. Our single-family homes, such as the two we recently sold in the Lower 9th Ward, will remain affordable because the community land trust owns the land the homes sit on–leasing it in perpetuity to the family that buys the house. So, when that family sells the house, the land trust can maintain an affordable price even when surrounding property values rapidly increase. 

We sometimes refer to our single-family community land trust homes as “single family affordable condominiums” because, as we know, the condo owner does not own the building. They only own their part of the building. Similarly, by holding onto the land, the land trust is co-owner with the homeowner, keeping prices low for generations to come. The community land trust homeowner can gain wealth and more equity in their home over time while also helping to maintain the neighborhood’s affordability, just like in a traditional homeownership situation. When CCCLT acts as a co-developer, as we did with the Pythian building in downtown New Orleans, we enter into agreements that allow the land trust to offer permanently affordable rental units and stewardship or community building services for generations to come.

CCCLT’s model fosters community resilience through community building, stewardship and affordability. We also make certain that our developments are conceived with consideration of transit opportunities, energy efficiency and physical resilience, keeping in mind that we all face global climate change. 

The Pythian building is adjacent to the city’s main transit hub, and the building is designed to promote bicycle usage through the provision of 50 internal bicycle stations, a bike wash and shower facilities specifically for cyclists. Energy efficient features within the building mean that its utility usage is approximately half that of comparable structures. We are exploring the possibility of co-locating neighborhood scale water retention features, with input from researchers at MIT and Tulane University, in our single-family home developments where we share control of the land with our homeowners.  

On the multi-family and commercial front, Crescent City Community Land Trust is taking the community land trust model in new directions to better serve New Orleanians. We are identifying potential partners – families and small real estate investors – who own land or dilapidated structures in the gentrifying communities where we work, especially since available real estate is a precious and expensive commodity. 

We are offering our partners technical expertise, resources and capital to potentially develop new, permanently affordable community assets and amenities. Consequently, the community land trust model can become a wealth building strategy for a broader cross section of the community as well as the single-family home owner. 

Our first partner in this program is the Vaucresson family. They own a 120-year-old, African American business now in its fourth generation of making traditional Creole sausage. Their retail storefront, in the 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina. We are helping the Vaucressons re-establish their retail business in the place where the company was founded. We will also create two permanently affordable apartments above the renovated store, in addition to creating a new business for the community. Crescent City Community Land Trust is actively working around New Orleans to implement strategies that will slow and reverse growth in the racial wealth gap.

When city, state, and local governments spend public money on housing, they are also investing in employment, family wealth and public health. As taxpayers, we should want our decision makers to fund permanent affordability, coupled with stewardship, that will continue to benefit generations to come.

Julius Kimbrough, Jr. is the executive director of the Crescent City Community Land Trust. He is a native of New Orleans who has worked in community development and finance for many years, both locally and in cities across the country. Before joining CCCLT, he worked as a program officer, urban planner, economic research analyst and as an investment banker.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.