Last February Barack Obama tweeted a recommendation for Connor Dougherty’s brilliant new book, “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.” As an affordable housing advocate and developer (and fan of Mr. Obama’s Spotify playlists), I was eager to consider his recommendation. It did not disappoint.
Seen through the lens of the housing crises in the Bay Area, “Golden Gates” provides lessons for any city, like New Orleans, that is struggling with housing affordability.
While at first it might seem like the tech-fueled housing crunch in San Francisco has little to do with a local fight over shared accommodations for college students in Carrollton, the latter is actually an instructive example of land use battles being fought nationwide.
Like so many land use disputes, “parking,” “character of the neighborhood,” and calls to maintain “historic fabric” are proxies for, “Let’s keep real estate values up by keeping those other people out.”
The primary scofflaw in the so-called “Doubles to Dorms” controversy, where modest homes are being transformed into shared housing for college students, is unsympathetic. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a less sympathetic developer (and that is saying something in a city where one of our most well-known developers recently had a building collapse and kill 3 people.)
These guys are from out of state, backed by Wall Street, and their primary market is university students who generally aren’t from here. These developers snapped up modest homes and added bedrooms to the point where the massing and scale of the finished project is out of scale with that of the surrounding homes.
The problem is that most of the time, shared housing is not for, say, a Loyola law student. Most of the time, shared housing is a naturally affordable housing option for those unable to afford a single-family home in a majority white, affluent neighborhood like Carrollton. Legislative “fixes” like requiring a parking space for each bedroom, as Carrollton has done, or enforcing caps on the number of unrelated people who may live together, serve to increase housing inequity and unaffordability.
Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute in Seattle said this of similar restrictions in Washington State: “They exclude from neighborhoods the kinds of people who would need to share housing with more roommates in order to afford the rent: people who are not members of middle- and upper-class families; people who are students and therefore lack money; people who have recently immigrated and are still climbing up from the bottom of the wage ladder; people who, for whatever other reason, are poor.”
To argue that restrictive caps on shared housing in white, affluent neighborhoods near Tulane are necessary but maybe not so necessary in poorer, Black neighborhoods in Central City is racist and wrong.
Like most debates that are fundamentally about density, on one side are well-meaning neighborhood “protectors” who see themselves as defenders of the ever-subjective “character” of the neighborhood and as final arbiters of what is and is not “appropriate.” On the other side is anyone who advocates for more density.
Never do neighborhood protectors see themselves as hypocrites. “I’m not opposed to affordable housing,” they say, “I’m just opposed to this monstrosity.” “I’m not against all new construction,” they say. “This is just out of character.”
After all, I couldn’t be making the problem worse — I voted for Biden!
Citizens who are in wholehearted agreement that that we should look at disparate impact and not just disparate intent on matters of employment discrimination or voting rights never seem to seem to hold a mirror to themselves when arguing over land use. It’s time they start.
Which is why one of the biggest takeaways in Dougherty’s book is that in order to combat climate change and provide equity in housing, the change required will have to be sociological, not just legal.
“People have to realize that homelessness is connected to housing prices,” he writes. “They have to accept it’s hypocritical to say that you don’t like density but are worried about climate change.”
Every NIMBY who ever took to the lectern at a planning meeting or thumb-typed an anonymous comment on a Nola.com article had a good reason right before they said, in effect, “Not In My Back Yard.”
Speaking of his own friends who march for social justice while at the same time fighting to the death to restrict growth or allow low-income housing, one commenter to a New York Times story by Mr. Dougherty had this to say: “I don’t know how the cognitive dissonance doesn’t make their heads explode.”
We cannot have an equitable, economically sustainable city if the backbone of the workforce cannot afford to live near where they work. When a Black hotel porter has to move from his shotgun single in the 7th Ward to a less expensive apartment in Kenner, his new two-hour bus commute results in loss of productivity in our economy. When the neighborhood he leaves becomes more affluent, white, and homogenous, the negative cultural impact is real. The most vibrant neighborhoods are rich in racial and socioeconomic diversity.
For Carrollton there is a fix: Creating a full-control HDLC district would regulate the massing and scale of the architecture while encouraging increased opportunities for housing.
Inclusionary zoning, government intervention in the form of housing vouchers, and increased minimum wages can and should be part of the solution. They are necessary tools in the beloved “toolbox” that housing advocates and policy wonks are so fond of.
But we have to recognize that this is only part of the solution. Our elected officials need to consider the interests of people who will live there and not just the interests of people who live next door. Those of us who belong to neighborhood organizations need to do a gut check any time we advocate to protect the character of our neighborhood in a way that keeps poorer, darker-skinned New Orleanians out.
We need to recognize that if we truly want to combat climate change, if we truly want to create more housing equity, it will have an impact on our block and our neighborhood. We have to make room.
The renowned YIMBY (“Yes in My Back Yard”) activist Sonja Trauss said her goals are not to enact any particular housing policy but to alter social mores. She wants those who fight new development to be seen not as stewards of good taste, but rather as selfish hoarders. That is a bit harsh. But it is time for the most well intentioned among us to stop saying, “Density for thee and not for me.”
Neal Morris is an activist, real estate developer, and resident of Uptown. He received his B.A., M.B.A., and J.D., from Tulane University. In 2009 he was named a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University where his primary focus was on housing policy.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.