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

It’s no secret that in New Orleans, low-income renters are being squeezed out. New development simply hasn’t kept up with the need for housing that most working families can afford; and the Covid-19 pandemic has only made the problem worse. Federal rent relief provides crucial short-term aid to people facing eviction, but it doesn’t fix the underlying issue: Housing in New Orleans is too expensive for too many families. The vast majority of the city’s renters live in unsubsidized homes, which means there is no incentive to keep them affordable. Without action, they are vulnerable to the powerful forces threatening affordability in the city: gentrification, climate change, and zoning. We must take steps to address all three now!

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, inadequacies and delays in recovery aid left many who have lower-incomes and, in particular,  Black New Orleanians without the help to repair and rebuild their homes. Many had to abandon their properties or make the difficult decision to sell their homes to developers who repaired and flipped them, raising the selling prices dramatically in the process. This permanently eliminated housing options that were previously available to lower-income residents.

As the city and tourists started to come back, some owners realized the economic windfall that came with converting rental homes into short-term rentals. What was good for individual property owners, however, wreaked havoc on many New Orleans neighborhoods. Working-class communities located near the French Quarter and Central Business District that once had an ample supply of affordable rental homes have been on the front lines of this attack. Short-term rentals are restricting the housing supply and forcing many families to look elsewhere for affordable places to live. 

The mayor and City Council recognized this problem and have passed ordinances that restrict the ability to turn homes into short-term rentals. There are licensing requirements and provisions allowing short term rentals when owners reside on the property. But these rules are inconsistently applied. Enforcing the current codes is a necessary first step to preserving affordable homes.  

Climate change is also playing a role. Stronger and more frequent storms batter the Gulf Coast each year, and residents are fleeing the hardest-hit areas. Since Katrina, neighborhoods on higher ground, traditionally home to working-class and Black New Orleanians, have been the hottest properties on the market. Home prices in those neighborhoods are being driven up with no end in sight. High demand in lower-risk neighborhoods will be a reality for years to come. 

To preserve affordability in New Orleans, the city needs to prioritize local regulations that allow and provide incentives to produce housing types that meet the needs of a wide range of household incomes. New Orleans has always been home to many multi-family apartment buildings. But post-Katrina, downzoning decisions have all but forbidden their creation in certain neighborhoods — even where they had been allowed for decades. An analysis by Enterprise Community Partners and Tulane University found that the 2015 changes to the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance removed 1,500 acres of land across 13 neighborhoods from multifamily designation. To combat rising housing costs,

New Orleans must re-embrace the diversity of housing types that has always been part of the city’s residential fabric.

Fortunately, the City has made steps in the right direction. In 2019, Mayor LaToya Cantrell directed the City Planning Commission to propose changes to the zoning code that would expand the building types available to house New Orleanians of all incomes. The City Council passed zoning changes that removed prohibitions on bringing “established multifamily” properties back into commerce in downzoned areas; and it requires developers to set aside 10 percent of all units for affordable housing in high-rent neighborhoods. 

Future Planning Commission proposals, along with ballot measures to limit property tax increases and renew the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund, will offer solutions to preserve affordability. But these measures will only be successful with the will of the public.  In the coming days, months and years, New Orleanians will have opportunities during City Council meetings and in the voting booth to use their voices and electoral power to create a more equitable city.    

Losing affordability means New Orleans is at risk of losing the history, the culture and the people who have made it one of America’s most unique cities. Now is the time to shore up the city’s defenses to ensure that that loss does not happen. 

Michelle Whetten is the vice president and Gulf Coast market leader for Enterprise Community Partners.

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.