In the fall of 2019, staff at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center became aware of a proposed multifamily development on the site of 2256 Baronne St. The developers involved, in partnership with the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), intend to bring 20 affordable housing units for seniors to the Central City neighborhood, an area where low income renters are continuing to be displaced since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Neighborhoods like Central City have made New Orleans the 5th most rapidly gentrifying city in the U.S. Despite the steep need for affordable housing in this well-resourced area, a small but vocal minority of residents have impeded the development process.
The census tract where this development is planned has seen dramatic Black displacement in the last ten years. In 2010, it was 73% Black, but by 2018 it was only 37% Black. New white residents have incomes more than three times that of their Black neighbors with median incomes of $70,000/year, compared to $21,500 for Black residents. Notably, seniors currently living in the census tract have typical incomes of only $25,000/year, suggesting they are very likely to be priced out by new white residents.
The proposed multifamily development would create affordable housing opportunities for seniors who have always called Central City home, and also for those for whom housing has become unaffordable in their own neighborhoods. Some of the proposed units would have multiple bedrooms, welcoming grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Intra-generational family ties of this nature are a staple of New Orleans culture.
Developers for the site went through the standard process to inform the community about the proposed development, including its specifications and structural design. Developers are required to hold a public meeting prior to submitting an application to the City Planning Commission. These meetings, called Neighborhood Participation Program meetings (or NPPs), are an opportunity to engage the general public, neighbors, and neighborhood associations, and allow the developer to hear input and feedback, as well as answer any questions or concerns.
The NPP for this development was held on August 30th, 2019 and was well attended by members of the neighborhood association. Unsurprisingly, none of the people for whom this development would presumably benefit were present. Many attendees were vocally opposed to the development, sometimes using discriminatory language.
At one point during the presentation, an attendee asked Steven Kennedy, the developer, why there were proposed 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom units, to which he responded that some seniors are raising their grandchildren. In response, a voice in the back of the room clearly stated, “See, we don’t want that.”
His statement was applauded by other attendees who clapped and voiced agreement with the speaker. This sentiment plainly violates the Fair Housing Act’s 1988 amendment that protects familial status in housing opportunities. Attendees who represented the neighborhood association group also had varying points of contention with the development that didn’t have much in common. The underlying sentiment that seemed to bind their alliance was that low-income renters were unwelcome there.
Some voices who expressed their opposition to the development took up issues with parking spaces. Some wanted more parking and less units so as to not overwhelm the already tight street parking availability. Others wanted less parking spaces and complained about the potential for loitering in parking areas. There was also opposition around the height of the building potentially blocking someone’s kitchen window.
One of the most telling points of contention occurred when Mr. Kennedy expressed that the income characteristics of the neighborhood made it a great location for affordable housing. According to census data, the median income levels surrounding the site are on the higher end of New Orleans’ range of income groups. HANO has been locating affordable housing in higher income neighborhoods because they tend to offer more amenities and provide more opportunity for residents. This practice affirmatively furthers fair housing, meets the goals of the city’s Assessment of Fair Housing Plan, and complies with the Federal Fair Housing Act.
However, residents at the meeting complained that the data must be wrong because according to them, their incomes were not actually that high. They argued that due to this miscalculation, there wasn’t a need for affordable housing in this specific location.
The argument that people in the neighborhood were not making as much money as the census data showed does not by itself support the rejection of affordable housing. Instead, it suggests an anxiety around allowing new residents in with lower incomes than the residents who are already there. This attitude has been identified across the country in local debates similar to the one surrounding the site at 2256 Baronne St. It is commonly referred to as “Not In My Backyard,” or NIMBYism.
Unsuccessful at stopping the developers from moving forward, the residents turned their NIMBY attitudes up a notch in October 2020 at another NPP where they rallied around the need for property management and surveillance due to anticipation of loitering and crime around the building. One attendee at the meeting questioned the timing of the development of a security management plan, asking why it was taking so long. Her statements seemed to accuse the developers of not taking the security seriously, stating that “The security and how it’s going to be managed is very important.” Her concerns were echoed and supported by the other attendees.
The initial opposition to the building was around structural issues like height, parking, and architecture, but a year later the fear of crime became the rallying cry for opponents of the development. One attendee stated that the opposition was “about the building, not the people,” however, the group’s comments led to a proviso requiring 24-hour crime cameras at the site, connected to the City’s Real Time Crime Center. This sort of proviso is unheard of for any market-rate developments in New Orleans. The approval of the proviso and the concerns about security and management of low income, majority-Black, low income seniors exposed the truth that the opposition is in fact about the people.
In the United States we have a long history of discriminatory policing and selective enforcement of the law on Black communities. In “The New Jim Crow” Michelle Alexander illuminates the unequal criminalization of drugs based on race. She explains how the policies that shape disparities in incarceration today uphold the same structures that enslaved Africans and separated African Americans from white Americans during the Jim Crow era.
The unequal treatment of Black communities has continued to show up in housing policies like redlining, reverse mortgage discrimination, and locally—the Road Home Program. The proviso is another example of Black communities being over-policed at home, and the subject of discriminatory law enforcement policies. There’s no good explanation for seniors to be subjected to constant surveillance of their homes, and the fact that they will be is a result of negative stereotypes of Black Americans coupled with the City Council’s commitment to appeasing neighbors over complying with the Fair Housing Act.
The suggestion that mostly Black renters deserve constant surveillance in a city that is majority Black, majority renter, and where nearly two-thirds of renters can’t afford their rent and desperately need more affordable options, is by definition NIMBYism. This surveillance requirement likely violates the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and could also violate the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The good news is that The City Council voted to approve the development. However, it was only approved after allowing for this very problematic proviso that LaFHAC hasn’t seen anywhere else. This proviso sets a concerning precedent for the future of affordable housing in high opportunity areas.