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Housing advocates push for affordability study

1st August 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

A new proposal to investigate how future real estate developments would impact the city’s level of affordable housing is dividing stakeholders, with members of the private building sector protesting an idea strongly supported by local housing advocates.

The topic came to a head in mid-July during a City Planning Commission hearing, when city staff took a first stab at conducting a study to assess something called preliminary affordable housing statements.

The New Orleans City Council in May directed the commission to investigate how affordable housing could be assessed as part of land-use and building applications in New Orleans. Under the proposal, “impact statements” would be attached to any new land use zoning decisions or permits.

Ultimately, the proposal “may create a multifaceted approach to addressing the challenges of providing affordable housing in a resilient and steadily growing city,” according to the City Council directive.

According to City Council members, anyone who isn’t “cost burdened” by rent or mortgage is considered to have “affordable housing.”

That threshold is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which considers families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing and utilities to be cost burdened. According to HUD, those families may have difficulty paying for other necessities, including, food, transportation and medical care.

It’s estimated in New Orleans that more than 70 percent of all households pay one-third or more of their income towards housing costs, with the number steadily increasing over the past 10 years.

In response to what the City Council calls a “housing crisis,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu has already developed Housing for a Resilient New Orleans, a five-year strategy aimed at providing 7,500 affordable units by 2021.

The city is also working with nonprofit groups like Housing for a Resilient New Orleans, which is also focused on adopting “an inclusionary housing policy” and addressing homelessness.

Leading up to the meeting, housing advocates fighting for better rental prices for lower- and middle-class residents pointed to those numbers, calling the current affordable housing stock unacceptable.

Among those behind the proposal are members of the State and Municipal Action for Results Today / Agenda for Legislative Empowerment and Collaboration (SMART ALEC), founded to promote bills just like the impact statement proposal.

According to SMART ALEC CEO Matthew Charles Cardinale, if affordable housing impact statements were required they could help the city “gauge its progress, or lack thereof,” in meeting its 2021 goal.

“It just meant so much to me to be back in New Orleans, after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The skyrocketing cost of housing was one of the reasons I had to move away from the City I adore so much,” Cardinale said in a statement. “Now, we have this opportunity to use the Affordable Housing Impact Statements as a tool to track our progress in fixing our housing shortage and making it possible for low-income people to stay in New Orleans.”

HousingNOLA, a community led housing plan, also supports the proposal. That organization estimates that over the next 10 years there will be demand for 33,600 units.

Andreanecia Morris, the organization’s executive director, said at the meeting that the proposal could be “an incredibly useful tool” used to bring clarity “in real time” about the state of affordable housing in New Orleans.

“The data that we found was startling and even more surprising than what you’ve seen already,” Morris said. “And that’s why an affordable housing impact statement is so important. Because we need to refine this data even more.”

Morris was one of several speakers who gave support for the proposal, including members from Unity of Greater New Orleans and the Tulane/Canal Neighborhood Development Corporation.

“This isn’t a crisis of housing production. There are cranes in the sky. Our business is booming, our housing production business is booming,” said Monique Gerhart, the director of policy for The Greater New Orleans Fair Action Housing Network. “This is really a crisis of affordability.”

Still, members of the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans worried that the high pace of housing production – a sign of progress in the city – would stymie if city staff were required to publish a statement about affordable housing every time a building project was approved.

Speaking in strong opposition to the proposed policy, members said impact statements would discourage new construction because it would add cost and lengthen an already burdensome city process for approving new projects.

Curt Williamson, a landlord, developer and real estate agent with the association said he represented over 1,000 members.

“We are in favor of affordable housing. We simply disagree that the approaches presented here today will achieve that affordability,” Williamson said. “We should be focusing on increasing job opportunities.”

Williamson said more regulations, databases and employees to study those is “only going to raise more costs” so the study could be done by “overburdened and underfunded” city workers. Instead, he suggested allowing the increase of competition to keep housing costs down, and said the problems surrounding affordable housing are “dynamic” and not easily solved by more studies.

“How is this new study going to provide any information than what is already available?” he asked.

The community may submit public comments to the proposal up to Aug. 15. City planning staff will make their report public on Aug. 16, and the City Planning Commission will consider the study on Aug. 23.

The final recommendation is due to the City Council by Sept. 2.

This article originally published in the August 1, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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