Not my potions or my spells
not my crawfish or my crabs
not my brass or my ass
ain’t none of it for sale
not my cemetery or my temple
not my land or my love
not my pralines or my huckabucks
ain’t none of it for sale
In fall 2018, poet Sunni Patterson performed her powerful call to arms, “My City Ain’t for Sale,” at an event in the historic Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans. At the event, New Orleans housing advocates shared their first estimate of how much it would cost to realize the HousingNOLA Plan and introduced a funding initiative that would serve as a down payment.
Since then, the housing plan has developed into a 10-year strategy and $37 billion implementation agenda that was co-developed by the organization I lead, HousingNOLA, along with our coalition partners, including New Orleans residents, elected officials, housing providers and advocates, policy makers, and lenders.
We worked for 16 months to develop a strategy to guide the second half of the city’s recovery from flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the decade after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, $50 billion was invested in local and statewide recovery. We kept talking about a “once in a generation investment,” but results were mixed because we didn’t have a plan. Now we have a plan, and we know how much we need.
Patterson’s words were a stark reminder that not everyone involved in efforts to rebuild New Orleans had the same goals or understanding of who should get help. Nowhere was the lack of coordination and intention more obvious than with housing. By fall 2014, when the process that would become the HousingNOLA Plan was launched, almost 100,000 African Americans had not been able to return to New Orleans, and despite the building or restoration of over 88,000 subsidized housing units between August 2005 and August 2015, almost half of the city’s occupants were cost-burdened—meaning they were paying more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing.
In sum, we were still short on housing; we needed to create tens of thousands of more housing units to bring folks home and stabilize the people who were already back. HousingNola determined that to do this, New Orleans would need to secure an additional $6 billion. While this may seem like an extraordinary amount for a single city, it was only a sliver of the $37 billion that we ultimately realized is needed to provide housing for all.
Assessing Where We’re At
Since 2016, HousingNOLA has published annual report cards that analyze the state
of housing in New Orleans and track progress made toward our community’s vision of
housing for all. “We’ve been working for seven years to implement the HousingNOLA
plan. We realized that we needed to invest more in community-led solutions, and we
needed a way to truly understand what the costs were,” said Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes,
Chief Equity Officer of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. Eccelsiastes added, “We know well the costs of inaction: crime, empty blocks of empty land scarring neighborhood landscapes, our folks aggressively pushed out and away.” It was time, she explained, “to figure out how to guarantee the housing to stop the displacement of people and culture that is changing New Orleans for the worse for us all—and for all time.”
A key HousingNOLA partner, Ashé supports research and policy around
preventing the slow displacement of New Orleans’ culture bearers. The organization also provides housing for dozens of low-income New Orleanians in the complex that also houses its performance spaces. “After two years of failing grades, there had to be a change, and we couldn’t abandon the strategy, the people’s strategy—we need housing, we need safe and dignified housing, and we need it now. There’s no way to address this massive problem by simply nibbling at its edges,” Ecclesiastes said.
In February 2021, HousingNOLA and its partners published the Housing for All Action Plan. An update to the HousingNOLA 10-Year Plan, the publication shows that $37 billion is needed to end the city’s housing crisis. Not simply content to count the number of units that must be built or rehabilitated, Housing for All has quantified the cost of an equitable development that would enable New Orleans to grow and strengthen its economy while bringing displaced African Americans home and building the resilient infrastructure needed to recover more quickly from future disasters. Of course, in New Orleans, the threat of flooding from hurricanes remains constant.
The Housing for All Action Plan identifies solutions that address four overlapping goals: eliminating cost burden, closing the racial wealth gap, addressing housing resiliency, and combating displacement. “We know the resources that we have for affordable homes in New Orleans and throughout the country are inadequate to meet the needs of our families and residents,” said Alex Miller, a HousingNOLA data partner. “But too often, our plans are based on expending the minimal resources that are available, rather than based on the reality and urgency of the housing crisis.”
To provide additional market context and analysis for its updated plan, HousingNOLA partnered with an ad hoc advisory group that included public sector representatives, lenders, construction experts, and members of a social justice organization—all of whom recognize that housing is critical to advancing their objectives. Movement for economic justice and to stop climate change overlap in significant ways, and members of the advisory group worked to address challenges in both those areas.
A summary of the figures calculated is as follows:
Category 1: Resiliency and weatherization $4,221,730,900
Category 2: Preservation of existing affordable housing $4,709,124,350
Category 3: New construction of affordable homes $20,997,362,962
Category 4: Direct assistance to households (vouchers, etc.) $6,994,900,029
Category 5: Hurricane Ida specific recovery $454,622,230
The Housing for All Action Plan was funded by the Kresge Foundation and conducted by Asakura Robinson and Urban Focus under the direction of an ad hoc working group. “Putting a dollar amount on the problem is so important,” said Alexandra Stroud of Urban Focus. “It underscores the true depth of the problem of affordability. We have to acknowledge the extent of the challenge so that we can bring forth the resources we truly need. The current level of investment in affordable housing is a drop in the bucket.”
Calculating costs, of course, is one thing. Securing resources is another. One common misconception about the report is that the entire $37 billion must come from the federal government. To the contrary, we envision a combination of funding sources— including federal, state, and local government investment; private market investment; and philanthropic support.
Addressing the Climate Crisis Through Housing
New Orleans is famous for its extreme heat, but over the past 10 years, climate change has increased temperature fluctuations to produce not only record highs in summer, but record lows in winter. High utility costs are a big part of the housing cost burden in New Orleans. The Housing for All Action Plan proposes to reduce those costs by taking advantage of climate change funding allocated by the federal Investing in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA).
The plan calls for the construction of 45,000 new, affordable, energy-efficient, single-family and multi-family homes. Logan Atkinson from the Alliance for Affordable Energy works to increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, two of HousingNOLA’s priorities. “New Orleans’ future depends on taking this report seriously and acting on its recommendations,” Atkinson said. “Without significant investments in the security of homes, any talk of economic development or preserving our culture is an empty promise. We have an incredible opportunity to direct resources that layer housing, health, economic, climate, and quality of life benefits together, using unprecedented funds.”
Considering the Benefits of Housing Investment
Is $37 billion a lot or a little? It depends on your perspective. I do recall that the first time someone said to me, “No one is going to give you that,” I responded, “The people of New Orleans are worth that and more.” We will not let the same people who have ignored the city’s housing crisis and mismanaged housing resources manipulate folks into thinking they don’t deserve a decent home.
Moreover, the benefits of investment in housing would far exceed $37 billion. Building 45,000 new homes would generate $10 billion in wealth for contractors, developers, homeowners, the city, and the state. And if all New Orleanians paid what they could afford on housing, the people of New Orleans would have an extra $440 million annually to invest in the local economy. This alone works out to more than $13 billion over the next 30 years.
Chuck Morse with Thrive New Orleans, who also served on the ad hoc committee, observed that all too often, the need for social programs is waved away with calls for people to get jobs. “For the future homeowners, this plan ultimately offers an affordable investment that yields long-term savings on energy costs, shelters that will hold up, and the opportunity to live in harmony with nature—instead of in fear of it. This approach should be replicated across the Gulf South as a model of intentional construction.”
Avoiding the Cost of Inaction
New Orleans’ population loss can be traced back to systemic underinvestment in new affordable homes, a lack of living-wage jobs, and a series of disasters—most recently, COVID-19 and Hurricane Ida—that have challenged our city’s ability to recover. These issues aren’t unique to New Orleans, but the solution that has been developed is.
We want to confront the NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] philosophy of those who insist that they’re not racist and just worried about the ubiquitous concept of “public safety.” Our response: the very thing that NIMBY advocates claim to fear, they help cause. In the name of stopping crime, homelessness is criminalized, which gives people who lack housing the message that they are worthless. No one should be surprised when people who have been demonized believe and act on the false narratives they’ve been fed.
Everyone deserves a home that is safe and gives them a chance to thrive. The Housing for All Action Plan focuses on how to invest in a way that guarantees housing—housing that everyone can afford and that meets folks’ needs. It is important for two key reasons: it puts a realistic price tag on the resources required to provide a quality, affordable home for everyone in New Orleans; and it breaks funding challenges into manageable pieces that we can address through a range of policies and funding sources.
If every community in the US had a plan like this one, we would see more agreement that housing is a top priority at the federal, state, and local levels. Indeed, while the plan focuses on New Orleans, its strategy can and should be replicated in other cities. Right now, HousingNOLA is working to help Nashville, TN, and Winston-Salem, NC, to conduct similar analyses so they can secure the resources necessary to address housing issues in their communities.
In New Orleans, the opportunity is clear. Now is the time to put the needs of New Orleanians first and make our city truly livable. This plan is the roadmap to equip us for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.
Action is necessary, because the alternative is gentrification that drives more and more native New Orleans residents out of our beloved city. But we are not leaving!
We adopted #PutHousingFirst as our call to arms, knowing that such a call is radical and confrontational. We unapologetically demand guaranteed housing for everyone, and we want to tear down barriers rooted in hate. We know that unacknowledged racism prevents us from having a just and equitable city. It bleeds into education, health, and criminal justice reform. We know that guaranteeing everyone housing will not solve every problem. But if people do not have safe, quality homes, these broader reform efforts will fail.
We have our numbers down cold. It will take $37 billion to address the housing crisis in our city. New Orleans won’t be sold short again.