How racist housing laws are keeping New Orleans white

Ten years ago, the wrath of Hurricane Katrina forever altered the urban landscape of New Orleans, leaving in its wake thousands of destroyed homes and more than 400,000 displaced residents. The storm’s power exposed more than just the failing infrastructure in one of America’s legendary cities – Katrina also revealed the ugly legacy of a discriminatory housing system.

An estimated 228,000 occupied housing units were flooded after Hurricane Katrina- accounting for more than 45% of all available housing. When President Bush came to New Orleans in September 2005 and addressed the nation, he claimed the goal and hope of rebuilding efforts was to rebuild New Orleans for all residents interested in returning. Contrary to this rhetoric, the rebuilding of the New Orleans area post-Katrina was a tool used to further entrench systematic segregation and discrimination. In 2007, nearly two years after the storm hit, the Census Bureau estimated the city’s population represented approximately 63% of the pre-hurricane total of 455,046, suggesting more than a third of the pre-hurricane residents of New Orleans had not returned to the city. Those who returned first were overwhelmingly white, wealthier and without children. But this was not an accident or coincidence.

In 2005, Republican Congressman Richard Baker from Baton Rouge captured the opinions of housing policy makers by jubilantly declaring, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” While Baker maintains his comments were misunderstood (he said the comments were about improving the conditions for residents), the opportunity to remake New Orleans in a whiter image proved to be irresistible. No one enacted a direct ban to keep poor, black residents from returning – instead, decision-makers stealthily leveraged zoning laws that excluded minority groups from desirable neighborhoods with better services and amenities. By restricting pre-fabricated housing and multifamily dwellings – particularly public housing projects – and increasing the cost of single-family residences, housing discrimination diminishes the options of many minority households and contributes to continuing intergroup disparities in income, home ownership, wealth, education and employment.

On September 29, 2006, just thirteen months after Katrina, St. Bernard Parish (county) passed the infamous “blood relative” ordinance. This novel discriminatory tool restricted home rentals to blood relatives of the owners defined as “within the first, second or third direct ascending or descending generations.” To rent to anyone else, landlords would need to obtain a Permissive Use Permit from the St. Bernard Parish Council. Violators of the ordinance, including both lessors and lessees, were subject to criminal prosecution and civil penalties, including a misdemeanor charge, a fine of between $50 and $250 per day for each day they were in violation of the ordinance, and a civil penalty of $100 per day for each day of unpermitted rental, plus administrative costs, court costs and attorney fees for investigation and prosecution of the civil matter. Clearly, the Parish Council wanted this law to stick.

The council justified the ordinance citing the “need to maintain the integrity and stability of established neighborhoods.” Since roughly 93% of St. Bernard’s housing units were owned by Caucasians at the time, the practical effect of the blood-relative ordinance was to make single-family rentals unavailable to non-whites. This and the many other barriers to entry erected by St. Bernard Parish Council seem not merely designed to preserve the racial and socioeconomic homogeneity that pre-existed Katrina, but even to reduce the number of ethnic minorities in the Parish. The ordinance bears frightening resemblance to a historically racist Jim Crow law passed following the Great Flood of 1932 which stated “no person or corporation shall rent an apartment in an apartment house or other like structure to a person who is not of the same race as the other occupants.”

While the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) filed a fair housing suit in 2008 which led to overturning the ordinance. While parish officials maintain they did not intend to be discriminatory, in 2014, St. Bernard Parish agreed to pay a $1.8 million dollar settlement for their actions in the wake of Katrina.

Zoning restrictions have been a tool of racism for centuries. In the US, enforcement efforts targeted Chinese immigrants in San Francisco in the 1880s and Eastern European immigrants in New York in the 1920s, while African Americans moving into white neighborhoods prompted many US cities to adopt explicitly segregationist zoning ordinances in the early 1900s that never really ended. Restrictive zoning laws are meant to ensure the prevailing perceptions of property value, even at the cost of equality, fairness and justice.

But even before Katrina, the Greater New Orleans area not only mimicked the national pattern of government assisted housing programs serving as engines of poverty concentration and segregation, but it also exceeded the national averages for such poverty concentration.

HUD defines their Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program as “the most important resource for creating affordable housing in the United States”. However, between 1995 and 2001, absolutely no tax credit units with at least two bedrooms were placed in the lowest poverty census tracts (0-10%) in New Orleans, compared with a rate of 41.3% nationally. Southern cities such as Charlotte (71.5%), Nashville (64.3%), Atlanta (32%), and Houston (26.2%) all managed to place tax credit units in their lowest poverty neighborhoods over the same time frame.

Furthermore, the number of public housing units in New Orleans dropped by approximately 8,000 units between 1996 and 2002 alone. This housing shortage combined with systematic disinvestment in urban infrastructure left the city of New Orleans unprepared for the disastrous aftermath of Katrina. On August 29, 2005 there were over 50 failures of the levees and flood walls protecting the Greater New Orleans area, flooding over 85% of the city, which exacerbated an already segregated and inadequate housing situation.

The failure to enforce fair housing laws alongside other governmental issues left minority residents of affected areas trapped in unsafe dwellings with no other housing alternatives immediately following the storm which lead to unnecessary deaths. But even after escaping Katrina, African-American residents found a much tougher path to return than white residents. A 2006 National Fair Housing Alliance study showed a 66% rate of discrimination against African‐American hurricane evacuees resulting in a systematic failure to provide African-American residents with information about available apartments – or even to return their phone calls.

Even federally mandated programs to increase low-income and affordable housing were legislated against after the hurricane.

On October 18, 2006, councilman Christopher L. Roberts sponsored a resolution making it clear to agencies charged with overseeing the housing recovery post-Katrina that Jefferson Parish objected to any applications by developers to build apartment complexes or single-family homes in the cities of Gretna or Terrytown using low income housing tax credits. Council members unanimously approved this district-specific measure without discussion. This ordinance, banning housing programs that serve low-income households, effectively excluded a disproportionate number of poor minority households from living in this area. People with disabilities, African Americans, Latinos and low income families disproportionately rely on multi-family housing. Thus, the parish’s resolution may have an illegal, discriminatory effect on these populations.

Despite the councilmen’s resolution, one housing project succeeded in obtaining tax credits from the state. The Council then succeeded, via surprise resolution, in imposing an 18-month land use study that would halt development on the site while the Parish considered changing the zoning of the site from multi-family to single-family residential. This zoning change resulted in Volunteers of America’s decision to abandon the project. Finally on November 13, 2006, the Parish agreed to suspend enforcement of this provision, due to a lawsuit being filed by GNOFHAC.

On April 3, 2008, also in Jefferson Parish, Kenner City limited affordable housing by imposing a moratorium on the construction of multi-family housing by unanimously banning the issuance of permits for the construction of developments with five or more apartments. According to an in-depth academic paper published in 2011 by the Catholic University Law Review, Councilman Joe Stagni claimed there was ““no shortage of multifamily housing in Kenner”, in spite of thousands of people who reportedly lined up outside of the Kenner housing authority office to apply for federal rental assistance vouchers less than a month before. Were these zoning restrictions passed out of ignorance or racism? Or was it a calculated effort to promote a different, wealthier New Orleans? Regardless of intent, the result was to effectively exclude poorer, minority groups from creating sustainable housing options for their particular needs.

Hurricane Katrina laid bare the devastating consequences of racial and economic inequality throughout the Gulf Coast, particularly in the New Orleans area. Housing is the linchpin in the equitable rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast regions. Inclusionary zoning is an essential policy strategy to avoid the re-concentration of poverty in the New Orleans area.

Ensuring the fair distribution of affordable housing for all, regardless of race, is of utmost importance to creating a sustainable urban landscape. This requires rezoning the city to allow a mixture of housing types, utilizing low-income housing tax credits to spread affordable housing across the city and eliminating existing barriers to affordable housing in integrated neighborhoods. Unfortunately, post-Katrina zoning ordinances have only entrenched existing barriers to fair housing in the area.

Affordable housing and fair zoning practices go hand-in-hand. They are issues that need attention from both the private and public sector in order to realize crucial changes. To create a sustainable city for all its residents, the legacy of racism and state sanctioned segregation must be addressed.

All New Orleanians deserve to live in integrated neighborhoods of opportunity.

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