Written by Robert McClendon, NOLA.com 

At the city’s request, I moderated a forum discussion on affordable housing Wednesday (Aug. 26) as part of a series of public policy forums the city is holding in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Very few people showed up, but there were some interesting points that provide some insight on gentrification and public housing as well as expose the fault lines separating the city’s strategies from those of housing advocates.

…summarized below with notes in italics to help give context and cut through some of the bureaucratic sleight of hand. Unless the passage is in quotes, it’s paraphrased.

On public housing and concentrated poverty (2:50)

Question to Gregg Fortner, director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans

The city’s goal in tearing down the old projects and replacing them with mixed-income developments was to deconcentrate poverty. There’s data showing this hasn’t been entirely successful. What is HANO’s strategy moving forward?

Fortner’s response. (4:32)

“First of all, thank you for that hardball, fastball question so early in the morning.” HANO administers about 18 Section 8 vouchers and about 2,000 public-housing units. With a family size of about 2.5 people, that means HANO serves more than 40,000 New Orleanians, more than 10 percent of the city’s population, he notes. “I don’t know if I completely support that places like East New Orleans has a concentration of poverty, especially as a result of our programs.” HANO studies of council districts across the city of New Orleans shows that voucher holders are “pretty much spread out,” with “double digit” shares in each district.

I asked for a copy of this report but have yet to receive it.

Rich Webster recently detailed HANO’s public housing strategy after the storm. You can read it here and here.

That’s true of anywhere in New Orleans. People with vouchers can’t live in certain neighborhoods just the way people of our income level can’t live in certain neighborhoods, but you can’t say the voucher program didn’t deconcentrate poverty. A public housing development put poor people into just a few square blocks. Now they are disbursed across whole ZIP codes, there is no comparison.

A rebuttal (9:49)

Me, to Cashauna Hill, director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center: How much choice is there really in the Housing Choice Voucher program?

Hill’s response: Mr. Fortner and I disagree. “We know that for all intents and purposes voucher holders do not have a choice, a real choice, about where they live in this city.” It’s legal for landlords to refuse to accept vouchers. A 2009 investigation by the Action Center found that 82 percent of landlords in the city would not rent to voucher holders. A 2014 study compared the ability of blacks and whites to access housing in wealthier neighborhoods. Even when their tenant profiles were impeccable — high income, high education, — landlords in low-poverty neighborhoods turned away the black tenants half the time. The combination of racial discrimination and voucher discrimination has clearly pushed voucher holders into high poverty neighborhoods. “The poverty is still concentrated. People are still stuck in impoverished communities.”

Hill did not mention a recent report by The Data Center on vouchers and concentration of poverty. The report says that New Orleans voucher holders lived in poor neighborhoods before the storm and that remained true in its aftermath. The report, which mapped voucher holders, shows a clear concentration in poor neighborhoods, especially in eastern New Orleans.

On using city-owned property for affordable housing (23:24)

Me to Ellen Lee, head of the city’s Office Community Development: What is the city’s plan for including affordable housing in the ongoing Adjudicated property auction?

The city is holding a series of monthly auctions to sell off thousands of properties it effectively owns because their previous owners have not paid their taxes. For months, the city said it had no plan to withhold any of the properties for affordable housing, even though many of them are in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. After repeated requests from housing advocates, the city changed course but has still not announced a plan to use them. The first two auctions brought in some $8.3 million combined. Thus, the properties represent the unicorn of city finances: large quantities of unbudgeted income. Without a plan, there will likely be pressure from some to sell off the entire inventory rather than keep it for affordable housing.

Lee’s response: We’ve identified properties in hot real estate markets and are keeping them out of the auction so we “can be more thoughtful and strategic about what the plan is to do a redevelopment of those that make sense.” HANO, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and the city are working on a redevelopment plan in a certain neighborhood — I won’t say which one publicly. We are putting together a solicitation for private developers to redevelop the combined pool of properties into a single “pilot” project.