Article is by Katy Reckdahl, a great local writer.
Policymakers have debated how best to support the city’s culture in a time of rising rents and stagnant wages. If done correctly, artist housing slated to open next year in the former Andrew J. Bell Junior High School in the Treme neighborhood could provide an important model for cities looking to preserve and support traditional culture through affordable housing.
“We have the opportunity to show how vibrant arts are essential to our humanity in New Orleans,” said Stephanie McKee, the artistic director of Junebug Productions, a nonprofit that will be based in one of Bell’s community spaces.
In late 2005, not long after Katrina, musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis asked Habitat to establish several dozen houses that musicians could qualify for through sweat equity along with a 20-year, interest-free loan.
But, early on, Habitat found fewer musicians qualified than it had hoped. It hadn’t predicted the level of bad credit and outstanding debt or the general lack of documentation. So Habitat reworked its process, using specially earmarked money from donors to help some musicians pay off small outstanding debts and working with many others to find alternative ways of proving income for the Habitat-underwritten loans.
“Normally, we get tax returns and wage statements,” says Marguerite Oestricher, Habitat’s chief advancement officer. “But with the Musicians’ Village, we had to get pretty creative. Because many musicians live in a cash economy, we’d ask them, ‘Where are you working?’ and we’d take a note from a club owner, saying that so-and-so plays here two days a week.”
Though it took some heavy lifting to create, the Village is now bustling with musicians. The delinquency rate on loans there has been very low, Oestricher said.
Learning from their artist-housing predecessors, Butler and McKee are going to start convening meetings for potential tenants by early 2017, even though the property won’t start taking applications until the fall, to encourage them to get their paperwork in order.
“We know that there are certain documents that they have to have to apply,” she said. “So we will ask, ‘Can we connect you with someone who can help you get your taxes done?’ Or ‘Even if you don’t have a bank account, can you get a letter from your employer to confirm your income?’”
“We want to get on top of this before this process even begins,” she said. “We’ve got to just keep pounding away at it. There will be no other opportunity like this.”