Long divided by race and class, New Orleans has become even more segregated in recent years, and residents in majority-black neighborhoods often have the least access to jobs, affordable housing and other opportunities, according to a recently released plan that city officials say could help solve those issues.

The plan, mandated under a new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rule, seeks to ameliorate the woes of minority communities by investing in neighborhoods that have long been less well off than others. Separately, it seeks to make it easier for residents of those areas to move to whiter, more affluent areas that have prospered.

When complete, New Orleans’ effort could be a model for other cities across the nation, said Ellen Lee, the city’s director of housing policy and community development.

Although all cities that receive federal housing grants must eventually comply with the new rule — which requires cities to try to make wealthy neighborhoods more diverse and to pump more money into poor ones — New Orleans and about two dozen other U.S. cities are among the first trying to address it.

“We cannot continue to allow prosperity for only a few at the expense of many, particularly those people who make New Orleans the great city that it is,” Lee said of the need for the plan.

Critics decry the new federal mandate as a huge residential affirmative-action program that will strip states and cities of their right to spend housing grants as they see fit. Supporters, however, say it simply forces governments to comply with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which they say bans housing discrimination in theory but often doesn't work in practice.

No new funding is available to support the mandate, Lee said. Instead, cities are expected to make the changes with existing money.

In New Orleans, advocates hope the new federal requirements will focus attention on the city’s affordable housing shortage, which officials and housing advocates say is partly due to post-Hurricane Katrina gentrification as well as to zoning policies that keep multiple-family developments out of certain neighborhoods. 

New Orleans is among the first cities to comply with the new HUD rule because it is near the end of its five-year federal grant planning cycle, Lee said. Much of the city's 105-page report, made public in August and due to be sent to HUD in October, simply explains the problem.

Segregation among city residents of different races has mostly increased since 1990, it says, though Hurricane Katrina caused significant shifts.

Generally, neighborhoods that were mostly black before the storm and were on lower ground — such as New Orleans East and parts of Gentilly — became even more heavily black after Katrina, the report notes.

In New Orleans East, it says, the proportion of black residents rose after rents spiked in other parts of the city and forced African-Americans out, after Section 8 voucher recipients were disproportionately placed in that area, and after many longtime homeowners there left because of high flood insurance costs and a dearth of jobs and other businesses.

Meanwhile, areas that were mostly black pre-Katrina but were on high ground — such as Bywater, parts of Treme, St. Roch and St. Claude — “are now majority-white or moving in that direction,” the report says. Some of that is due to strategic city investments in those areas, though gentrification also has played a role, it says.

Today, highly segregated neighborhoods that are mostly white include the areas in and around the French Quarter and Central Business District, the Lower Garden District and other Uptown neighborhoods, City Park, Algiers Point and Lakeview.

Meanwhile, Michoud is home to most of the city’s Vietnamese residents, while other New Orleans East communities are mostly black, as are the Lower 9th Ward, the 7th Ward, large swaths of Gentilly, Central City, Hollygrove and Gert Town.

In many majority-black areas, good neighborhood schools, affordable quality housing, public transportation and other opportunities are limited, the report says.

The report’s list of remedies largely mirrors work already underway or announced by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in June as part of his administration's affordable housing plan. Those steps include incentives to developers to build affordable housing and a new criminal background check policy at the Housing Authority of New Orleans designed to end barriers that keep many ex-offenders out of public housing.

One of the report's recommendations is that the City Council enact a similar criminal background check policy that would apply to private and public rental housing across the city and that would require such checks to be transparent and accurate, Lee said.

Separately, the report says the city will work to reform zoning laws “to prohibit the production of affordable housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods,” which Lee said means the city wants to make sure low-income residents aren’t too isolated in specific areas. It will work to improve public transit options for areas that need them and will preserve existing housing in neighborhoods with rising prices, among other goals.

The city will take public comments on the report until Oct. 3. The next public hearing on it is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Treme Community Center, 900 N. Villere St.

Though many people have urged City Hall to do more to help low-income, largely segregated residents, Lee acknowledged that other New Orleanians — black and white alike — have taken a not-in-my-backyard approach to affordable housing.

The city hopes to change that line of thinking through education, she said.

“A schoolteacher is a candidate for affordable housing,” Lee said. “Whatever your stereotype is about people who need affordable housing, these (kinds of workers) are the people who need it.”

More broadly, she said, the city’s racial and class diversity is one of its greatest strengths. “How cool would New Orleans be if all the people who make it cool can’t afford to be here? That’s been our mantra," she said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.