Report: New Orleans' shift toward rental vouchers, and away from public housing, chips away at density of poverty _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Worker Jerry Williams, right, wets down debris as demolition begins Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, of the Iberville Housing Development in New Orleans. Fifty-nine of 75 units are being dismantled to make way for a complex of mixed-income housing, shopping, a school and public space.

Giving out rent vouchers as an alternative to building public housing projects has made a modest dent in the problem of densely concentrated poverty in the New Orleans metropolitan area, according to a new Data Center report.

But the report’s authors, Stacy Seicshnaydre, of Tulane University Law School, and Ryan Albright, a doctoral fellow in urban studies at Tulane, point out that voucher recipients here are still far less likely to live in low-poverty neighborhoods than their peers elsewhere in the country.

They also found that black voucher recipients are less likely to live in low-poverty areas in New Orleans than their white counterparts.

The group recommends various steps to help low-income renters escape high-poverty neighborhoods, such as counseling, initiatives to combat racial discrimination by landlords and tax credits to expand the supply of affordable housing.

“The stakes are high for the low-income children in our region,” the report concludes. “The housing voucher program must be used to its fullest potential — assisting the next generation of New Orleans children to overcome the life-altering effects of poverty.”

The move away from public housing began in the years before Hurricane Katrina and accelerated swiftly after the storm, prompted by a philosophical shift that favored giving poor residents access to middle-class neighborhoods by offering them portable vouchers that cover most of their rent.

New Orleans’ major public housing complexes have since been replaced by mixed-income developments, and the number of residents using rental vouchers has doubled since Katrina. The number of families living in public housing has fallen steeply. In 2010, the number of households receiving vouchers stood at more than 17,000 in Orleans Parish and more than 25,000 across the metro area.

The Data Center’s report compares figures from a federal study of voucher recipients in the late 1990s with figures compiled by a University of Kansas professor after the storm. The numbers show that just 6 percent of New Orleans-area voucher recipients lived in low-poverty neighborhoods in 1998. That number climbed to 9 percent in 2010.

Nationally, the trend has gone in the other direction, but New Orleans still lags below the average. In 1998, 30 percent of voucher recipients across the 50 biggest metro areas lived in low-poverty neighborhoods. By 2010, that figure had shrunk to 19 percent, still well ahead of New Orleans.

Racial disparities persist, also. The University of Kansas study, authored by Kirk McClure, showed that while 9 percent of black New Orleans voucher recipients lived in low-poverty neighborhoods in 2010, 21 percent of white recipients did.

At the same time, 6 percent of white residents lived in neighborhoods of “extreme poverty,” while 15 percent of black residents did, although the latter figure was down from 21 percent in 1998.

The Data Center’s report does not take into account residents still living in public housing. Presumably the shift to mixed-income developments has resulted in a lower concentration of poverty in the complexes operated by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, although the number of units available in them has shrunk from about 5,000 to a little more than 1,900.

In any case, the group’s report argues that New Orleans can and should do better, particularly in light of research suggesting that high-poverty neighborhoods can hurt the development of young minds.

A report released by the Data Center earlier this year showed that childhood poverty in New Orleans had more or less returned to its troublingly high pre-Katrina level by 2013, after taking a dip in the years immediately after the storm.

“Scientific research shows that child poverty can lead to chronic, toxic stress that disrupts the architecture of the developing brain,” the report said. “Children in poverty are much more likely to experience exposure to violence, chronic neglect and the accumulated burdens of economic hardship.”