Louisiana State Museum board compromises with 25 percent rent hike for Lower Pontalba Building residents _lowres

Advocate file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Lower Pontalba apartments in New Orleans in 2015.

Tenants in the historic Lower Pontalba Building in the French Quarter will see rents rise by an average of 25 percent beginning in September, a compromise that a state board reached after initially proposing up to a 92 percent rent hike.

After months of tense debate, the Louisiana State Museum’s board approved the rent increase on Monday for 24 units in the Lower Pontalba Building that are under lease. The board also plans to try renting three vacant units at market-rate prices.

Under the plan approved Monday, rents at the three vacant units would range from about $2,681 for a 1,300-square-foot, third-floor unit at 806 Chartres St., which represents a 7 percent increase, to $3,859 for a 1,522-square-foot, second-floor unit at 503 St. Ann St., a 35 percent hike.

The new leases will begin Sept. 1 and run through June 30, 2017. After that, all the leases will run July to June — matching the state’s fiscal year.

Raising rents would provide a much-needed lift for the cash-strapped museum system. For the current fiscal year, the museum lost about $1 million of its state funding, leaving it with $6.1 million.

The board’s decision came after its Irby Committee, which manages the Lower Pontalba Building on St. Ann Street, voted in November to raise the rents by as much as 92 percent by 2017. Those figures were based on an earlier study of market rates commissioned for the French Market Corp., the entity that manages the city-owned Upper Pontalba Building across Jackson Square on St. Peter Street.

Both four-story, blocklong buildings were built in the late 1840s.

Lower Pontalba tenants argued that it wasn’t a reasonable comparison because the Upper Pontalba is in better shape than its state-owned counterpart.

In turn, the board commissioned its own rent study and planned to vote on the issue in February. It held off at the request of Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who took office in January and oversees the museum system.

The original proposal would have increased rents by 50 percent on average, board member Rennie Buras said. Monday’s resolution was seen as a compromise. Board Chairman Lawrence Powell called it “a stopgap measure, a sticker-shock mitigation proposal.”

About a half-dozen Lower Pontalba residents attended Monday’s meeting. They questioned whether their rent would be increased again next year and complained about shabby living conditions.

Haydee Mackey, a third-floor tenant of 531 St. Ann, said she was against the rate increase because of “the deplorable condition of my apartment.”

“The reason we live there is because we like it,” she said. “We’re pleased to live there and we are grateful, but we are becoming disenchanted with it.”

To address those concerns, officials plan to spend about $664,000 to repair and restore units that are currently leased and an additional $48,000 to repair the units that will soon become available at market rates.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.