A discussion about the dilemmas posed by gentrification in New Orleans brought a standing-room-only crowd to the meeting hall at Tulane Hillel this week. And City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell arrived with a potential solution, or at least a partial one.
Cantrell said New Orleans already has a tax dedicated, at least in part, to raising money to promote affordable housing, cash that could be used to ease the burden of increasing rents and other living costs for low-income residents in up-and-coming neighborhoods. It pulls in about $4 million a year.
Yet right now, Cantrell said, it’s being used entirely on code-enforcement efforts — a high priority for many residents, but one that can actually end up exacerbating gentrification’s downsides.
“It’s supposed to be tied to affordable housing,” Cantrell told the crowd Wednesday evening. “Well, right now, that millage is paying for a lawyer in code enforcement.”
The city’s Neighborhood Housing Investment Fund was created in 1991 with a 30-year property tax that now generates about $3.9 million annually.
It can be used for three purposes: to “provide financing and other assistance for home-ownership opportunities for families and individuals”; to “promote neighborhood stability by eliminating blight”; or to “provide financing and other assistance for safe, affordable rental housing” forlow- to moderate-income residents.
Cantrell — both as a Broadmoor neighborhood leader and a City Council member — has pushed aggressively for better property maintenance and stronger inspections. But she pointed out that code enforcement also can add to the pressure low-income residents feel to move out of gentrifying historic neighborhoods.
Longtime residents, rather than deal with the expense and hassle of fixing up old homes to comply with city law, may find it easier to sell and move elsewhere, she said.
“All of a sudden, somehow code enforcement is on them a little bit strong,” Cantrell said. “The 70-year-old is getting fines for her shutters, because the paint is peeling. They’re feeling the pressure.”
It is unclear how long it has been since the Neighborhood Housing Investment Fund was used to promote affordable housing, Cantrell said. But the fund was supposed to be governed by a board — called the Neighborhood Housing Advisory Committee — made up of nominees from a number of organizations, some of which no longer exist. The committee is supposed to create a five-year plan for use of the money.
“The ordinance says there’s supposed to be a strategic plan in place around affordable housing and that money — a millage that people are paying,” Cantrell said. “But right now, there’s no plan.”
She added, “So right now, the council can’t do its job or isn’t doing its job, because the ordinance isn’t being followed by the administration.”
Cantrell held an initial hearing on the use of the Neighborhood Housing Investment Fund in February; it was attended by a number of other City Council members.
That meeting, she said, was the first step toward what she views as bringing the city back into compliance with its own law governing the use of the money.