Before her career as an affordable housing advocate, Andreanecia Morris had her sights set on becoming a showrunner. "Before there was a Shonda Rhimes, I wanted to be a Shonda Rhimes," she says, laughing. "The idea I had in my mind was working in television — not in front of the camera but behind the camera, in production."
Instead, Morris has spent more than 20 years behind the scenes as an advocate for housing affordability in New Orleans, where she now leads HousingNOLA, an ambitious 10-year plan to address the city's affordable housing crisis. Her plan is to start with 3,000 affordable homes by 2018 and grow to 5,500 by 2021. Pushing state, local and federal partnerships, the plan aims to remedy the displacement of the city's working class and lower-income earners and residents squeezed by increasing property values and taxes.
With housing affordability at the forefront of 2017's citywide elections, HousingNOLA has the attention of a new City Hall. Morris plans to hold the new mayor and City Council to their promises of creating a more equitable city. Her efforts earned her Gambit's recognition as a New Orleanian of the Year for 2017.
Morris had "a fairly typical middle-class upbringing" in Edgard, a small town in St. John the Baptist Parish, before studying at Loyola University New Orleans. After graduation, she gave herself a deadline and an ultimatum: Find a job in her field within six months, or find something else.
From her office at HousingNOLA, Morris jokes she's often called a "force of nature" — unsure whether it's a dig or a compliment. "I don't want to be a hurricane," she says. "Maybe a zephyr?"
She worked at the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) for nearly a decade, navigating an agency grappling with frequent controversy and declining public confidence. With beat reporters assigned to cover the maligned agency, HANO and its properties routinely made news. "And it was usually not good," Morris recalls. "Part of my job was helping craft responses, but I wanted to understand what I was talking about. ... I needed to understand why people were slipping through the cracks."
To do that, Morris made a point of getting to know HANO residents and to become personally familiar with their concerns. "That became my crash course" in housing issues, she says.
Morris left HANO in February 2007 and joined the nonprofit development group Providence Community Housing, where she served as vice president of homeownership and community development. She later chaired the Board of Governors of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA), an advocacy group made up of nonprofit builders and community development corporations.
"In the midst of that, the city moved into a significant affordability crisis," says Morris, noting it wasn't the first time New Orleans had battled the affordability problem. But Morris says rather than responding with a piecemeal, reactive plan, tackling affordability requires a proactive, long-term solution addressing systemic issues afflicting the city's working class.
In 2014, the Foundation for Louisiana tapped GNOHA to launch HousingNOLA, a plan that now engages public agencies, nonprofits and residents to promote a "housing first" philosophy at City Hall and the state Capitol.
"As we started talking about this comprehensive strategy ... we wanted to be clear that this is a comprehensive housing plan for everybody," Morris says. "This is the plan that makes housing affordable. And that means everybody."
HousingNOLA released its 10-year plan in 2015, and it was echoed in Mayor Mitch Landrieu's 2016 State of the City address, which promised to build or preserve 7,500 units by 2021 to remedy the loss of income-affordable rental housing and the high number of cost-burdened residents who were spending more than half their income on rent.
"That is unacceptable and unsustainable," Landrieu said of those statistics in 2016. "We must ensure that working people do not get priced out of New Orleans. They are the backbone of our city."
HousingNOLA delivered an honest report card in 2017 — giving itself a mere "C" in meeting its affordability goals. Morris doesn't shrink from a blunt self-assessment; she wants to hold the city, and herself, to a higher standard.
"It can't just be rhetoric," she says. "The next step is, we've had this new election, we've got a six-month [transition] period, and the status quo is not acceptable. Part of our job is reminding the community we have a solution, it's one we worked hard on, and we have to hold ourselves to it. These elected officials are not some foreign body that's descended from on high. We elect our leaders. We empower them."
Candidates running in 2017's citywide elections put affordable housing on the front burner, thanks in large measure to housing advocates like Morris. Debates, forums and candidate interviews forced candidates to confront the issue of affordable housing, as well as related issues such as short-term rentals and displacement.
"Housing affordability and housing quality are high priority concerns for the mayor-elect and have been for some time, both as a Council member and as a candidate," says John Pourciau, chief of staff for Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell. "She will work with all advocates and organizations in the city committed to making housing more affordable."
"The HousingNOLA plan continues to be the best community-oriented vision we have to address the New Orleans housing crisis that is hitting both low- and middle-income residents equally as hard," City Council President Jason Williams told Gambit. "HousingNOLA has informed many of my votes and policy priorities and will continue to be a roadmap I will follow."
The challenges ahead include fighting blight — and ensuring "blight" doesn't remain a dog whistle for taking potential housing away from displaced residents. "When people talk about blight, they're not talking about returning housing, or returning to commerce," she says. "They're talking about removing the 'eyesore' on their block, a 'hazard' from a neighborhood. I get it, but you should want that to be a positive, not a neutral."
Morris says housing initiatives also must address the needs of vulnerable and at-risk populations — increasingly, LGBT people, residents for whom English is a second language, people aging out of foster care and formerly incarcerated people.
"This work isn't going to be left unfinished," Morris promises. "I expect more of [Landrieu] before he leaves, and I expect more of [Cantrell] when she takes office. ... We've got to be ruthless to put housing first, and we're going to help you put housing first."