Onchel Holmes' brick apartment building is sandwiched between a boarded-up vacant home and a corner bar that anchors the block. She thinks the rats that have clawed their way into the walls of her ground-floor unit are coming from outside. A water heater in the kitchen obscures the hole in the wall behind it. She heats the unit's three rooms with one of the burners from her gas range. She knows it's not the safest way to heat the room — there's one air-conditioning unit with a busted heater near the front door — but it's keeping out the chill and moisture on another wet winter morning.
"It's dangerous, too, I know," she says. "But I have to stay warm."
Holmes grew up Uptown and has lived everywhere in the city — from Laurel Street and Josephine Street to two apartments in New Orleans East. She's back Uptown in an apartment with her husband of 32 years who gets a small monthly Veterans Administration check that helps supplement his construction income. Rent is $650, recently bumped up from $600. They've lived there for two years. She just put a fresh coat of white paint on the bedroom walls.
"I had to do something to it," she says.
Holmes hopes one day to move to New Orleans East, where most of her family stays, including her daughter Shawanda. "I know everything around here," she says. "I don't drive. I love to stay Uptown. … I'm just not ready."
Less than half a mile from her apartment is new condo construction on Tchoupitoulas Street. Between them are mixed-income housing units, St. Charles Avenue mansions, decades-old shotgun homes and people living under freeway overpasses.
Zoom out of the neighborhood and you'll see a map of New Orleans with arbitrarily carved-out areas, traced in lines that aren't defined by major thoroughfares or landmarks but by the kinds of people who live in them.
The impact of redlining — in which lower-income families had been denied access to credit based on their race — stamps through New Orleans' geography. It built the city's modern-day housing market, and the areas defined by its lines still suffer from its invention.
A 2016 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that people of color still are denied mortgages at higher rates than white homebuyers in 61 U.S. metro areas. And a 2018 report from National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that nearly 75 percent of redlined neighborhoods in the U.S. remain low- to moderate-income areas, and people of color live in nearly 64 percent of those neighborhoods.
Though redlining was eliminated with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, its damage was never undone.
The National Housing Act of 1934 established the Federal Housing Administration, which promoted homeownership through federally backed loans.
In 1935, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board tasked the Home Owners' Loan Corporation to determine "residential security" across the U.S. by marking up maps in 239 cities to indicate whether mortgage backers should support them. Green "Type A" neighborhoods were determined "safe" suburbs. Yellow "Type C" neighborhoods were considered "declining" areas that could be riskier investments.
And in red, "Type D" neighborhoods — largely black, poor and working class — were determined "hazardous" for their "infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups."
That explicitly racist language was dropped a decade later, but its effect was the same — rampant racial segregation from "redlined" neighborhoods that had been denied mortgage capital, unable to attract homebuyers to those areas, as well as the businesses to support them.
Across the U.S., thousands of builders were able to secure federally backed financing in suburban areas, with the condition that African-Americans and people of color not live there.
There were rare exceptions — in 1954, then-Mayor DeLesseps Morrison pleaded with the federal government to support housing for middle-class black families, opening up 1,000 homes in Pontchartrain Park.
Redline maps of New Orleans from the 1930s show Lakefront and City Park neighborhoods in green, while Central City, downtown and Garden District neighborhoods are red.
Redlined areas later became primed for outside development through gentrification — from 2000 to 2016, African-American populations in the Irish Channel dropped from 75 percent of the area to 27 percent.
But black New Orleanians largely relied on housing without the support of commercial loans, at a significant disadvantage compared to white homeowners — and the private market also supported discriminatory policies, with the National Association of Real Estate Boards warning its members in 1924 not to integrate neighborhoods with "members of any race or nationality ... whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood."
Over the next few decades, the maps came to define whether loan agents would support "redlined" neighborhoods, leaving largely black populations in cities devastated not only by the institutions that failed them but the poor health, education and economic outcomes that followed.
In its 2018 report "Rigging the Real Estate Market: Segregation, Inequality, and Disaster Risk," The Data Center traced the foundation of redlining to racist zoning ordinances throughout southern areas in the early 20th century, despite a 1917 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Buchanan v. Warley) that declared that kind of discrimination unconstitutional.
Still, New Orleans passed a discriminatory housing ordinance in 1924 prohibiting integration "except on the written consent of a majority of the persons of the opposite race inhabiting such community."
The proliferation and protection of zoning rules for "single-family" areas excluded blacks from "desirable" neighborhoods, according to the report, to prevent the "blighting of property values and the congesting of the population, whenever the colored or certain foreign races invade a residential section," as a U.S. District Court in Ohio ruled in 1926.
"Undesign the Redline," an exhibit at Tulane University's Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design, hosted in partnership with design firm Designing the WE and affordable housing nonprofit organization Enterprise Community Partners, connects the legacy of redlining to today's inequities through a timeline of American racism that begins in its colonial foundation.
"Health outcomes, life expectancy, low birthweight of babies, school performance — all those things match closely with the redlining maps," says Cashauna Hill, director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "I don't think it's an overstatement to say that all the continuing inequities in American society can be traced to our history of racial segregation and racist housing policy."
The exhibit charts the city's battle over land use and how wealthy white developers captured higher ground and primed the segregation patterns that followed, from construction of the Claiborne Avenue overpass and post-Hurricane Katrina recovery and the shortcomings of the Road Home program, to legislation that supported developments at the exclusion of the city's African-American population.
"We cannot separate displacement and the affordability crisis from redlining and segregation," Hill says.
New Orleans' Neighborhood Development Foundation helps provide home loans to low-income homebuyers through counseling, home-buying training and other programs.
In his office on the second floor of the foundation's Jackson Avenue office in Central City, Fred Johnson says, "in the African-American community, it's not just housing you get redlined in."
"You get redlined in everything," says Johnson, who has worked with the foundation since it opened in 1986. "The choice of food you get, the choice of meat you get, whether you get art, whether the streets get taken care of. … Housing just happened to be the biggest ticket out."
That path to homeownership can help build economic stability and generational wealth. But more than half the city rents. Half of renters, and a growing number of lower-income homeowners, are "cost-burdened" — spending at least 30 percent of their income on housing costs.
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New Orleans also endured decades of segregated public housing and the bulldozing of mostly black communities through "urban renewal" programs in the late 1940s and ’50s. By the end of that decade, nearly nine out of every 10 displaced families pushed into public housing were nonwhite.
Through "blockbusting," speculators would stoke racist fears of integrated neighborhoods by preying on buyers selling their homes at undervalued prices, only to flip them to black buyers leaving redlined areas. Unable to get bank financing, they were often subject to rent-to-own schemes that denied them the ability to build wealth through property ownership.
Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures made the city vulnerable to gentrification as residents were displaced, or forced from public housing, opening the door for public dollars to prime neighborhoods for private investment. That disaster arrived as white residents — after decades of white flight from urban areas — started moving back into cities, including New Orleans, bringing with them disproportionately higher incomes than the black residents they displaced.
After city officials approved an infrastructure for short-term rentals, speculators and real estate buyers bought up more areas exclusively for tourist housing — what housing advocates say put salt in the wound of the city's long-gestating affordability crisis.
New Orleans officials and housing organizations now are beginning to tackle whether New Orleans can reverse more than a century of damage.
"Redlining — you can narrow it down to housing, but it is deeply marinating into all these systems we touch," Johnson says. "It's bigger than housing."
Across the street from the Small Center, The Muses Apartments building contains 263 units of mixed-income housing; 65 percent of the units are set at market rate, with another 35 percent constructed with low-income tax credits. It opened in 2010.
"Those kinds of units need to exist in New Orleans because those people live here," says Kathy Laborde, president of Gulf Coast Housing Partnership, which built the project. "In our minds, because there was nothing here, we had an opportunity. … Does it return as the Garden District, as public housing, or something in between? … We do want investment in our communities. We want them to thrive. We want an outcome that includes all people."
This month, the New Orleans City Council is expected to weigh in on an inclusionary zoning plan through the creation of a so-called "smart housing mix," which would create rules for building affordable housing in new developments.
Last year, Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration pitched three options — two proposals would provide for voluntary affordability and one would impose mandatory affordability requirements for certain new construction. In its report, the City Planning Commission staff agreed that "the creation of inclusionary zoning regulations is an integral piece of an overall housing policy that seeks to address the city's housing needs."
But city planning commissioners were skeptical; they argued that large-scale apartment projects clustered in the Central Business District could drive down market prices.
"I think it's clear, based on recent history, that asking developers to build affordable housing and hoping that they'll voluntarily do it in a way that produces enough affordable housing in this city, that's not a viable plan," Hill says. "It's not going to work. It hasn't worked. We need tens of thousands of affordable units in this city. The way to get that done is to require that it be done."
Housing NOLA, the city's long-term guide for housing affordability, determined that New Orleans needs as many as 33,000 units of affordable housing to meet the needs of the city's residents and workforce, which has witnessed the cost of living outpacing increases in wages.
Laborde says opposition to The Muses' construction came not necessarily from neighbors but from people opposed to the prospect of mixed-income housing between Central City and the Garden District.
"It's high ground. It is well-located. It cost us a pretty penny — $7 million for 4 acres of land," Laborde says. "It needed to physically demonstrate that people can live together. There's no way you can convince people of that through words. You have to show them."
Developers should be incentivized "to do more," she says, "not just incentivized to do."
"You're going to give people this break for building one or two more units? I don't think so. Make it hurt a little," she says. "We either give it lip service, or we don't. Culturally, as a community, we need to think long and hard of the unintended consequences of not thinking about this now and not putting the tools in place."
City planners argue that the city needs more "tools" to address the affordability crisis while "wages are not growing to meet the demand for higher costs of housing, transportation, medical care, and life's basic necessities," with fewer federal funding sources to fill in the gaps.
Those "tools" include the creation of three types of zoning overlays and districts in areas where disparities exist or that allow some flexibility in zoning or density on the condition that affordable units be created.
With a limited availability of federal funding, more cities are looking at local options to support affordable housing by leaning on legislati…
"We often hear from uninformed people that the market determines where people live, that segregation occurs because of choices people make," Hill says. "We know that's just not correct. … Massive amounts of government resources, planning and infrastructure went into creating segregated communities — so it's important that we're clear that the same kind of investment and intervention from government is going to be necessary to address the legacy of redlining."
In its report, city planners wrote that inclusionary zoning could offset the "rental housing construction boom" from the last decade and open opportunities "to secure long-term affordable housing units for residents facing displacement."
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The commission, however, didn't endorse the plan to make that mandatory.
"The [commissioners were] willing to disregard the staff report and recommendation as well as the expertise shared and the experiences shared by long-term residents about what was needed to fix the affordability crisis," Hill says. "Working-class New Orleanians, culture bearers who made this city what it is, who draw those tourist dollars — those folks are at the mercy of developers if [the proposal for mandatory affordability requirements] is not part of the package."
Cantrell's administration also is preparing an inclusionary zoning report, and the City Council is expected to review city planners' recommendations Jan. 24.
"What we received in exchange for giving our taxpayer dollars to those developers hasn't been an even exchange," Hill says. "It makes sense, I think, for us as residents of this city to demand that developers live up to their end of the bargain."
Onchel Holmes' daughter Shawanda Holmes dodges light rain under the awning of her old home on Freret Street, part of a row of similar shotgun houses in bright, pale colors.
"You could push on the walls when it rained," she says. "The rain would come in and go down into the walls and into the sockets."
Shawanda also lived in a house on First Street — the state Department of Health ordered her to move from the shotgun home after state inspectors discovered lead throughout the property.
Doctors found that her son, now 6 years old, had lead levels four times higher than the smallest amount considered lead poisoning. The health department later discovered that the property tested positive for lead two years earlier.
Late last year, she moved into a newly constructed apartment in the East — it's peaceful and quiet, she says, but it's a one-hour ride on the Broad Street bus to get Uptown. Her son wakes up at 5 a.m. to catch a school bus.
"I've been through so much," Shawanda says.
Cantrell, as District B Councilwoman, pushed for the creation of a "healthy homes ordinance," a "rental registry" measure that proponents said would remedy the existing rental housing stock by enforcing safer properties.
Just in 2016 alone, one attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services was handling at least 150 rental habitability cases and dozens of complaints, pointing to a parallel crisis for existing rental units developing alongside affordability issues. Part of the "healthy homes" plan would require landlords to be subject to possible safety checks, and it would make low-interest loans for repairs available through the city's Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund.
The City Council put the proposal on indefinite hold last year. Cantrell included the issue in her "affordability plan" during her mayoral campaign, and her transition team's report outlined steps to reintroduce the measure.
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Critics feared the proposal would force landlords to raise rents to recoup expenses on their renovated properties and argue that lower rents wouldn't guarantee better-quality housing.
"These problems are happening or are found in areas that aren't going to be gentrifying soon," Hill says. "If landlords are required to implement some health and safety standards, realistically speaking, the rent isn't going to go up to $1,500 — it's still in Central City or New Orleans East, where units are not commanding that kind of rent."
And landlords aren't necessarily setting rent based on their expenses, Hill argues.
"People deserve to have a safe and healthy place to live, and if someone is paying rent every month, even if it is $700, they should not be subject to having feces running down their wall, their child falling through their termite-infested floor," she says.
Johnson argues that government support not only is crucial to address the affordability crisis but also affects how lenders and real estate respond.
"From where I see it, it starts with the whole level of insensitivity," Johnson says. "You can put a man on the moon, do all sorts of unbelievable things, and you can't convince me we don't have the brain trust to fix that problem? But because the level of sensitivity persists from [the White House] on down, what happens is the directive and direction … becomes the directive and direction of the rest of America. If they don't see the government backing something, they stop backing it."
Onchel Holmes says she's working on a plan to move, possibly after her husband retires. Four of her five children live in New Orleans East now, and she's not sure if the couple can withstand another rent increase.
"I'm gonna get my own house," she says. "Watch."