Meditation room ribbon cutting

Mayor LaToya Cantrell, city officials and faith leaders cut the ribbon on City Hall's meditation room Oct. 25, 2018.


On the first floor of New Orleans City Hall on Oct. 25, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, city officials and area faith leaders cut the ribbon for a “meditation room,” what Cantrell calls a “safe space for our people to come, to reflect, even to seek counsel if they need it.”

A social worker with the city’s Office of Youth and Families will oversee clinical interns, who will be available to the public to help connect them to city services and other health organizations. It’s open 10 .m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

A rotating group of volunteer interfaith ministers will be available to “be an ear” for the public, department director Emily Wolff told Gambit. There currently are 12 ministers in the rotation. The administration hopes to increase that pool to 40, available at least one day a month.

Wolff says the room and related services are part of the administration’s anti-violence initiatives that promote preventative measures for youth in crisis and their families. City Hall social workers won’t necessarily counsel those children and families directly “but link them to other services and be that handoff,” Wolff said. “There are so many services available in city and in the nonprofit community, it’s just about making those connections.”

New Orleans Health Department director Jennifer Avegno said allowing space and time for meditation and reflection can improve health by lowering blood pressure and reducing stress, which potentially can prevent trips to emergency care. Avegno says the room is part of the administration's approach to “bring care and healing in places that are nontraditional.”

In August, the New Orleans Police Department staffed three social workers in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Districts to offer victim advocacy, crisis intervention and other services. That move was supported by a federal Victims of Crime Act grant.

“Gun violence has played a major role in this added trauma that our people are faced with,” Cantrell said. “If people are going through things and they need someone to talk to, we want to create that space.”—WOODWARD

Kennedy: I’ll decide whether to run for governor by Dec. 1

U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy, who’s widely been discussed as a possible frontrunner in the 2019 gubernatorial race against Gov. John Bel Edwards, released a statement last week saying he would make a final decision about running “before Dec. 1.”

“I love my job in the United States Senate,” Kennedy’s statement said. “But it’s hard to stomach what is happening to Louisiana right now” — citing what he described as the state’s weak private sector job growth, Medicaid expansion and poor education system. Kennedy, a Republican, also released a poll showing himself as leading Edwards, a Democrat, in a runoff.

Kennedy’s timetable may not sit well with state Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has made no secret of his interest in the governor’s chair. In August, Landry said his “goal was to see a united front behind a single candidate.” Since then, the only candidate to declare his intention to run has been Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone. Others eying the race include U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Stephen Waguespack, an adviser to former Gov. Bobby Jindal and current president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. All are Republicans.

Last month, Kennedy took a veiled slap at Landry, saying, “It may not be on the time schedule everyone else would like, but if I decide to run, I’m gonna run.”—ALLMAN

Local transgender advocates react to possible sweeping federal policy changes on gender

Louisiana transgender advocates and officials are bracing for policy changes under President Donald Trump’s administration that could narrowly define gender and potentially roll back protections for transgender people. According to a memo obtained by The New York Times, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is seeking unilateral changes to civil rights laws that would redefine gender based on the sex on one’s birth certificate, which could have significant consequences for the roughly 1.4 million transgender people in the U.S.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Communications Director Beau Tidwell says Cantrell “will not tolerate attacks on any of our friends and neighbors for any reason. The LGBTQ community is part of what makes New Orleans who we are, and the Cantrell Administration will always stand for making every voice heard and making all of our people welcome and included.”

Cantrell helped create a LGBTQ+ Task Force within a recently revived Human Relations Commission to help build policy and representation within City Hall. Among the Human Relations Commission’s first priorities was gender-accommodating city services, including bathrooms at City Hall.

Dylan Waguespack with Louisiana Trans Advocates says that while it’s difficult to gauge the scope of the policy based on a leaked memo, “what we’re seeing is a proposal that stands in total conflict with what the medical community has known about sex and gender for a very long time.” The organization has joined nationwide support for the congressional passage of an Equality Act, which clarifies LGBTQ peoples’ inclusion in federal nondiscrimination laws. Waguespack says there are roughly 20,900 transgender people in Louisiana.

“That is a lot of people,” Waguespack said. “We are not going to sit on our hands and let this happen. … We’re here, and no matter what the government does, they’re not going anywhere.”—WOODWARD

Canal Street: a short-term rental destination?

Developers, city planners and city officials are eyeing long-vacant upper floors of Canal Street high rises for short-term rentals (STRs) in the hope that turning those spaces into year-round rentals on platforms like Airbnb could spur new retail and other development on the ground level. But affordable housing advocates argue that chasing after unlimited STRs overlooks a massive need for housing, particularly in a stretch of the city that also employs thousands of people.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell spoke with downtown developers Oct. 23 to announce her commitment to Canal Street’s redevelopment, while city planners presented their latest Canal Street study, which recommends STRs “as a use that could incentivize the renovation of these long-vacant spaces.” The report also suggests if developers wanted to exceed the proposed cap on the number of STRs in commercial units, “certain benefits could be leveraged by allowing this in specific cases.”

“What I see is a real missed opportunity to address affordable housing needs in a neighborhood that can really benefit from workforce housing,” said Breonne Dedecker, program manager with Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. “I really strongly urge you to press pause on this moment ... and seriously study this incentive.”

“These should not be done in boxes outside of each other,” said Andreanecia Morris, director of Housing NOLA. “It’s troubling to see this continued bifurcation of issues that are related to each other.”

In a letter submitted to the City Planning Commission (CPC), Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, notes that buildings in historic structures along Canal Street already are poised to receive significant historic tax credits, in addition to whatever incentives through STRs that city officials are prepared to add. The organization recommends one of two proposals to add STRs with affordable housing components: allow STR permits up to a 15 percent cap of the building's total units, but only if the building also holds a matching number of affordable units; or create a one-to-two match without a cap, allowing an unlimited number of STR permits per building on the condition that the building also provide two affordable units per STR.

The CPC voted to send the report to the New Orleans City Council to consider any next legislative steps.—WOODWARD

Marches planned for justice, affordable housing

The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance is hosting a march and rally calling on city officials to “put housing first.” The phrase has become a rallying cry and a legislative direction for the organization, which represents a coalition of housing advocacy groups. The “housing first” mantra aims to establish or consider affordable housing creation and support in citywide development, from transportation and infrastructure to construction.

The rally begins at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 3 at Congo Square in Armstrong Park. It moves from the park through the French Quarter and is expected to end at 1 p.m.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3, social aid and pleasure clubs and brass bands will join New Orleans Public Defenders and a host of criminal justice organizations for the third annual Second Line for Equal Justice. Kermit Ruffins will lead the second line from Kermit's Treme Mother-In-Law Lounge down Claiborne Avenue to Broad Street and up to Criminal District Court, where there will be a rally.—WOODWARD

Exhibit on 'red-lining' opens this week

An exhibit opening this week traces the history of racial discrimination in housing policy, from “red-lined” communities to debates over the future of Lincoln Beach and displacement after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures.

“Undesign the Redline” opens with a reception at the Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design (1725 Baronne St.) from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1.

The exhibit is “a powerful way to engage with history, to examine how racist policies from decades ago still impact our communities today and to inspire action toward creating communities of equal opportunity that promote health, resilience and well-being for all,” according to Michelle Whetten, vice president of exhibit host Enterprise Community Partners.

The exhibit is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Sunday through February.—WOODWARD