AFFORDABLE HOUSING UP AGAINST THE CLOCK

The New Orleans City Council is pushing to adopt policies that would require affordable housing in new developments — policies that are up against a deadline from Gov. John Bel Edwards and state lawmakers.

The City Planning Commission will look at “inclusionary zoning” rules that would make affordable units a requirement in certain developments, which follows a “smart housing mix” study that addresses areas where “disparities in affordable and workplace housing options exist.” Earlier this year, Edwards vetoed legislation that would have prohibited cities from “inclusionary zoning” measures — on the condition that New Orleans, which sat on the recommendations for months, moves quickly to adopt them before the next legislative session.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Chief of Staff John Pourciau told the New Orleans City Council’s Community Development Committee Aug. 7 that “given that time crunch, we’re in a place where we have to keep the ball rolling.”

One option would create a zoning overlay in areas with housing disparities, and require that 12 percent of units in developments with 10 or more units be set at below market rate, which would be reserved for residents earning 60 percent or less of the median income.

Another option — one that’s supported by affordable housing advocates — would create an inclusionary zoning “base” that could cover not just entire districts but individual parcels, including areas in more “desirable” neighborhoods where gentrification and high prices have displaced longtime residents previously paying affordable rates. Those zoning changes would still be subject to the same kinds of City Council approval as other developments.

More than half of New Orleans residents are renters. More than 60 percent of renters — and 32 percent of homeowners — are considered “cost-burdened,” or spending at least 30 percent of their income on rent and housing costs, including utilities.—WOODWARD

On eve of governor’s meeting with Trump, Kennedy blasts Louisiana criminal justice reform

One day before Gov. John Bel Edwards met with President Donald Trump to discuss sentencing practices, U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy released a letter to the president saying, “People are being killed because of the so-called criminal justice reforms” passed with bipartisan support by the Louisiana Legislature last year — reforms that also were supported by Edwards and a disparate coalition of business, civic, religious and political groups.

Kennedy cited several examples of prisoners who received early release under the program, only to reoffend. “Unfortunate as it is, Mr. President, I hope Louisiana’s misguided attempt at criminal justice reform can prevent similar missteps,” he concluded.

"This information by the junior senator is unequivocally wrong," Edwards replied in a statement to media. "This is strictly politics for Sen. Kennedy who is openly considering running for governor. He’s embarrassing the state of Louisiana in his letter to the White House, but even worse, he’s scaring the public using flawed data. With Sen. Kennedy, you can always expect him to put his political ambitions ahead of the people he represents.”

Edwards and five other governors, as well as several state attorneys general, met with Trump in New Jersey Aug. 9 to discuss criminal justice reform.—ALLMAN

Kennedy urges Cantrell to ‘undo’ part of NOPD federal consent decree relating to ICE

Reigniting debate over New Orleans as a so-called “sanctuary city” harboring people living in the country without legal permission, U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy urged Mayor LaToya Cantrell to “undo” parts of the New Orleans Police Department’s federal consent decree that Kennedy says prevents agents with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from “doing their job.” After a meeting at ICE’s New Orleans field office Aug. 8, Kennedy said ICE is “being held back by a bunch of politicians who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

In a statement to Gambit, Cantrell's Communications Director Beau Tidwell said, "Respectfully, the people and the public safety of New Orleans would be better served by Sen. Kennedy focusing on local public safety priorities."

The consent decree does not prevent NOPD from communicating a person’s immigration status to ICE, and Kennedy admits that local ICE officials aren’t the ones raising those concerns. Kennedy insists, however, that former Mayor Mitch Landrieu told NOPD, “Do not cooperate with ICE or federal immigration authorities because I am the mayor and I do not believe in immigration laws.”

Kennedy also slammed critics of the 15-year-old enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, saying “Anyone who realistically thinks we’re going to abolish ICE is smoking some of that new medicinal marijuana. It’s not going to happen.” (Medical cannabis in Louisiana cannot be smoked.)

Asked whether the agency can at least be reformed following reports of ICE agents’ abuses against immigrant families, increased targeted arrests in immigrant communities, and poor conditions at its prisons, Kennedy said, “You can always improve, but they’re doing the best they can.”—WOODWARD

‘State of transit’ report released

In its annual "State of Transit" report released Aug. 7, transportation advocacy group RIDE New Orleans said expansive plans and recent board and executive appointments are promising signs at the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA). However, the group urged RTA to take further steps to implement its plans, saying New Orleans must do more to increase transit riders' access to jobs.

RIDE's report lauded new RTA board members who are linked to the transit and paratransit riding communities, as well as Mayor LaToya Cantrell's creation of a new city Office of Transportation (whose head now sits on the board) and the filling of RTA’s executive director role by an interim supervisor.

Still, progress connecting riders to job opportunities, RIDE said, has been stalled for at least two years. Riders in the city can reach just 12 percent of the region's jobs in 30 minutes or less, according to the group's data.

"As long as we're not improving transit access to jobs, the majority of riders will not feel tangible benefits and many will view other improvements as mere window dressing," the report said.

Job access for residents is a goal laid out in RTA's 20-year plan, which the organization released in December 2017. In that document, the city transit organization set a benchmark of making 60 percent of the region's jobs accessible by transit in 60 minutes or less by 2027, with 65 percent of Orleans and Jefferson parish jobs reachable by low-income households within those parameters by that same year.

In its report, RIDE lauded RTA's plan, as long as concrete steps are taken to implement its objectives. RIDE also warned against RTA’s focus getting diverted by projects the group says fall outside the plan, such as a controversial streetcar expansion down St. Claude Avenue. RTA will hold open house meetings to gather public comment on that project Aug. 21 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. at Cafe Istanbul (2372 St. Claude Ave.).—STROMQUIST

A true ‘regional’ transit network? Orleans, Jeff commit to cooperation

The New Orleans City Council and the Jefferson Parish Council have filed resolutions committing to inter-parish transit options, aiming to prevent multiple transfers and long commutes by creating direct transit lines to and from the city center and hospitals. Both measures have the unanimous support of the councils as well as Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni.

Both transit systems are operated by Transdev. Resolution co-author and District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer says the next phase is to “re-envision the entire network” with a comprehensive analysis of its operations, then find funding to address the needs.

New Orleans Regional Transit Authority CEO Justin Augustine says operators “will not let funding be a barrier” and already have committed to putting inter-parish transit into its budgets. “We’re going to put our money where our mouth is,” he told the New Orleans City Council Aug. 8.

“One of the questions that continues to come up is whether there’s any political desire to get this done,” said City Council Vice President Helena Moreno said. “Absolutely, yes there is.”—WOODWARD

JBE addresses ALEC; four protesters arrested

As Gov. John Bel Edwards prepared to address conservative think tank American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Aug. 7, protesters outside the Hilton New Orleans Riverside demanded the more than 30 Louisiana legislators who are members of the organization sever their ties. Protesters called out ALEC’s business-friendly agenda and legislation they say targets people of color and vulnerable communities, including Louisiana’s House Bill 727, drafted to target activists taking on the Bayou Bridge pipeline.

Four protesters were arrested on charges of trespassing, disturbing the peace and resisting arrest; all four protesters were later released the same day. According to protest organizers, police arrested three people of color despite white protesters forming the protest’s front line and white protesters entering the building to disrupt the meeting.

In a statement, Meg Logue of 350 New Orleans said the arrests are “exemplary of ALEC’s vision for our country — one where corporations write the laws, free speech and dissent are suppressed and people of color pay the highest price.”

Meanwhile, Edwards — the only Democratic governor in the Deep South — touted the state’s criminal justice reform package, the passage of the state budget as it faced a massive shortfall, and job creation efforts bringing companies like DXC Technologies to New Orleans. Edwards has supported several pieces of ALEC legislation this past session, including the creation of the Louisiana Checkbook state spending website, the anti-protest measure aimed at Bayou Bridge opponents, and a measure — signed into law as Act 666 — that would protect controversial conservative and right-wing speech on campuses.—WOODWARD