By this time next year, a slew of vacant lots in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward will have been transformed — and Claudette Brooks will have neighbors again.
Brooks joined city and state officials Wednesday to celebrate the start of construction on more than 40 rental homes in a neighborhood where recovery has been slow going more than a decade after Hurricane Katrina.
The first two buildings are going up next to Brooks’ shotgun home, on land that for years has been home only to insects and overgrown grass. “It’s like home again, it really is,” she said.
The land is being revived as part of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s initiative to bring back residents to the Lower 9th Ward, which has struggled to attract people and businesses ever since the 2005 storm devastated the neighborhood.
Neville Development is the firm behind the portion of the work launched Wednesday: the so-called Blueberry Hill Homes, whose name comes from the song made famous by 9th Ward native Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr.
The project honoring the music icon who died last year consists of 44 double and single homes for rent on 30 parcels of land — only a portion of the 188 parcels NORA offered to five developers more than two years ago.
The other developers — Habitat for Humanity, SBP (formerly the St. Bernard Project), Perez APC and Providence Community Housing — are largely still working to get financing for their projects.
The exception is Habitat, which in the past two years has erected at least some of the 100 homes on four dozen lots it told NORA it would build.
The entire project is aimed at providing options for low- and moderate-income residents, as housing prices around the city continue to climb and as workers in the generally low-wage tourism industry increasingly struggle to find affordable housing near their jobs.
It is also envisioned as a solution to the 9th Ward's chicken-and-egg problem: Many residents have been reluctant to buy homes there because so few businesses have returned, while few businesses want to invest in the neighborhood because of the large swaths of still-unoccupied land.
But the effort has been plagued by setbacks. One of NORA's chosen five developers, Jourdan Valley Development, threw in the towel after its communal living concept — under which residents would own or rent traditional homes but share communal buildings and spaces — didn’t gain community support.
A second firm, Perez APC, ran into trouble when its main financier, First NBC Bank, folded last year and its partner, Harmony Neighborhood Development, bailed on its plans to build upon 61 land parcels. Perez has since been joined by Providence Community Housing and is working to find funding from other sources.
Separately, an unexpected change in the way the Louisiana Housing Corp. allocated a key source of financing for affordable housing projects — federal low-income tax credits — stalled financing for many local developers.
That agency lumped together its tax-credit money for 2015 and 2016 and allowed developers to apply for those credits in 2015. But it didn’t offer any credits that following year, throwing a curve ball to developers with projects in the pipeline.
Executive Director Keith Cunningham said Thursday that the state agency has moved away from that practice.
Jamie Neville, the CEO of Neville Development, finally secured tax credits from the state last year, the final piece of the financing pie for his $8.4 million project.
Of the 44 homes in Neville’s portfolio, 41 will house low-income residents now on the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ waiting list for housing vouchers, Neville and HANO Executive Director Gregg Fortner said.
Neville had for years tried and failed to sell the three other properties, rehabilitated homes that he will now make available for rent as part of the Blueberry Hill project.
The homes will have metal frames, which help eliminate termite infestations and make them more capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds, said Neville and contractor Jeremy Miles of Slidell-based Crescent City Construction & Renovation.
“I’m proud to be bringing back former residents, as well as new residents, to the Lower 9th Ward,” Neville told Brooks and other onlookers as he fought back tears.