052219 Bywater HANO property

In a vote that could support or disrupt efforts to build affordable housing in one of the city's most sought-after neighborhoods, the New Orleans City Council on Thursday will consider a $26 million mixed-income development proposed in Bywater, a neighborhood that some say has become ground zero for gentrification in the city.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans wants to build the development on land bounded by Royal, Mazant, Chartres and France streets, but it needs a zoning change to proceed. The City Planning Commission approved one in March, but the council has the final say.

While HANO and its supporters say the project will revive a long-vacant property and provide many low-income residents with centrally located homes, scores of neighbors opposed to the proposal say the building doesn’t fit with the neighborhood’s character.

It will be up to the council to decide.

The 136-unit project would have 82 affordable units and would be located in Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s district. Palmer, as of Tuesday, was opposed to HANO’s plan.

“I hope all sides can tone down the rhetoric and focus on what’s important here: creating affordable housing that fits the neighborhood where it is built,” Palmer said in a statement. She said in a letter to HANO last week that the agency should keep its proposed number of affordable units, but split them up across several properties, rather than having them mostly at one site.

The question is whether her colleagues will follow the long-established custom of deferring to the district council member on land-use matters within that member's district, or overrule Palmer in the name of bringing widely desired cheaper housing to the Bywater neighborhood.

It is rare, though not unknown, for that custom to be broken.

Few council members would speak about the issue Tuesday. Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen said through her chief of staff that she had not made up her mind.

Also, Councilman Joe Giarrusso will be absent, meaning there is a possibility of a 3-3 tie. A tie, like a denial, would kill the project in its current form.

Up for debate is a project that would help HANO fulfill its promise to revamp its portfolio of “scattered sites,” often small apartment buildings with less than a dozen units.

Those sites can help bring affordable housing to areas where there now are few such units. The Royal Street project would bring back into commerce a property long left idle, with the last of a crop of blighted units on the site having been demolished in 2015.

Under a deal with the ITEX Group of Houston, HANO wants to build a four-story, 136-unit complex that has both market-rate and affordable units, a parking lot and green space.

The project would have 82 affordable units and 54 market-rate units. Fifty units would be one-bedroom apartments, while 68 would be two-bedroom and 18 would be three-bedroom.

Affordable units would be rented to residents making less than the area's median income, which in 2019 is $67,400 for a family of four.

Such projects could help slow an increasing “displacement risk” for longtime residents in parts of Bywater and other areas affected by gentrification since Hurricane Katrina, housing officials and advocates have said. That risk increased “significantly” from 2009 to 2017, according to a 2018 analysis of New Orleans’ real estate conditions conducted by the Reinvestment Fund.

But while the project's critics don't dispute that the neighborhood needs more affordable housing, they take issue with this project's particulars.

One problem, said Mark Gonzalez, is “there are only two ways of getting into (that area): Chartres, and Poland and the railroad tracks.” With the Arrive Hotel also planned for the lot across the street from HANO’s site, “you will add hundreds of cars, and they are going to take away a huge of amount of green space,” he added.

Bywater resident Frederick Starr, in a letter published Tuesday by The Lens, called the design "a single massive housing fortress" that neighbors fear will be an "isolating ghetto," likely to give rise to social dysfunction in the same way the city's large housing developments did in the past.

Other opponents have pushed in recent months for the site to remain a green space, which they say is much needed.

The head of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, however, said such arguments only thinly veil some neighbors’ distaste for any type of low-income housing.

“It is frustrating and disappointing that, at this stage, we are facing community members, and potentially City Council members, who don’t seem to support the opportunity to allow working-class New Orleanians and displaced African-Americans the chance to return to the Bywater neighborhood,” said Cashauna Hill.

Gregg Fortner, the Housing Authority's director, said his agency has changed its plans to try to address public concerns. It cut its original proposal for a five-story, 150-unit project down to four stories and 136 units, he said.

If the council rejects the project, it would send HANO back to the drawing board. It's unclear whether that would mean a loss of the low-income tax credit funding attached to the project.

Under existing zoning, HANO would be able to build about 70 units on the lot.


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.