A project to build the first communal living complex in New Orleans got a big boost when the city's Industrial Development Board recently agreed to grant the developers a 15-year tax break.
In return, the developers agreed to freeze rents in the dorm-style complex for 15 years for the office workers, teachers and other middle-income employees they hope will sign up to live there.
The project proposes to transform a parking lot at St. Charles Avenue and St. Joseph Street near Lee Circle into housing for people who want to live near their jobs, but who otherwise couldn’t afford the pricey rents of the Central Business District.
The “co-living” complex, which developers hope to complete in 2019, would charge renters about $1,300 a month to live in furnished shared apartments.
While some one-bedroom units would be available for almost $200 more, most of the 65-unit complex would consist of four-bedroom, four-bathroom clusters, with shared kitchens and dining and living rooms.
“This project is unconventional, but it will increase access to opportunity for middle-income earners in our workforce, and create an environment that’s social, convenient and fun,” said Simcha Ward of Wisznia Architecture and Development, the firm behind the proposal.
Similar developments have been introduced in other cities across the country.
Developer Marcel Wisznia, who is partnering with a co-living company called Common, said rent in the $33.7 million, five-story "Two Saints" complex would include all utilities, weekly housecleaning, furniture and kitchen supplies, as well as internet access.
The project has been opposed by members of the Lafayette Square Association, who have feared that it would be overly crowded and could later be turned into a cluster of short-term rentals, rather than affordable long-term housing.
Wisznia has converted some units in two of his other CBD developments into short-term rentals, a move that at least one housing rights group decried last year as illegal, given rules that bar properties that are insured by the federal government from being used for that purpose.
But, in a first-of-its-kind arrangement with the IDB, a city agency, Wisznia agreed to abstain from listing Two Saints units on vacation-rental sites like Stay Alfred and Sonder for the next 15 years.
His agreement with the IDB requires renters of spaces in the four-bedroom clusters to earn between 75 and 110 percent of the area’s median income. At present, that means a single person must earn at least $33,000 but no more than $48,730, and a couple must earn at least $37,950 but no more than $55,600.
The deal also freezes the rents Two Saints may advertise for the next 15 years at an amount equal to 35 percent of the area’s median income. For this year, that amount is $1,292 per resident for the project’s four-bedroom units, and $1,476 total for its one-bedroom units.
The deal would be tied to the property, which means that even if Wisznia sells it, the new owner would have to abide by the same rules.
In exchange, the IDB and city agreed to let Wisznia make an annual payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, equal to the tax he now pays on the parking lot, a little more than $52,000 annually, rather than the normal property tax on a large residential building.
Once the project is built, that amount will grow by 3 percent a year for five years, then by 5 percent a year for the next five, and by 7 percent for the last five years. Near the end of the 15-year period, the payment would be roughly $105,000 annually, IDB attorney David Wolf said.
As for the overcrowding concern, the project will have 46 four-bedroom units limited to one person per bed and 19 one-bedroom units limited to two people per bed, meaning it would house 222 people at most, Ward said.
Members of the Lafayette Square group told the IDB last week that the city’s deal with Wisznia appeared to address many of their concerns, but they chided the developers for not telling the association about the agreement earlier in the process.
The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance praised the project, calling it an important step toward providing affordable housing options for residents who make too much money for traditional subsidized housing programs but who are still being priced out of desirable city areas.