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New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks as City Park hosts the annual Swing In The Oaks free concert with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans, La., Tuesday, April 16, 2019.

In a boost to efforts to create more affordable housing in New Orleans, a Louisiana Senate committee on Monday cleared a ballot issue that could bring some tax relief to the city’s homeowners.

The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee sent the measure to the full Senate without opposition. If it makes it all the way through the Legislature, Louisiana's voters would be asked to consider the idea in October. 

The proposal, backed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell, would let New Orleans offer tax freezes, exemptions or other relief on local property taxes to longtime and first-time homeowners. 

More details on the exact nature of the help, and who would qualify for it, will come later, John Pourciau, Cantrell's chief of staff, told lawmakers. 

"This is more about allowing the authority to create the (relief)," he said. 

Many New Orleans residents have seen their assessments and therefore their tax bills rise after renovations on nearby houses have led to higher assessments for whole neighborhoods. Those houses in many cases are only used as short-term rentals. 

People's wages have not kept up with the increase in housing costs. As a result, many homeowners and renters have been forced from the city's core to its margins or to neighboring parishes where homes are cheaper, a phenomenon advocates say has reached crisis proportions. 

The city has done a poor job thus far of addressing the issue through housing subsidies, according to HousingNOLA, an affordable housing advocacy group.

Although the city should be adding a net 1,500 new affordable housing units this year to start to get a handle on the problem, it has created only 84 so far, the group said in a Monday report. 

Pourciau and the lawmaker Cantrell tapped to sponsor the ballot issue, Sen. Troy Carter, D-Algiers, said they hope it would help solve those problems. 

The tax relief could be offered to longtime residents and first-time homebuyers who could not otherwise afford the taxes on their homes, Pourciau said.

Developers looking to build affordable housing could also use the new program rather than relying solely on various programs run by the Industrial Development Board or other entities. 

For developers required to build affordable units under rules the City Council passed in March, the tax breaks could help counteract the financial hardship they incur by having to keep rents on those units very cheap. 

The new homes that would be built as a result of such policies will help drive up property taxes in formerly vacant areas, which cuts back on the chance that the proposal will cause the city to lose money, Pourciau said. 

All of that did not seem to convince Sen. Neil Riser of Columbia that the plan was well thought-out. "I would hate to see you have more blighted property ... because you have individuals that are real borderline on (being able to afford) something ... and are not able to pay their taxes later" when the tax benefits expire, he said. 

He also said the city should do a financial analysis to see how much the proposal would affect its revenue and ability to borrow money long-term. 

But the committee passed Senate Bills 79 and 80 with no objection, after John Sullivan of Enterprise Community Partners said such tax breaks can help affordable housing projects get cleared for more financing, and Maxwell Ciardullo of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center said they could help residents who have seen their property taxes more than double in recent years.  

Roy Warner, 65, is one such resident. The taxes on his Bywater house last year shot up to nearly three times what they were in 2017, he said in a phone interview. 

After hearing about the proposal before the Legislature, the retiree said it sounded OK, but that past grand plans haven't seemed to make a difference. 

"I got plenty hope, but I'm doubtful," Warner said. 

The bills head to the Senate floor on Tuesday. They have yet to be taken up in the House.  


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.