Few places better showcase New Orleans’ post-Katrina revival than the South Market District, a half-billion-dollar residential and retail project that rose on an edge of the Central Business District long known mainly for blight and parking lots.
And then there is Burnell Cotlon's neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward.
The five-block South Market District is abuzz with boutique shops, pricey apartments and trendy restaurants. There's a sprawling Rouses Market and a new streetcar line.
Cotlon, on the other hand, has just four neighbors on his block of Tricou Street. There wasn't a single grocery store in the area until he decided to build one with his own savings. The neighborhood seems in some ways to be only days, not 12 years, removed from the flood that brought it to its knees during Hurricane Katrina.
“All I want to do is see my community catch up with the rest of the city," Cotlon said. "Even if I have to build it by myself.”
New Orleans has always been an unequal place. But the divide on display in comparisons like this underscores one of the biggest challenges facing whoever takes over at City Hall after this fall's elections.
New Orleans has spent nearly eight years under a mayor who took office promising not to rebuild the city that existed before Katrina but to build the "city we want to become."
As he prepares to leave office, Mitch Landrieu can point to a growing population, a tourism boom and surging property values.
But he will also leave to his successor a city that, like the country at large, is as economically divided as ever: neighborhoods that have not bounced back, stagnant wages, soaring rents and a lack of jobs, especially for those without college degrees.
The leading candidates vying to replace Landrieu — former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet and businessman Troy Henry — all promise to tackle inequality.
They talk of luring businesses to poor neighborhoods, investing in infrastructure or launching new affordable housing initiatives. Some of their ideas are new; others have been batted around for decades.
There’s no guarantee that any of it will pay off. Economic development plans can take years to fully realize, and they depend on factors that are often outside a mayor's control, not the least of which is private investment.
It isn't just the Lower 9th Ward where residents are feeling left behind by the city's comeback.
Among the top candidates, Henry has probably offered the most detailed blueprint for trying to revive New Orleans East, an area he says officials have ignored.
Henry says he would reopen both Jazzland, the predecessor to the abandoned Six Flags amusement park, and the historically blacks-only Lincoln Beach next to Lake Pontchartrain. He says he would also recruit new tenants for a restored Plaza shopping center at Read Boulevard and Interstate 10, a huge revenue generator for the city in its heyday. He'd further encourage “clusters” of development in the Lower 9th Ward, first through residential incentives, then by attracting retailers.
Sitting officials and power brokers, however, say such grand plans are a heavy lift. There are at least three proposals to bring Jazzland or some other attraction to the Six Flags site, but Landrieu and other officials have not taken any of them seriously and have struggled to find a qualified developer for the project.
Talk of reopening long-shuttered Lincoln Beach has brewed for years but gone nowhere.
As for redeveloping the Plaza, Henry would be merely the latest entrant in an effort that has been hindered for years by a floundering retail industry unwilling to put new big-box stores at a new location. In fact, major retailers such as Sears, JCPenney and Macy’s have been closing stores all over the country.
“Anyone who says, ‘This is a project that can certainly be built,’ I don’t believe that they understand all the dynamics,” said Louis Lauricella of Lauricella Land Co., the real-estate firm behind the effort to revive the old Plaza.
Henry’s overall plan for the 9th Ward — using incentives to lure more residents who, in turn, would make the area more attractive to businesses — doesn’t sound so different from what the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is doing there already, through an initiative slated to create 300 housing units over the next four years.
Cantrell, meanwhile, has said she wants to move some city offices, such as the permitting office or Bureau of the Treasury, into neighborhoods, a move she claims would spur private investment near those satellite locations. She would also continue work NORA is already doing, by giving incentives to new homebuyers to purchase Road Home properties.
Bagneris has called for more of the “transit-oriented” development that City Hall has pushed in recent years, or building developments around public transit. Such investments can be catalysts for major growth; South Market, for example, sprang up after a streetcar line was placed nearby.
Charbonnet has said she would work toward improving the New Orleans Regional Business Park in New Orleans East, which houses NASA, Folger’s Coffee Co. and the new Starlight Studios, among other businesses. She says the park is underutilized.
'Us is everybody'
Rising property values, a byproduct of wealthy newcomers paying a premium for houses in safe and convenient neighborhoods, have boosted the city's wealth but also priced many longtime residents out of the city's core.
The problem has become so pervasive that affordable housing has become a hot issue in this year's mayoral race.
“I think before, the problem was, if you needed affordable housing, then you needed subsidized housing, and that made you one of ‘them,' ’’ said Andreanecia Morris, of the housing advocacy group HousingNOLA. “Now, there is no ‘them.’ ‘Us’ is everybody, and ‘them’ are the millionaires.”
Take Dedrick LeBeau, a 49-year-old New Orleans native who never thought he’d be living in St. Bernard Parish until his landlord last year left him with little choice.
“The landlord went up with the rent and things like that, because of property tax and other reasons,” he said of the three-bedroom shotgun he once rented on Upperline Street in Uptown. “If I was going to be paying $1,600 a month for rent, I might as well have left.”
While home values in the city shot up by 54 percent from 2000 to 2013, and rents by half over that same period, median household income, at $37,000, stayed the same, according to census data compiled by Morris’ group.
The group's solutions for that dilemma, which notably include requiring developers to reserve a portion of the units in new residential developments for tenants with lower incomes, have been adopted by Landrieu almost wholesale. And most major candidates say they largely will continue in that vein.
However, Cantrell and her closest competitors disagree over whether the proliferation of short-term rentals through websites like Airbnb has been a major part of the problem.
Charbonnet has said she would institute a cap on the number of such rentals in certain residential neighborhoods and would force short-term rental operators to have homestead exemptions, meaning they would have to live in the building — which could significantly curb the number of legal rentals in the city. Bagneris and Henry have also called for some limits on such rentals.
But Cantrell says the revenue generated from the rentals can help pay for other affordable housing initiatives and that it’s too soon to consider major changes to a short-term rental law that went into effect only in April. She says the city’s housing crunch is actually a result of failures by city leadership to preserve affordable units in the years immediately after the storm.
Charbonnet, Henry and Bagneris are all critical of the city’s proposed rental registry, which would force landlords to register their properties with the city and submit to annual inspections designed to ensure they are offering quality housing. The three candidates argue, variously, that such a policy would be difficult to carry out in practice, would push up rents even higher or would be unnecessary if the city simply enforced existing laws.
Cantrell co-authored the registry ordinance and supports its passage, though it has yet to be considered by the full council.
Three years ago, City Hall, think tanks, advocacy organizations and industry leaders coalesced around one figure: 52 percent.
That startling number was the proportion of African-American men in New Orleans who were out of work the previous year, a data point trumpeted by Loyola University researchers that became the launching pad for one of Landrieu’s signature initiatives.
Under the so-called economic opportunity strategy, City Hall would connect the city’s largest employers and institutions to its hardest-to-employ residents, a move pitched as both a vehicle for new jobs and a weapon in the war against violent crime.
A 2015 drop in the black male unemployment rate, to 44 percent, has given Landrieu a basis to claim his efforts are paying off.
City officials in a recent interview also pointed, along with other successes, to a 32 point jump in the percentage of firms owned by women or minorities doing business with the city since 2010, after the city stepped up enforcement of a policy of steering at least 35 percent of city work to such firms.
Otis Tucker Jr., who graduated from a soft-skills training program that was birthed from the strategy, has gone on to land city construction contracts as a result. “I was a one-truck, one-man show, and I just saw opportunity bidding in the public sector with all the work coming out," he said. "But I didn’t have a roadmap."
But those public-sector efforts only scratch the surface of a much broader problem. The low-wage hospitality industry still dominates New Orleans' economy, and some higher-paying fields, such as the energy and maritime industries, are making fewer hires as automated systems continue to claim jobs once done by people.
Other, newer industries struggle to find talent. Overall, the New Orleans area ranked dead last among major U.S. cities in terms of prosperity, according to a recent Brookings Institution study.
“People needed jobs yesterday, and unfortunately, we just don't have that yet,” said Quentin Messer Jr. of the New Orleans Business Alliance, an entity created in 2010 by Landrieu and business leaders to address job growth.
The work of future mayors must play to the city's strength as a mecca for young talent, Messer added.
A few candidates have begun to talk that talk.
Bagneris, notably, has said the city “has been blessed with too many resources to depend simply on tourism” and touts its numerous colleges and universities as a strength. As mayor, he says, he would encourage more local manufacturing of products that can be shipped out of New Orleans’ port and would try to persuade more music industry leaders to set up shop in the city.
Henry has pledged to bring 40,000 jobs to New Orleans by attracting Fortune 1000 companies and creating training programs for in-demand jobs.
Cantrell would try to create more traditional tourism industry and health sector jobs, as well as jobs in manufacturing, digital media platforms, renewable energy, water management and coastal erosion control. The push around the latter three industries echoes Landrieu’s climate action plan, which calls for more jobs in the “blue-green economy.”
Cantrell, Henry and Charbonnet all have pledged to work toward a $15 minimum wage, a change that, while achievable for locally controlled public sector jobs, would be difficult to realize in the private sector absent a change of heart by state lawmakers, who have killed efforts to raise the state's minimum wage and banned cities from setting their own minimums for private employers.
In an economic development plan released Friday, Charbonnet pledged to enforce the city’s current $10.55 minimum wage ordinance for city contractors. She said she would tweak reforms Landrieu made to the city’s contracting process, particularly for professional-services contracts such as legal and architectural work, in a bid to open those procurement opportunities to more small and local businesses.
Charbonnet said she also would mandate equal pay for women and would encourage businesses to hire local and minority employees, again an echo of local-hire rules Landrieu and the council enacted in 2015.
Early voting in the mayor's race begins Sept. 30; the primary is Oct. 14.