Two days before the first of dozens of low-income residents are set to be booted from the American Can Co. apartments in Mid-City, tenants and their supporters rallied in front of City Hall on Thursday to call on city officials to step in.
But even though officials in Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration met with protesters following the rally, it's unclear whether the city can do anything to keep the residents in their homes.
Saturday is the deadline for the first several tenants to be moved out, with residents of all 53 affordable housing units in the complex expected to be kicked out in coming months.
Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker said the administration has reached out to Audubon Communities, the Georgia company that owns the American Can property, to discuss delaying any evictions, but the company has yet to respond.
Walker said the administration will help displaced residents find new apartments.
Some residents came away saying more than discussions are needed.
“It sounds great, but like they say, ‘Talk is talk and walk is walk,’ " said Mike Esnault, a disabled veteran who has been told to move out by Saturday.
"Children are being put out of their homes all for the sake of gentrification," said Athelgra Landry, another tenant facing eviction.
The American Can Co. property, a former industrial plant, was converted to housing with government assistance, including $29 million in tax-exempt bond financing from the city's Industrial Development Board. That financing came with the condition that 20 percent of the complex's 268 units be set aside for low-income residents for 15 years, an agreement set to expire on Jan. 31.
Some of the complex's tenants who are in low-income apartments — including a 95-year-old woman and several with disabilities — have been told they must leave by the end of the year as the company converts those units to market-rate apartments.
“This is the beginning of a movement, and we’re here to say that as long as these tenants want to stay, we’re going to stay with them,” activist Gavrielle Gemma said. “We shall not move.”
At the end of the rally, tenants and their supporters filled the lobby of Landrieu’s office calling for a meeting with the mayor. Walker said the mayor was unavailable, but Walker held a meeting with several tenants and officials including City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, Landrieu Chief of Staff Brooke Smith and Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Hebert.
“We think it’s absolutely important that when those timetables are done, when they’ve met their legal obligation, there’s a moral responsibility that companies have to work with their residents to give them enough heads-up that those affordable units will change, and we expect this company should work with their residents as well,” Walker said.
Asked whether the administration considers American Can to be acting in an immoral fashion, Walker said, “I wouldn’t say that.”
Guidry, whose district includes the complex, said, “We want to do whatever we can to alleviate that situation.” She said affordable housing is “something that’s very much at the forefront of our minds going into 2017.”
But there appeared to be few firm ideas about how to help the residents, other than hoping Audubon Communities agrees to extend their leases and providing information about existing affordable housing programs.
The American Can controversy has become the latest flash point in a wider debate about the rising cost of housing in New Orleans and the displacement of long-time residents.
Many of the roughly two dozen people who rallied at City Hall on Thursday tied the situation to larger problems in the city. Some carried signs reading “Homes for people not for profits,” the same placards used by opponents of short-term rentals in recent debates.
The owners of the American Can Co. apartment complex have been served with a cease-and-desis…
The American Can residents are not the only ones who will likely feel the impact of expiring affordable housing arrangements in the coming years.
For years, New Orleans and other cities have subsidized developments that include affordable housing alongside market-rate units. The cities have offered incentives such as tax breaks, direct funding and provisions allowing developers to build more units than would normally be allowed. But those agreements typically expire after a number of years, allowing the same conversion as the American Can complex is undertaking.
Deals covering about 6,100 units are expected to expire in the next 15 years, with 1,200 of those agreements expiring by 2021.
The rising cost of living in the city is driving out residents, said Anne Tucker.
“I worked in the hospitality industry, and tourists always said, ‘I love this city. It’s so diverse,’ " Tucker said. “But all that’s going to be gone.”