Following on our trip to Capitol Hill this week, the tremendous efforts of Gulf Coast advocates to bring some much needed affordable housing to the region are beginning to pay off. Word among the low-income housing advocacy community indicates that Sen. Vitter (R-LA), one of two main opponents (the other being GOP Senator Shelby from AL) to the bill is more amenable to negotiation than his earlier hard line comments indicate.
As Vitter’s colleague Sen. Landrieu (D-LA) points out, and as spokespersons from the National Low-income Housing Coalition have reiterated, his criticisms are “inaccurate.” Indeed, to the dismay of many pro-public housing advocates, S. 1668, the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act, would allow the HUD/HANO demolition projects of almost 5,000 public housing units in New Orleans to proceed. What I learned this week is that, if S.1668 passes, the existing redevelopment plans for the four developments would have to be *amended* to meet the requirements of the bill. Yes, this would take some time, but, contrary to Vitter’s aides explanation of his opposition on Thursday, the HUD/HANO redevelopment would not “start over.” As anyone familiar with mixed-income redevelopments such as those proposed here knows, it is highly unlikely that the three development plans not currently in accord with S.1668 would fall apart over the bill’s guidelines.
The reason this Act is so important – in addition to bringing desperately needed resources for affordable housing to the region, an area plagued by construction and insurance premiums as high as 200% – is that it meets *two key principles* of low-income housing advocates:
a) No net loss of subsidized housing;
b) Residents’ right to return and participation in planning and development.
These two principles stand in stark contrast to the historical performance of contemporary mixed-income re-development, namely the federal HOPE VI program that ran from 1992 until a few years ago. HOPE VI produced only 60,000 â€œrevitalized dwellingsâ€? after knocking down 100,000 “severely distressed” units between 1993-2003. And though early baseline studies documented the desire of many former public housing residents to remain in the neighborhood rather than be relocated to the suburbs, many relocated residents disappeared entirely in the redevelopment process, or fared as poorly or worse due to displacement.
The redevelopment of Lafitte, controversial as it has been for staunch activists seeking to preserve public housing as it was prior to the storm, stands now as the alternative model for public housing redevelopment under S.1668. It replaces every unit plus adds another 600 or so, with the total of ~1,500 units dispersed around the Treme neighborhood where Lafitte is located. It has worked with residents to gather their input, and provides counseling and social services to residents wishing to return. The redevelopment team is comprised of Enterprise Community Partners and Catholic Charities, widely perceived as some of the best in the business in, respectively, affordable housing development and social services for the poor, children, elderly and disabled. I imagine both would bristle at the idea that their plan for Lafitte is an effort to return to the projects “exactly as they were,” as Vitter maintains.
Furthermore, there has been one positive to HOPE VI redevelopment, which should please conservatives and be an expected outcome of the HUD redevelopment in New Orleans: through HOPE VI, $5B in government seed money between 1993-2003 leveraged an additional $11.4B in investments. That’s over $2 in private funds for every government dollar invested. At that rate, the estimated $464M price tag for public housing redevelopment in S.1668 could feasibly bring over $1B to the region, according to my *rough* back of the envelope calculations.
Effectively, about half of the pre-storm public housing in New Orleans will cease to exist within the foreseeable future, with or without this bill. What S.1668 does is authorize new construction of both public and affordable housing for a range of incomes, as well as expand the number of vouchers available for low-income families (project-basing them to ensure that there is housing to go with them). Via federal leadership, desperately needed in the region right now, S.1668 will spur large-scale private sector development of affordable housing that current tax credits and small-scale, idiosyncratic efforts cannot accomplish without additional federal investment.
Critically, S.1668 acknowledges that the 2005 hurricanes’ devastation and subsequent political battle over the future of the indigent, elderly, disabled, and displaced is not only a New Orleans issue, by mandating affordable housing recovery in MS and LA – and if our advocacy efforts pay off, in AL as well. S. 1668 demands that Sens. Vitter and Shelby lead their GOP colleagues in offering long overdue solutions to an obstructed and grossly unfair Katrina recovery. (Indeed, Shelby was Chair of the Senate Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee when Katrina hit, and could have mandated funds for the region then.)
Finally, as Landrieu noted in last Tuesday’s Congressional hearing on S.1668, this is a *compromise* bill. It will not meet the growing affordable housing needs in the Gulf Coast since the storm. Funding for the bill will be an additional political battle, and construction will ultimately depend on significant private investment. But it’s a start, and the only specifically targeted housing bill since Katrina and Rita displaced over 1M people in 2005, among whom countless remain permanently displaced, paying rent in a temporary home and a mortgage on a home they can no longer afford to rebuild, newly homeless, succumbing to illness and even death due to post-storm stressors, and drawing down on generous public support in regions and communities that would just as soon send them home. Urge your Senators to pass S.1668: the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act. You *can* stop the warehousing, evictions and killings of the indigent, elderly and disabled due to a widespread and unacceptable lack of secure and habitable shelter.