There’s no Road Home for Renters
The headlines here in New Orleans have been trashing the federally funded housing rebuilding program, the Road Home, its private contractor ICF, for their inability to provide payments to homeowners to fix their properties. As of May 14th, barely one out of eight applicants had received payments -- 16,784 of the 136,604 applicants, to be precise. This is undeniably a dismal performance for a program that's been up and running for nearly a year and there have been multiple calls to fire ICF. There's even a bill in the state legislature to disband the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the policy setting recovery body for the state that awarded ICF the contract.
Strangely, though, no one seems to be talking about how the vast majority (80 percent) of the nearly $9 billion allocated to Road Home to rebuild housing in the state is intended for homeowners, despite 40 percent of the housing units destroyed by the 2005 hurricanes and levee breaks were rental units. Of course, renters are more likely to be poor or of color. This discrepancy hits particularly hard in areas that had high levels of renters before the storm, such as New Orleans. If current estimates hold true, the rental programs funded through the Road Home will eventually rebuild approximately 24,000 units -- or just about half of the destroyed rental housing. There is currently no plan to rebuild the remaining half that was destroyed.
On top of the severe reduction in the number of units available, rents have risen dramatically over the past 20 months, with huge increases in the first year following the storm, some of which has slightly tapered off, but rents are still upwards of 70% higher than pre-Katrina prices.
One of the major indications of the state of a rental market is the annual publication of HUD's Fair Market Rents. Between the time of the storm and the 2007 published rents, HUD increased these rents 45%, a huge hike. This means that in today's market in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, which is $978, a minimum wage worker in New Orleans must work 146 hours a week representing 3.7 full-time jobs.
Not only are minimum-wage earners currently unable to afford rents in New Orleans, but so are other key members of the community and economy. Salaried workers such as hotel clerks, clergy members, rookie cops, building inspectors, home health aides, and elementary school teachers are among those that don't earn enough for a two-bedroom apartment. Homelessness has doubled since pre-Katrina, with only half the population back. People are living in units that have not been fixed because there is nowhere else for them to go. Many of those who rented helped breathe life into the city, New Orleans can't recover without them.
Although the city and the state are clearly in a crisis, there is no plan at either level that focuses solely on housing. In New Orleans, local advocates are asking the city to come up with their own housing plan. Besides new affordability issues New Orleans harbored other housing problems pre-storm such as blight cause by poorly maintained, and non-existent protections for renters who complained about unsafe conditions in their homes.
Housing advocates realize that an effective housing plan needs to be developed, not only to address the crisis in affordability, but also to confront many of the other long standing housing issues in the city. Some key components would be:
--Inclusionary zoning to build more affordable units and distribute affordable housing to all parts of the city
-- Increased management and code enforcement to fight historical precedents of poorly maintained rental buildings
-- A much needed set of laws to protect renter's rights.
Providing payments to homeowners to rebuild is essential for the recovery of our city, but we can't forget about those renters who are essential to the city and who still cannot come home.