In 31 years, I’ve called 23 addresses home; some have felt that way more than others. I grew up in a family that rented and moved often due to a vulnerability that many low-income families experience in the housing market. After my parents divorced, my mom always managed to keep a roof over our heads while raising three small children alone, but this sometimes meant staying with her current boyfriend, sharing a duplex and bedroom walls with a meth addict, or getting robbed by our neighbors. Let’s just say, I always opted to stay at a friend’s house instead of inviting them over to mine.
Our living situation was eventually buoyed by a Section 8 housing voucher through HUD (the U.S. Department of of Housing and Urban Development) after years of being on a waiting list. We were finally able to nestle into a house in a decent neighborhood close to the school my brothers and I attended. I can confidently say that affordable housing assistance changed the course of our lives. Although that house didn’t belong to us in deed, we weren’t afraid of losing it, and so we made it into a home.
It is easy for me to see how my own trajectory could have been drastically different had we continued to bounce from place to place. Affordable housing is a non-negotiable when it comes to helping low-income families move from survival to stability. When housing costs are eating up an already low monthly income, healthy food, doctor’s visits, and the ability for parents to invest in children are significantly affected. The absence of affordable housing among low-income families parallels with lower performance in school across all age groups. Because we finally had help with rent, my mom was able to go back to school, we could afford to join sports teams, and even take an occasional road trip to expand our horizons.
These early experiences of housing insecurity left me with a sensitivity around the importance of affordable housing. Over the past few years, it has become apparent to me that there is a major shift happening here in New Orleans. When I went to interview Andreanecia Morris, the president of GNOHA, my fears were confirmed. According to data collected by Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA), our city is in the midst of an affordability crisis. As I sat and spoke with Andreanecia, I saw a woman who is doggedly working to intervene before things escalate; she believes that we are on the brink of an all-out housing crisis and has the numbers to prove it.
While the Crescent City was once one of the most affordable cities in the nation, the post-Katrina landscape has much of the city’s population struggling with housing costs. Since the storm, sale prices have increased by 54 percent and rental costs have in turn increased by 50 percent. When you couple this with the fact that the median income in the city has not risen in 15 years and the poverty rate is nearly double the national average, it doesn’t take an expert to see why housing affordability is a thing of the past for many of the city’s residents.
With the demolition of the “Big Four” public housing sites of B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard, Lafitte, and C.J. Peete, 4,500 units of low income housing were destroyed, thrusting a staggering number of the city’s poorest population back into an uncertain and already stressed post-Katrina market. In response to this decision, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) increased its reliance on Housing Choice Vouchers (previously called Section 8) to assist families in finding alternative affordable housing options on the market. Vouchers bridge the gap for low-income renters by covering the portion of rent that exceeds 30 percent of income. In theory, vouchers give families more freedom of choice in finding a home. Unfortunately in practice, it’s not so easy; federal funding has come to a standstill and demand continues to rise, especially in urban areas that have seen dramatic increases in cost of living over the past decade.
HANO opened its waitlist for Housing Choice Vouchers in the spring of 2016 for the first time in nine years. The 2016 application period was expected to exceed the previous waitlist opening.The last time they opened the wait list in 2009, they had 30,000 applications. Of those 30,000, HANO reports that 30 percent have received vouchers. What happened to the other 21,000 applications is unclear, though HANO asserts that everyone on the list has been contacted and serviced. As I try to digest these numbers, in my mind’s eye, I see a crowd of people in need of affordable housing opportunities that could fill a football stadium.
We are not the only city in the country struggling with affordability. Not long ago, I was bartending, when a group of middle-aged women came in. They were all visiting from Seattle. I shared that I had gone to college there, and they began to excitedly give me all of the news as to how the city has changed in the past five years. New restaurants, new hot neighborhoods, places I had to go see next time I visited. And then the conversation turned to the homelessness epidemic:
“They’re everywhere; it’s horrible.”
I begin to agree—it’s a truly horrific thing to have such a large portion of the population on the streets in a seemingly progressive city. Before I can get a word in, they continue:
“The garbage, it’s just disgusting.”
“You can’t drive down the interstate without seeing those tent camps.”
“It’s not safe.”
I stood there in growing disbelief, until one women of the three spoke up, saving me from losing the tip I really needed.
“Well, the city needs to figure something out. It’s not like we can just make them all go away.”
Them. They. I want to ask the women who they are, but I don’t. I take their $20 tip instead and feel like a little bit of a failure.
This is where I get stuck with the affordable housing conversation. It seems that those with secure housing not only lack the empathy to identify with the hardships that come with this struggle, but actually think they are somehow completely insulated from it. Section 8 remains a dirty word to many, and the stigma around accepting assistance for something as basic as the ability to be warm and safe is seen as a failure. I know that if I share my own story, these people will most likely see me as an exception, not a testament to the program’s possibility. In New Orleans, much of what impedes progress is stigma and discrimination—stigmas that are widely believed and circulated around the Section 8 program and other affordable housing initiatives. If it comes as a surprise to you that the majority of citizens affected by these stigmas and the resulting affordable housing shortage are African-American, you might not be paying attention.
This is at least half of the struggle that people like Andreanecia Morris are up against, and her frustration is palpable. She is still determined to affect change, but she is also very tired. I heard story after story of the long hours her team puts in working to create realistic solutions and initiatives around affordable housing, only to be shouted down at city planning meetings by uninformed, white citizens who oftentimes have not only come unprepared, but aren’t even in the right meeting for their particular concerns. Many of them don’t even live in Orleans Parish. Her office has developed an entire community-driven initiative called HousingNOLA, guided by an extensive study of the current housing situation. Its 108 pages details a ten-year action plan that might just take a dent out of this growing problem. As I read it, I can’t help but imagine how hard they are going to have to work for even the smallest pieces of it.
I might come from a poor, working class background, but I am also college educated, able-bodied, and white. As a result, I have never had a hard time finding a job. Still, I have three jobs in order to keep up with my basic needs and the hopeful building of a secure future. I’ve heard many of my peers share similar frustrations over how hard they work to get by; having multiple income sources seems to be the norm rather than the exception. If I am having a hard time keeping up with my rent, there is an entire population who has it much, much worse. While I wish that people didn’t have to personally feel the pressure to see the necessity for change, I can only hope that as more people are affected by rising housing costs, action will become unavoidable.
Affordable housing is an issue that does not have any easy fix, but it is one that requires action. As it stands, 60 percent of the city’s population is considered cost burdened, spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing each month, and this number will continue to grow if we don’t come together as a community. Housing is not optional, and the people we are failing will not disappear; in fact, we might join them. Living in a city means our fates our intrinsically tied together whether we like it or not. When I expressed my own hesitancy to Andreanecia to be more outspoken on this issue as a transplant and person of privilege, she looked me right in the eye and told me she had no time for that. As far as she is concerned, if you care about this issue, hop on board and put your back into it.
We can choose to be better, to be different than other cities, and to support the initiatives and programs that recognize that every person is deserving of home. Home is a hard word to define, but we all know what it feels like. To be home is to have a chance at everything else, a safe place to build from so a reliance on a system that hardly sees you is no longer necessary. I have found a home in this beautiful, complicated city, and hope I can stay. I know for that to happen, I have to first look to all of those who came before me, who are losing their own home here at a rapid pace, and cast my lot with them.