Archive for October, 2010
AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE • September 2010
While progress has been made, New Orleans still suffers from a lack of affordable housing
BY DONNA KIMURA
NEW ORLEANS—A few bare walls and broken doors separate Mike Miller from the unknown.
“Hey guys, you home?” he calls out while standing outside a desperate looking building. “It’s Mike from Unity.”
When he gets no answer, Miller, Shamus Rohn, and Katy Quigley walk to the other side of the property to find an open entrance. Armed with only flashlights, they make their way through the dark, empty building.
“Homeless outreach,” says Rohn, raising his voice to make his presence as well as his reason for being inside known.
No one answers as the trio moves through the large commercial building. They think it may have once been a meat plant, but it’s hard to tell in the dark and hard to know when so many buildings in New Orleans sit empty.
In the back, they find tidy bedrolls and other signs that someone has been living inside. A picture of a dog has been fastened to a stark wall, a small attempt to make the place home.
It’s about 10 p.m., and the squatters are not around. The team members make a note to check back another time, and when they do catch up with them, they will lend a sympathetic ear, try to find them appropriate housing, and offer any assistance that they can.
UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofi t working with New Orleans’ homeless, has taken the bold step of sending workers into the city’s abandoned buildings at night to reach the homeless who are hidden from view.
“No other American city is dealing with anything on this scale,” says Martha Kegel, Unity’s executive director. “We’ve got over 60,000 abandoned residential and commercial properties, and our most conservative estimate is there are about 3,000 people living in them.”
The saddest part is that most of the people that Unity is finding were stably housed before Hurricane Katrina and its toxic floodwaters ruined their homes and defiled their city.
Unity workers have rescued a man in mid-suicide and discovered a group of seniors, the oldest 90, living in an abandoned garage with holes in the roof.
“The search and rescue from Katrina, five years later, is still not finished,” says Kegel.
Double the homeless
Kegel easily pulls numbers and facts about the city’s homeless and affordable housing from memory. An attorney, she ran a legal services project for the homeless before taking over Unity’s top post in 2003. She was preparing to adopt a baby and thought the job change would provide her a more regular schedule. It is a rare case where she was wrong. The last few years have been anything but normal.
Before Katrina, there were about 6,300 homeless individuals on any given night in New Orleans. Today, the homeless population is estimated to be nearly double that at 11,500, including people in transitional housing and those about to be evicted from their homes or discharged from institutions with no place to go. Charity Hospital and many of the outreach centers that served the poor and mentally ill remain closed.
In the years right after Katrina, large homeless camps emerged around the city. The leaders of Unity and its collaborative organizations, who aren’t easily shocked, were horrified as camps grew in size each week. If homelessness were measured like hurricanes, it would have been a Category 5.
“Our social workers drew a line in the sand and said we’re not going to let this happen to our most vulnerable neighbors and we’re not going to let this happen to our city,” says Kegel. “We’re not going to let this become the new normal.”
Unity housed 457 people in eight months on sheer adrenaline, she says. Now, they have a more daunting challenge of scouring abandoned buildings for the homeless. About 98 percent of the people they find have a significant disability; 27 percent are women. Nearly all are happy to see the Unity workers. They’ve been waiting years for someone to come by and help, says Kegel.
On the same muggy June night, Rohn, Miller, and Quigley search one desolate building after another, making their way across shaky floors, over discarded building materials, and through puddles of water left by a heavy morning rain. They find mattresses, shoes, beer cans, and other signs that people have been around.
They stop at a school that was something back in its day but is now a skeleton of what it once was.
About two hours after visiting the first building of the evening, Rohn is driving through a quiet neighborhood when Miller spots someone entering a house that was believed to be empty. They double back and meet a soft-spoken man who has lived in New Orleans his entire life. The house belonged to his dead uncle, he tells them.
Standing on the porch, the workers gather the information they need to begin a case and provide him the help that he may need. The man lets the strangers look inside the home. In the front room near the door, two men sleep undisturbed. They work during the day and rest at the house in the evening.
Before their long night is through, the Unity workers drive to another brokendown house with “gas off” painted on the front. Inside, Rohn finds two more men.
Demand vs. supply
Many in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast are eager to share the progress made in the five years since Hurricane Katrina, and there have been major accomplishments. Nearly 250 new or rehabilitated developments financed with Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) have been placed in service throughout the Gulf Coast.
Another outcome has been an increased level of interest in housing policy, with state and local governments wanting a greater role in the housing discussion, says Evelyn Brown, senior vice president and manager of the Gulf program at the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC).
Still, few can say enough has been done, and there’s concern that money will run out and public interest will ebb when a large amount of work is still left.
The 2005 storms damaged more than a million housing units in the Gulf Coast region. In New Orleans alone, 134,000 housing units—70 percent of all occupied units—suffered damage, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
The center estimates that there is a lack of affordable housing or subsidies for at least 20,019 households in New Orleans.
Housing production isn’t nearly enough to meet this demand, with 7,754 federally subsidized units in the pipeline as of last October, mostly LIHTC units, and another 2,666 units in the planning stages, according to Housing Production Needs: Three Scenarios for New Orleans, a report issued by the center and The Urban Institute last fall.
“The biggest obstacle for developers has been the massive scale of this disaster,” says Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
In other disasters like a tornado, communities see a few neighborhoods damaged while other areas remain intact. That was far from the case in 2005.
“Entire neighborhoods were impacted, and it took months for many homeowners or businesses to return to assess the damage,” says Landrieu. “In general, we have also had to deal with lower population levels in some areas, which have created recovery challenges for businesses and developers operating in these areas.”
She cites how in St. Bernard and Orleans parishes in Louisiana, from 2005 to 2006, the population fell by approximately 78 percent and 54 percent, respectively; and the number of small businesses declined by 40 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
Now, as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, many of the same areas face further obstacles to their recovery, says Landrieu.
Jack-o’-lantern effect A few months before the fifth anniversary of the storm and levee breaks, the city is a riddle, with time seeming to move at different speeds depending on where you stand. Some parts of New Orleans are forging ahead while other parts are frozen in time. Rebuilt homes sit next to empty lots that sit next to boarded-up houses still bearing the tattoos painted by rescue teams.
This patchwork is known as the jack-o’- lantern effect, says Liza Cowan, a program officer for community revitalization at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which is in the midst of a five-year, $25 million housing initiative.
She drives through the city, pointing out key affordable housing projects that have risen since the storm and others that are under construction.
Much of the planned recovery was based on a 2005 economy, but the national recession dealt a big blow to the efforts. Developments using LIHTCs, the nation’s biggest affordable housing production program, took longer to close while others lost their investors. Environmental and other issues took longer to sort.
Although there’s been a good deal of progress, a new visitor would be struck by how much work there’s still left to do, admits Fred Tombar, senior adviser to Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan.
“It speaks to just how severe and impactful the damage of Katrina and Rita was,” the New Orleans native says, adding that it’s hard to have a litmus test for where the recovery efforts should be when nothing like Katrina has ever occurred.
The block where Tombar grew up has yet to fully recover. He recently saw a school bus make its way through a familiar neighborhood and read it as a sign of life returning to normal.
One of the biggest challenges for affordable housing developers right now is the looming deadline for projects fi- nanced with GO Zone credits, according to Tombar. An estimated 6,000 affordable units are in jeopardy of missing the Jan. 1, 2011, placed-in-service deadline.
Donovan has been working with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to get Congress to extend the deadline to give stalled projects a shot at being built.
Another HUD priority is to move from recovery to revitalization, says Tombar. “Will there be parks for the kids in the complex to play in, grocery stores for residents to shop in, lasting jobs that people can rely on to meet the rent demand?” he asks. “Those are the things we’ve been focusing on.”
Since taking office in 2009, Donovan’s team has taken key steps in the Gulf, including moving people into the Sec. 8 housing voucher program and being assertive about where Community Development Block Grants are directed, says Sheila Crowley, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
At the same time, she’s quick to point out that public housing remains largely missing in the city and other affordable housing has yet to be rebuilt. Recent reports showed 958 families in Louisiana and another 197 in Mississippi still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, with advocates convinced the Mississippi number is actually higher, says Crowley.
Advocates say the answer is more affordable housing.
A number of familiar names have stepped up their efforts. Habitat for Humanity has built 302 homes since Katrina, including Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward. The group was building just 10 houses a year before the hurricane but now has a goal of 50 a year.
LISC and Enterprise have opened offices in New Orleans. Volunteers of America, which had a big presence in the city with more than 1,000 units before Katrina, is busy rebuilding many of the units it lost and is one of the most active developers. New Orleans-based HRI Properties, a specialist in adaptive-reuse projects, has done about 10 deals since the storms.
McCormack Baron Salazar, a national firm that specializes in rebuilding urban neighborhoods, and Atlanta-based Columbia Residential are involved in two of the Big Four public housing redevelopments.
New developers have also entered the scene. The Domain Cos., led by Tulane University friends Matt Schwartz and Chris Papamichael, has built three prominent mixed-income properties in Mid- City. Providence Community Housing, a faith-based nonprofit has risen in the wake of Katrina to build several projects, and Realtex Development Corp. out of Austin, Texas, has completed nine developments in Mississippi in the last five years.
Still, there’s more affordable housing that needs to be built and more low-income families that need to be housed. Just then maybe Unity workers can end their search.View Post
Supportive housing can curb homelessness in our own backyard: A guest column by Rosanne Haggerty and Martha J. Kegel
New Orleanians are engaged in an important conversation about housing the homeless. But misinformation has often stood in the way of productive debate. Data show that permanent, supportive housing — affordable apartments linked to case management services — is both good for local communities and the only proven way to end the homelessness of people with disabilities.
The philosophy behind supportive housing is simple. The best response to homelessness is housing, and the most effective housing includes supportive services.
Supportive housing tenants work regularly with clinicians and case managers to address physical and behavioral health problems and to stay housed.
As more communities across the country adopt the supportive housing model, long-term or “chronic” homelessness has fallen by more than 30 percent nationwide. The vast majority of supportive housing tenants remain stably housed after moving into their apartments. As these individuals rebuild their lives after years of homelessness, they stop turning up in emergency rooms or going to jail on “homeless” charges. Public cost savings can be as high as $137,000 per person annually.
Supportive housing is successful and cost-effective. Over the past 10 years, more than 2,000 supportive housing apartments have been created in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish that are already housing people with disabilities, many of them formerly homeless.
So why has supportive housing suddenly become controversial in New Orleans?
The current controversy focuses on the redevelopment of an abandoned nursing home on Esplanade Avenue into 40 apartments, half for people with disabilities and half for low-income working people. Leaders of the opposition express fear that formerly homeless disabled tenants will cause an increase in neighborhood violence and a decline in property values. Research and experience point to the opposite outcome. Supportive housing buildings do not negatively impact neighborhoods, and they often afford notable benefits to neighbors.
A recent New York University study evaluated sale prices of residential properties in neighborhoods throughout New York where supportive housing has been developed. As in New Orleans, many of these developments replaced blighted properties like the Esplanade Avenue nursing home. After five years, those residential properties closest to supportive housing developments had appreciated at a markedly higher rate than similar properties a few streets away. Far from driving property values down, supportive housing helped to push them up.
The Esplanade development is one of several now under way through a partnership between UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the nonprofit coordinating local strategies to end homelessness, and Common Ground Community of New York, a leading national nonprofit developer of supportive housing. The partnership seeks to replicate the highly successful Common Ground model, in which supportive housing buildings are carefully designed with aesthetic and community impact in mind. The developments being created will have round-the-clock professional security staff ensuring order and contributing to the overall safety of the neighborhood.
Post-Katrina, New Orleans has suffered a near-doubling of homelessness, partly as a result of a 45 percent spike in rents. The landscape is scarred by 55,000 abandoned commercial and residential buildings, in which more than 1,950 disabled or elderly Katrina survivors are living, according to random sample surveys of census blocks and analysis of people found in these structures by UNITY’s Abandoned Buildings Outreach Team.
These vulnerable persons, along with hundreds more people with disabilities living in emergency shelters or on the streets, deserve the opportunity to have a home.
Their lives may depend on it. Over 800 people with serious disabilities wwawait housing on UNITY’s Permanent Supportive Housing Registry. Among those awaiting housing are a 55-year-old mentally retarded man with heart disease and HIV who has been repeatedly victimized on the streets; a 41-year-old woman repeatedly hospitalized in the past year for heart failure, diabetes, asthma and mental illness; and a 52-year-old veteran with one lung. Supportive housing can reintegrate them into the community.
Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis, but it is bad for a community in many other ways as well. By converting abandoned buildings into beautifully renovated apartments, supportive housing offers an opportunity to help solve several of New Orleans’ pressing problems at once. Housing the homeless is good for everyone.
Rosanne Haggerty is president of Common Ground Community of New York. Martha J. Kegel is executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans.
© 2010 NOLA.com. All rights reserved.View Post
“Hey UNITY, I’m waiting for you!!!”
These are the words shouted from the front porch of a shotgun double in Central City as we drove past in the van this afternoon. The man shouting them yells them nearly verbatim whenever he sees us. We’ve met him before. We’ve explained that, as he has an apartment, we cannot open a case on him because – and this shocks some people – we work with homeless people. I realize that words have multiple definitions, but this man does not seem to understand that without committing fraud there is no way that I can count him as meeting the definition of homeless given his apartment with cable television and window A/C units. I’ve explained this twice.
And yes, I understand that he wants to move out of his house and into a more affordable place in a nicer and safer neighborhood. If I lived in that section of Jackson Avenue, I’d want to move, too. But this is what often amazes me about the human condition, and what occasionally rattles my faith that humans can be objective and in some way able to legitimately compare their circumstances to the circumstances of others: this man just doesn’t seem to understand that there are people worse off, and so much worse off that they qualify for special programs based on their utterly deplorable deprivation.
I wonder whether he would finally understand this if he had been in the van with me for my next stop. I went to go see a man we call by the name of the town he was born in. For anonymity’s sake, I’ll call him Lafayette.
Lafayette has been on the streets of New Orleans since before Hurricane Katrina. For a few years he told me and my co-workers that he was doing okay and that there were other people who needed our help more than he did. For whatever reason, I finally talked him into accepting my help about two months ago. I’ve been pushing his case ever since.
Last week we finally got his psychiatric disorder diagnosed and documented, and Mike completed his application for Permanent Supportive Housing. I got the final signature from Lafayette at 3:21pm on Friday, and told him it should go through for approval for the housing program this past Monday. On Friday I expected that we would be able to refer 20 people this week. Unfortunately, that number turned out to be only 5. So 15 got left out in the cold (actually, it’s pretty temperate here right now) for at least another week.
So I went to tell Lafayette the bad news that he was one of those 15. He damn near lost it right then and there. He spent all weekend walking up and down streets looking for apartments. Normally, he does not leave his spot for fear of losing his possessions, but he told me that while he was walking around with dreams of an apartment in his head, “some asshole stole my bike.”
“What do I have to do? Commit suicide to get housed?”
I informed him that if he committed suicide I definitely would not be able to get him housed, but that if he was seriously considering it I needed to get him to a hospital. He informed Mike and I that he had no intention or plan of harming himself or anyone else.
Then something important happened: he opened up a little more than he had in conversations past. I knew that when Katrina happened he was briefly in a witness protection program related to a murder that he saw in the summer of 2005. I also know that the case fell apart due to evidence lost in Katrina, and he was put out of the witness protection program only to return to the exact same overpass. So I inquired: “Hey, tell me a little bit more about that murder.”
“I see it every day.” I suspected something like this was true, but he’d never said so. While witnessing the murder didn’t cause his homelessness, it is clear that his mental stability was further compromised by the incident. But in past meetings he has refused to talk about the murder outside of explaining why he was housed for only 6-weeks out of the past 6 years – if you can testify in a capitol murder case, the DA will pony up some rent assistance; when the case falls apart, the pony gallops away and you’re back on your own.
So he described a murder in frightening detail. He talked about how the cab screeched to a halt and indicated a place less than a block from where he still sleeps. He saw a man and a woman get out of the back, and the driver stumble out of the front. He saw the man shove the driver down. He saw the woman grab a 2×4 and go to work. He said the worst thing about it was that she did it in the cold clinical manner of a doctor performing surgery – “just doing a job” were his words – as if it was nothing. He told me how the people who did it walked over to him afterward and threatened him to keep his mouth shut. Then he described his conscience getting the better of him, walking over to the man who was beaten, hearing the blood gurgle in his throat and then running to find a police officer for help.
He relives this every day.
Approval of his housing application this week was supposed to be the first good thing to happen in his life in the last six years. He had hope and smiled for the first time when I got that final signature from him last Friday afternoon.
That hope is gone. I pleaded with him to trust me that I’d do everything in my power to make sure his application is approved this coming week. But that’s still another week he is going to call this overpass home with the cab driver’s ghost choking on its own blood only 200-yards away every night.
And the man on the porch with the cable and the A/C units is angry that I’m not helping him. Maybe if I could let him watch this murder in first person and threaten him with watching it every day for the rest of his life, he’d finally understand. Maybe if he spent one night trying to shut out the roar of the cars on the bridge over head and sleep, wondering whether those two people that killed that cab driver right over there are still out there, whether they might decide to come back… well, just maybe he would understand.