“We propose the development of a vastly increased supply of decent low and middle cost housing throughout the area.” — program of the Chicago Freedom Movement, by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., July 10, 1966.
More than 50 years after King wrote these words, with New Orleanians again demanding decent housing they can afford, the New Orleans City Council must start making it a reality.
When King arrived in Chicago in 1966, he found a city where African-Americans were living with little hope of escaping poverty caused mainly by a lack of decent affordable housing. In order to illuminate the conditions, King moved his family into a Chicago slum apartment, while rallying the community and demanding that City Hall commit to housing reforms. While marching with thousands of Chicagoans on a sweltering July day, King taped the housing reform demands to the City Hall door.
Like Chicago, New Orleans is in the grips of an affordable housing crisis that has been building for many years. This crisis continues unabated with each new luxury development that fails to include any units affordable to the average worker. The lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest issues facing our city, and a recent poll revealed that 78 percent of residents feel the city must address it by mandating that all new developments include affordable units.
Considering that half of all New Orleans households are already cost burdened, paying 30 percent or more of their income for housing — with many paying more than half of their income on housing — time is running out.
It is the hardworking people and families that have called New Orleans home for many generations that are being priced out. African-Americans are largely responsible for the culture New Orleans sells to the world, but our neighborhoods are losing black people faster than any other group. Neighborhoods like Treme, Bywater, Mid-City and Freret have suffered dramatic drops in the black population, and many of these longtime residents are the teachers, hotel workers, musicians and culture bearers who make New Orleans one of the country’s most welcoming and unique cities.
A recent report from the Louisiana Association of United Ways pointed out that 53 percent of New Orleans households are living below the poverty line or struggling to pay their monthly bills, and the largest monthly cost is housing.
Danira Ford, a single mother with five children, knows what it’s like to struggle. Ford has lived most of her life in the Gentilly neighborhood, sends her children to the nearby Morris Jeff Community School, and wants to continue raising her family in New Orleans. Despite working multiple jobs, she can’t find housing she can afford, leaving her family of six to share a single bedroom in her mother’s house.
After several months of sharing a single room with her family, Ford has begun to feel that her only option is joining the many other families who have been priced out and left New Orleans to find housing and more opportunities for their families.
The New Orleans City Council can halt this exodus by passing the Smart Housing Mix ordinance. The ordinance would fight displacement and rising rents by ensuring that new developments include units that are affordable to the average resident. City Council has researched this proposal for many years, and in 2017 the City Planning Commission issued a study that concluded the Smart Housing Mix was critical for the city’s future and was necessary to preserve what makes New Orleans special.
When we reflect on Martin Luther King’s civil rights work, our thoughts are usually centered on his efforts to end segregation, fighting for voting rights, and his dream for a better world. But King knew that one of the bedrocks of civil rights was the right to equitable housing and opportunity, and his Chicago Freedom Movement eventually led to the passage of the Fair Housing Act.
Now is the time for action. We must continue to demand the City Council pass the Smart Housing Mix, because it will allow us all the freedom to continue calling New Orleans home.
Cashauna Hill is executive director of Greater New Orleans fair Housing Action Centre.