Renewal Money for New Orleans Bypasses Renters

Susan Saulny and Gary Rivlin, The New York Times
Date Published: 
September 17, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — As billions in housing aid begins to flow here in the next few weeks, most of it will go to homeowners, who have been appointed by city officials as the true architects of this city’s recovery, despite the fact that roughly half the city’s residents rented housing before Hurricane Katrina.

The renters of New Orleans, it seems, are on their own.

Rents are skyrocketing across the city, up an average of 39 percent since Hurricane Katrina. The city has announced that it plans to refurbish only a small fraction of its traditional public housing units. Some neighborhoods are campaigning to tear down sturdy apartment buildings and build parks in their place. Though some aid has been set aside for landlords, many lower-income residents who say they are unable to return have been priced out.

“I want to come back, but who’s going to help me build my life?” asked Lionel Smith, 46, a longtime resident of the Lower Ninth Ward and a driving school instructor whose apartment building was destroyed by the floodwaters. “There’s this plan in place to take care of homeowners, but I’ve heard nothing about helping renters. Where are we supposed to live? Will they help rebuild apartment buildings?”

From a renter’s point of view, New Orleans has become off-limits to all but prosperous tenants, as rents have increased significantly in the pockets of the city that did not flood. Before the storm, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit in the city was $676; it is now $940, according to the Brookings Institution.

Before the hurricane, it would not have been unusual to find a two-story, three-bedroom house in Gentilly, a solidly middle-class neighborhood, renting for less than $1,000 a month. Today, that area, north of downtown toward Lake Pontchartrain, does not exist as a functioning neighborhood.

By contrast these days, $1,000 might get a tenant half a refurbished duplex on a trash-strewn street in Mid-City — an area that also flooded, but not to the same extent — and it would most likely be offered without major appliances or air-conditioning.

Henry Jones, a New Orleans East homeowner, said that roughly half the owners in his subdivision, Wimbledon, were coming back, which he contrasted with the lack of activity he has observed in neighborhoods like Central City and Mid-City, where there are far more rental units than single-family homes.

“You drive around those neighborhoods and you pretty much see nothing going on,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s depressing.”

Those communities that were home to the greatest concentration of rental properties are also those areas that still lie in ruins 12 months after the storm. The longer properties languish, rotting in the humid heat, the harder t