Post-Katrina Gentrification Battle Heats Up in New Orleans

Wendell Pierce's Blighted Property
Wendell Pierce’s Blighted Property

New Orleans    Sometimes where there is smoke, there is in fact a lot of fire, and the raging heat around gentrification is steadily increasing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Wendell Pierce, the well-known actor from HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” and a New Orleans native, partnered with a local pal, politician, and operator, slung the charge at neighbors complaining about a plan he and his buddy had to expand a gas station on the corner of St. Claude and Franklin, across the street from the sizzling Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, near the equally hot Bywater, and abutting the wannabe warm St. Roch community. Of course he was right, but neighbors were also right to complain that the property they owned next door to their Shell station had been allowed to rot and serve as a safe house for mischief. Furthermore, the local redevelopment authority had taken the property off the auction block and sold it to Pierce et al for what looked like a sweetheart price of $19,000 which is unheard of on St. Claude Avenue now. A lot of smoke, and maybe some fire there as well.

Meanwhile,  the partners had lost out on a supermarket plan in the Holy Cross area of the lower 9th ward that many developers salivate to gentrify because of its close proximity to the Mississippi River and some fairly good housing stock and slightly higher ground, given the alluvial flood plain of the River. The old Holy Cross High School is being redeveloped into 264 apartments and more, towering over the River with six floors, seeped in controversy and community contention where the cry of gentrification is common. A feature in Southern Living magazine highlighting the work of the local Preservation Resource Council and showed four shotgun double cottages that had been pimped out in the Holy Cross area, three of them by white couples, needless to say.

Not far from the gas station controversy the St. Roch Market reopened. Before the storm it was the last operating public market in the city of New Orleans and a place where you could get fresh seafood and an inexpensive poorboy sandwich. Now it’s seen as gentrification on steroids. Neighbors thought they were getting respite from the food desert and instead got high-end tourist fare and venues. Anarchist vandals hit quickly, and despite tut-tuting from local officials from the Mayor on down, the developers continue to be on the defensive for misleading the community and accelerating gentrification.

An article in the sometimes newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, led with a story of a service worker making the minimum with some small change trying to find an apartment for $650 and noted that before the storm he would have easily found a place in Bywater, but now he was stuck. Part of the problem was the failure of FEMA after the disaster to support rebuilding affordable housing units owned by moms-and-pops who had dominated the market previously. 4500 applicants got assistance, but that was only one-quarter of the applicants. Meanwhile up to 3000 properties have been forfeited to the government for long-term failure to pay taxes. NORA, the local redevelopment agency, owns 1872 properties obtained through the Road Home program for flooded homes where owners could not return. The housing authority owns 700 units on 230 properties still uninhabitable and not redeveloped. All of which means a chokehold on affordable housing pushing up prices and rents, still double those before the storm, and propelling the market to more and more gentrification.

When there’s this much smoke, there must be a raging fire somewhere, but this is one that the City of New Orleans and its various firefighters seem loath to fight, even in the low waged service economy that dominates all of these communities. At the ten year anniversary of Katrina there will be lots of commemorations, but few celebrations of this increasing crisis.


Rewriting the Rules

Rewriting-rulesNew Orleans              The AFL-CIO has already begun the process of vetting potential Presidential candidates, offering the opportunity to any of the score that has an interest in coming by, which so far means all the Democrats and Republican ex-Arkansas Governor and current TV commentator Mike Huckabee. Interestingly, Rich Trumka has indicated that the AFL’s key benchmark flows from a new report spearheaded by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz of Roosevelt University with the input of a host of others. The report is called “Rewriting the Rules,” so let’s take a look at its proposals.

Not surprisingly, Trumka and the house of labor are no doubt pleased to see the ringing endorsement of expanded labor rights and promotion of collective bargaining as important principles to re-establish in the economy. The clearest proposal in this area recommended that the federal government add clear conditions not only to governmental subcontracts but to development grants to protect and advance union protections and bargaining. The rest was predictable.

The point of the report is that the rules matter. No rules, which is what the long desert of deregulation in so many sectors produced, tilted the economy to the 1% and allowed Wall Street and other cowboys to herd us into the Great Recession. Remember it wasn’t just “no rules,” but “bad rules,” which is the point here, too. “Rewriting the Rules” is an argument that in order to re-balance the economy and its myriad winners-and-losers, our politicians and the government need to put new regulations in place that would allow us to prosper and to do so more equitably.

Perhaps most interesting were the recommendation for reforming the financial sector, because this is right in the wheelhouse for Stiglitz and many of his helpers:


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnd “too big to fail” by imposing additional capital surcharges on systemically risky financial institutions and breaking up firms that cannot produce credible living wills.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMBetter regulate the shadow banking sector.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMBring greater transparency to all financial markets by requiring all alternative asset managers to publicly disclose holdings, returns, and fee structures.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMReduce credit and debit card fees through improved regulation of card providers and enhanced competition.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnforce existing rules with stricter penalties for companies and corporate officials that break the law.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMReform Federal Reserve governance to reduce conflicts of interest and institute more open and accountable elections.


Some of those recommendations would make a difference, particularly impacting on banking and credit access and affordability. The report also takes some clear shots at what is needed to rein in the quick buck artists of business for the protection of the economy and the public.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMRestructure CEO pay by closing the performance-pay tax loophole and increasing transparency on the size of compensation packages relative to performance and median worker pay and on the dilution as a result of grants of stock options.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnact a financial transaction tax to reduce short-term trading and encourage more productive long-term investment.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEmpower long-term stakeholders through the tax code, the use of so-called “loyalty shares,” and greater accountability for managers of retirement funds.


I wouldn’t hold my breath about any of this, but it is reassuring that labor at least is asking the right questions and pointing the way to some hard decisions and clear policies.


Please enjoy Rickie Lee Jones’ J’ai Connais Pas (I Don’t Know).

Thanks to KABF.