Wednesday, December 27, 2006

For Rent: New Orleans-style lofts

Every now and then, I like to stop in and read a few posts on Metroblogging New Orleans, just to see how the city is doing. Today, I discovered this rant about a Craigslist ad for a pricey apartment that has gone unrented for quite some time. From the post:

This place just illustrates the total lunacy in our rental market right now. People are fixing up flooded property, taking their insurance money and spending it on luxuries like granite countertops, jacuzzi tubs, and stainless steel appliances with the expectation that they will attract rich tenants who will pay absurd rents to live there. Are you insane?!?!

What people are looking for right now is affordable housing. Nobody gives a shit about granite countertops and bamboo floors. Rich people are not moving to New Orleans right now. When they do, go ahead and install that heated marble floor and charge Manhattan prices for rent, but I wouldn't hold your breath if I were you.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on a movement of New Orleans citizens who are demanding that federal authorities reopen the city’s public housing projects, several of which are slated for demolition and redevelopment. The authorities insist that new “mixed-income” communities will eventually be built in their place, but in the interim, thousands of poor and working-class evacuees remain homeless.

The sticking point appears to be the philosophy of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which adopted new urbanist planning principles in the mid-1990s and will employ them in the reconstruction of New Orleans’ public housing. The DUD's stated goal is to “deconcentrate” urban poverty, as it did in the city's St. Thomas project in 2000, but the article suggests that the results have been less than successful.

The pleasant streets of pastel-colored houses that replaced the grim St. Thomas buildings have put life back into a Lower Garden District neighborhood that for years was fearful and moribund.

On the other hand, the new development has accommodated less than one in five of the old St. Thomas families, though the developer says expansion will add more. And those that are there feel threatened by tenant rules designed to make the neighborhood’s market-rate inhabitants comfortable, including occupancy restrictions. [Emphasis mine.]

Historian Mike Davis calls the gentrification process that is unfolding in New Orleans “ethnic cleansing,” and he points to the collusion of new urbanists and neo-conservatives in the expulsion of the city’s minority population. The term sounds rhetorically harsh until you read the thoughts of one French Quarter landowner, who opines, “The hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city and we hope they don’t come back. The party’s finally over for these people and now they’re going to have to find someplace else to live in the United States.”

Somewhere in all of this, it starts to become clear that real estate has become the battleground upon which a war of human rights is being waged, and, more often than not, lost. Think about it: does one cease to be a New Orleanian because one has suddenly been priced out of its housing market? If so, what does this mean for those of us who think of our cities as our home, but who have no legal title to them?

As a parting thought, it bears remembering that prior to 1856, American voting rights were restricted to white male landowners, or about 10% of the population. In Canada, property ownership requirements were not fully lifted until 1948. Just something to chew on.


Sparky said...

I saw Mike Davis talk about class, gender and hot rod racing in California in the 1950s at McGill Univeristy a couple of years ago. Davis is from a working-class background, and the urban and social history paradigm he reflects is a by-product of the post-GI bill American academy, something which is also, like New Orleans, threatened by a new tangent of gentrification and bourgeois revival. To my mind, not only is the Big Easy threatened by a new phase of urban elitism, but academia is also simultaneously transforming such that venues for critique of this new phenomena will probably narrow. Markets can be mind-altering like that...

Vila H. said...

Y'know, I'm usually pretty cynical about these things, but in this case I'm feeling strangely optimistic. I think we're on the verge of a seismic shift in thinking about the neo-con agenda, which should lead to some interesting scholarship, and, hopefully, to further critique of the academy itself. It might take a while for this to have an impact on the way universities operate as institutions, but I'm definitely seeing some evidence of ferment in the Times Ed pages lately, as well as in the "mainstream" news.

Of course, none of this matters a whit to New Orleanians right now, who are getting so royally screwed that it defies description. This Metroblogging post sums it up far better than I ever could, so I'll let you get to it.