Reflections on New Orleans' uneven recovery

Ashley Shelton, director of One Voice Louisiana, says that one of the fights they fought to ensure a fair recovery from Hurricane Katrina was to keep displaced residents of New Orleans enfranchised. (Image is a still from the video below.)

The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation funds organizations in the South working to move people and places out of poverty. The foundation recently launched a "Southern Voices" oral history project to capture the stories of Southern leaders working for social and economic justice. The latest installment features stories about the Hurricane Katrina recovery in New Orleans. For more stories from the project, click here. (Disclosure: The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is a funder of the Institute for Southern Studies.)

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New Orleans' politicians are slapping themselves on the back for a job well done, clinking glasses and proclaiming the city to be better off than it was before Hurricane Katrina pummeled the coastline 10 years ago. But are they right?

The numbers paint a markedly less triumphant picture of the postdiluvian decade. According to a Data Center analysis, of the million-plus residents displaced by the storm, more than a hundred thousand still haven't returned — most of them black. The African-American share of New Orleans' population has dropped from 67 to 59 percent, and the white population has jumped from 27 to 31 percent. Some lifelong residents are trying to keep that demographic shift from affecting the cultural landscape. "The city is different. It doesn't look the same," said Jeremiah Group Lead Organizer Jackie Jones. "We had a lot of folks who came in after the storm and they took up residency here. And I think people here in New Orleans do not want to lose the heritage, the culture, and I think they are willing to have their voices heard and to do the work that's necessary to keep some things in place."

The Data Center recently released the "New Orleans Index at 10," which graded the rebuilding efforts of the eight-parish metro area in four main categories: economic growth, the inclusion of low-income populations in the recovery, quality of life and sustainability. The report card was mixed. It found infrastructure investments and an influx of federal money benefitted the overall economy with an entrepreneurship boom. The region also made significant strides in educational and criminal justice systems. Revenue flowing to arts and culture nonprofits were four times the national average. But the region scored abysmally on measures such as poverty, violent crime, incarceration rates, affordable housing and income inequality. New Orleans' poverty rate was a crushing 27 percent, and black families were suffering the most. Researchers found white households' median income to be on par with the national average, but the median income for black households was 20 percent lower than black households nationally. The income disparity was 54 percent, well above the national average of 40 percent. To exacerbate matters, wages have not kept up with the ballooning housing, property tax and flood insurance costs, and the city does not have the authority to raise its minimum wage above the federal baseline of $7.25. "The stagnant post-Katrina income for the poorest New Orleanians suggests that many are not benefiting from the New Orleans economic recovery," concludes the study.

As lopsided as it has been, the recovery would be even less equitable were it not for the persistent efforts of several organizations. As rental rates and home prices started skyrocketing, the Jeremiah Group advocated for affordable housing so displaced families could return home, but their goal was to build community wealth, not enrich landlords. "A house that may have cost you $500 or $600 [per month] to live in pre-Katrina, post-Katrina, you paid $2,200, $2,300 ... — I mean, there was just no cap on what people were charging on rent because people wanted to come back and so those who were able, they came back and they could pay that high cost for rent," said Jones. "There was an affordable rental program, and that program would give money to landlords and they would agree to rent those units or houses for so much, for a certain period of time. … We said, if we're gonna bring people back and we're gonna rebuild this city, one of the best ways to do it is through homeownership, because we believe homeownership would stabilize the community. We believe that it would give opportunities to folks who would never be able to become homeowners — that would be made available because funds were coming here. So we began to meet with the LRA, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, to talk about what it would look like to have funding made available for homeownership, affordable homeownership versus affordable rental. … We fought long and hard for it, and we were able to win a unanimous vote by the LRA for $75 million for an affordable homeownership program. … The Jeremiah Group created the largest homeownership program in the city, in the history of the city of New Orleans."

Another organization that has been championing a just recovery is One Voice Louisiana. It's been pursuing multiple pathways, including the development of leaders that are representative of and accountable to their communities. "Here we are 10 years on the other side of it and we do have an opportunity to be proactive, we have an opportunity to say what we want, we have an opportunity to build what we want," said Director Ashley Shelton. "What are those strategies that allow us to build voice and power? What are the tools that we need to be able to do that? … We need you to think about, would you run for city council? Would you run for the school board? What's the pipeline that we're building? How are we encouraging people in community to step up and have a voice? … How do we encourage more women of color to run for office? How are we encouraging more young people to run for office?"

Not only has it done its own advocacy, One Voice has also armed fellow advocates with valuable research to sway policymakers. "We've worked with several organizations in providing support and data for the purposes of action, policy action, to a series of different campaigns, so whereas those campaigns really focused on serving the needs and the issues of vulnerable families, we really had a great opportunity to serve those organizations with data and information that they could then use to make sure that the actions that they were taking to change policy could be realized," Shelton said.

Another facet to a fair recovery has been the fight to keep the million-plus residents who fled New Orleans enfranchised. "One of the most interesting memories of Katrina was trying to ensure that everyone that had been displaced would be able to participate in the elections," said Shelton. "It was really important because it meant that you still mattered and you still counted and that even though you weren't here, that there was this possibility that you could come back, that we were gonna figure it out, we were gonna fix the city of New Orleans better than it was before and that you would have a place in whatever that solution was."