Danira Ford is a lifelong resident of New Orleans, Louisiana. Like tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants, she has struggled to find an affordable place to live for her and her five children.
“Affordable housing would bring stability,” she said.
“My kids can’t play sports, be in band or get tutored on their homework because mommy needs to pick up extra shifts to cover rent,” Ford continued. “An affordable home would let them live more like normal children.”
A 2018 report by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that 80% of New Orleans households pay more for housing than they can afford. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center recently estimated that 30,000 families in the city are languishing on a waitlist for an affordable housing voucher from the Housing Authority of New Orleans. By issuing a voucher, the city is agreeing to pay up to a certain amount of the voucher holder’s rent.
But the problem extends far beyond New Orleans. In a May 2022 news release on the Biden Administration’s housing supply action plan the White House said that while estimates vary, financial research company Moody’s Analytics estimates that the shortfall in the housing supply is more than 1.5 million homes nationwide.
In a 2021 white paper “Overcoming the Nation’s Daunting Housing Supply Shortage,” by Moody’s Analytics, co-authored by Jim Parrot, a nonresident fellow at Urban Institute, and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, the U.S. has less housing available for rent or sale now than at any point in the last three decades.
As federal, state and local officials search for solutions, an ongoing affordable housing crisis is having real effects on residents.
Ford and her family, for example, have been waiting for an affordable housing voucher for more than a decade. Without it, she has cobbled together only enough money to live in the farther reaches of the metropolis, away from many of its amenities.
“It’s far from my work, it’s far from my kids’ schools, it’s far from grocery stores, it’s far from public transportation, it’s far from friends,” Ford said. “When it’s all you can afford, what choice do you have? But, also, what kind of life is it?”
Getting pushed out
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, potential homebuyers and renters across the U.S. have seen real estate prices skyrocket and the supply of available units plummet. According to a Pew Research Center study last year, 85% of Americans said availability of affordable housing was a problem in their community. Forty-nine percent of respondents indicated it was a major problem, up from 39% just three years earlier.
According to HUD, housing becomes a problem when a household spends more than 30% of its income on home-related costs. This is known as “cost burdened,” a designation that applies to nearly 1 in 3 Americans.
Exacerbating the problem, Real Estate brokerage company Redfin found rent has risen sharply over the past two years, as much as 40% in some metro areas, while according to data this year from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, real wages — or the amount workers earn relative to inflation — has actually fallen by 1.2% since the end of 2019.
Workers can no longer afford to purchase or rent homes in the neighborhoods they once could.
“The result is that thousands of residents — mostly people of color — get pushed farther and farther outside of desirable neighborhoods,” said Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
Evidence of the trend isn’t hard to find in New Orleans. Just east of the city’s famed French Quarter, the Bywater neighborhood was once considered a dangerous area, a perception that helped keep rents low. Over the past 20 years, however, helped in large part by its faring better than most during Hurricane Katrina, the Bywater has seen one of the area’s most rapid increases in home and rental prices.
“And that’s resulting in a demographic shift,” Ciardullo told VOA. “In the year 2000, the census tract that encompasses most of the Bywater had 74% Black residents. Just 20 years later, that was down to 37%.”
A crisis of this magnitude stems from many causes.
The white paper blames the shortage of affordable housing primarily on the 2008 financial crisis. In the years that followed, a shortage of land, lending, labor and building materials drove up the cost of building new homes. This cut into contractors’ profit margins and reduced their incentive to build.
The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem as more Americans sought larger homes where they could telework and live comfortably during lockdowns.
“In New Orleans, we were certainly experiencing these issues,” Ciardullo said, “but we also had some unique challenges, such as an aged housing stock and a lot of gentrification.”
“You used to be able to buy a home for really cheap,” said Alton Osborne, co-owner of the Bywater Bakery. In the 1990s, he bought a home in the neighborhood that he still owns today.
“They were blighted, but at least they were affordable,” Osborne said. “Nowadays, you have a lot of people who moved here from out of town and bought those homes, rehabilitated them, and now they’re worth a lot more. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? It’s complicated, but what’s certain is a lot of people don’t have enough money to live in this neighborhood anymore.”
One of the most high-profile reasons for New Orleans’ lack of affordable housing is the prevalence of short-term rentals, through Airbnb and other services, popular with the throngs of tourists who visit the city.
“In the Bywater, you’ve got entire blocks now taken over by Airbnb,” Osborne said.
According to the Inside Airbnb website, which looks at the rental service’s impact on communities, the city has more than 5,500 short-term rental units on Airbnb alone — dwellings that could otherwise go to local tenants. Renting to tourists at high prices also tends to drive up the rents on other types of units.
It’s simple math, according to Bywater Neighborhood Association President John Guarnieri.
“A landlord can make a ton more money renting short term on something like Airbnb than they can by renting to locals with a long-term lease,” he said. “It’s not even close.”
New Orleans City Council has worked in recent years to combat the problem by passing laws regulating how much of each property can be used as a short-term rental, as well as limiting the number of guests allowed per unit. Additionally, fees from each booking are used to contribute to a citywide affordable housing fund.
“It’s a good and important step,” said Ciardullo, “but enforcement has been severely lacking so far.”
In addition to attempting to regulate short-term rentals, lawmakers across the U.S. have sought to address the affordable housing crisis with proposals as varied as raising the minimum wage, mandating rent control, subsidizing affordable housing and pursuing partnerships with developers.
In New Orleans, the City Council passed a zoning ordinance that allows the construction of larger buildings if a percentage of those units are made available at affordable prices.
Policies like these can take years to bring about tangible results, but several large projects in the Bywater are said to be close to breaking ground. But forcing change in a neighborhood can trigger resistance from existing residents.
“As neighbors, we’ve learned to fight back against so much development,” said Julie Jones, president of the Neighbors First for Bywater organization. “It’s just too much for one neighborhood to be expected to take. We like our Bywater as it feels now.”
Jones is far from alone. As each housing project is announced, more residents seem to worry about its effect.
For example, a plot of land awaiting development into a 90-unit mixed income residential building currently serves as a de facto park for the community. As the project’s groundbreaking nears, neighbors bemoan the eventual loss of this greenspace.
New Orleanian Danira Ford just shakes her head.
“I understand they enjoy that space,” she said, “but for families like mine, affordable housing like this would change our lives. We’re not talking about a park. We’re talking about a home and a new and better life.”