Flooded out, then priced out: Katrina’s legacy 10 years on

The rebuilding of New Orleans has made the city unaffordable for locals, writes Sarah Shearman.

Kingprince under a Creative Commons Licence

Brain gain and housing strain

Like many of New Orleans’ long-term residents, for many years, Wanda Davis felt too traumatized after Hurricane Katrina to return to the city where she grew up.

Her home in Gentilly was submerged in almost 3 metres of water and its entire contents were destroyed. But it was finding her wedding ring amid the destruction that gave her hope.

‘I lost everything and it was a depressing time for me, so when I saw my ring, it meant I had something to hold on to,’ she says.

When the levees protecting New Orleans failed in August 2005, submerging 80% of the city under water, more than 1,000 people died and over a million were displaced – and many never returned.

A decade on from one of the US’s greatest environmental and engineering catastrophes, most of the locals who were able to come back are feeling the financial strain of living in a city that is no longer affordable for them.

Despite her initial reluctance, Davis is happy to be back home. But with a mortgage, insurance and utility which cost 3 times more than she was paying before Katrina, she estimates that almost half of her income goes toward housing costs.

‘They are rebuilding a newer and better New Orleans, but the cost of living is much higher,’ she says. ‘We have to juggle to make ends meet.’

According to The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, 16% of the city’s homeowners spend half of their income or more on housing costs. Fifty-five per cent of the population rents accommodation, and of these, 40% spend half of their income or more on housing.

Wanda Davis, Gentilly homeowner

Sarah Shearman

The pain of high housing costs is felt more acutely in low-income households, with studies showing that it forces people to cut back on other necessities such as food, transportation and healthcare.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was seen as a largely affordable city to live in. But a decade on, it is only high earners or people from out of town who are feeling the benefit, says Fred Johnson, chief executive of Neighborhood Development Foundation, a 30-year-old non-profit that trains and educates first-time homebuyers.

‘We always had a lot of available properties; they may not have been in the best condition, but they were certainly affordable,’ he says.

Johnson’s work is aimed at helping New Orleans’ renters become homeowners and help them break out of cycles of poverty by building their personal assets. But with rent and housing prices in the city rising sharply – the average price of a house in New Orleans has increased 46% since Katrina – the situation is becoming untenable. ‘It’s increasingly a case of the haves and have nots,’ says Johnson.

A housing crisis is gripping many cities across the US due to the supply of affordable housing falling short of demand. But in New Orleans, a catastrophe the size of Katrina had a tremendous impact on supply. About 70% of New Orleans’ housing stock was damaged or destroyed as a result of the hurricane. The demolition of 4 of the city’s major public-housing projects in 2008, in favour of new mixed-income housing, added further strain to the housing supply.

Brain gain and housing strain

These pressures are felt more acutely by African American residents; as demographics shift, they are being pushed further out of the city centre, says Monika Gerhart, director of policy and communications at The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

Since Katrina, New Orleans has become whiter and more Hispanic, with the city seeing an influx of workers as part of the relief and reconstruction effort. More recently, it has been touted as one of the fastest-growing cities, experiencing ‘brain gain’ with a higher than average growth in entrepreneurship.

While the city’s population is now at 79% of its pre-Katrina size, almost 100,000 African Americans did not return after the hurricane, according to the Census Bureau’s 2013 population estimates, taking the black population from 67% before Katrina, to 60% now.

Historical African American and working-class neighbourhoods close to the French Quarter and its musical hub of Frenchman Street are rapidly gentrifying, driving up the costs for long-term residents.

This situation makes life particularly challenging for those working in the tourism industry. With low wages in the sector and a public transport system that has not returned to pre-Katrina levels, being priced out of neighbourhoods means longer, more unreliable commutes for workers who cannot afford their own vehicle.

‘They are rebuilding a newer and better New Orleans, but the cost of living is much higher. We have to juggle to make ends meet’

Concerns are growing about the effect these changes will have on the city’s unique and rich cultural identity, which is what attracts millions of tourists every year.

‘New Orleans culture wasn’t legislated in and it won’t be legislated out – it is going to become a bigger and bigger tourist attraction, because that is what we do here,’ says Johnson.

‘But whenever certain groups, African American or others, don’t get an economic hold, people with the money are going to push the people without the money out, and you’ll be a city like Aspen, Colorado – the people who work there don’t live there; they get bused in and out.’

With New Orleans in the global spotlight for the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, its future is the subject of fierce debate.

‘New Orleans has faced some hard challenges. The disaster response was a train wreck, then the intermediate phase was slow,’ says Gerhart. ‘At this point, it is about the next 10 years and we need to figure out how to use all the tools in our box, to get all the people who lived in New Orleans, who made this city great, to come back here.’