A new proposal floated by New Orleans City Council for a 5-acre mixed-development project first proposed by businessman Sidney Torres IV would scratch a plan to include 14 affordable housing units, and instead replace them with a rotating fund that would help lower income residents buy homes elsewhere in Mid-City.
The 380,000 square-foot project, proposed under the real estate company Bayou JTK, LLC, would extend along a nine-acre swath of former railroad land that runs along the Lafitte Greenway to Bayou St. John, and would include residential communities as well as commercial property.
Plans call for 78 percent of the apartment buildings to be studios or one-bedrooms, with first floor units accessible from either the Greenway or the interior of the building. Renderings show 382 units of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, ranging from 750 square feet to nearly 1,200 square feet in size.
Other amenities include a pool with a sundeck, a 6,000-square foot clubhouse with a potential theater and a fitness facility. The development would also feature interior courtyards and two parking garages.
According to Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, the revolving loan proposal, which would set aside $640,000 in funds, would help lower income families in Mid-City create wealth by giving them grants to invest in property of their own, rather than continue to pay rent in places like the proposed new Mid-City development.
The money would be given to 14 first-time homebuyers who make between 60 percent and 80 percent of the area’s median income for a soft second mortgage, as a long-term loan. That averages to a $46,000 grant per family.
If the house is sold, the money would be paid back and put back into the fund for other families to use, thereby creating the “revolving” aspect of the grant, according to Mike Sherman, a lawyer representing the developers. The fund would be an agreement between Edwards Communities, the developer, and Liberty Bank and Trust.
The proposal would allow the property to qualify for a density waiver, according to Cantrell. In general, new developments are bound by zoning laws restricting density, but with approval, those rules can be waived when affordable housing is made available to lower-income residents.
Cantrell praised the proposal when she introduced it to council and the public on Thursday.
“That way, you’re able to actually build, and get more families into homes,” Cantrell said, pointing to climbing mortgage and rent rates in Mid-City, as well as other areas of New Orleans.
It could also help improve properties that are blighted, Cantrell said.
“If you can do those overlays in Mid-City, immediately you will be able to see those opportunity zones and also look at sections of Mid-City which may be stronger markets versus weak markets, which will allow us the opportunity to really create balance in the Mid-City community,” she added.
The council ultimately voted to move the proposal forward 5-2, but the issue is set to come up before a second vote in the next month before the deal is set.
Several council members expressed concern about the plan, however, including Councilmen Jason Williams and James Gray, who voted against it.
Williams brought up a “crisis” of affordable housing in New Orleans, and questioned what would happen to the new proposal were developers to build on nine acres of the property rather than five, thereby changing the density makeup.
Although he said it was a “fabulous design,” he also questioned whether or not the loan fund amount was really a “good deal” in exchange for excluding 14 affordable housing units on a coveted piece of land along the Greenway.
“The point I want to say to you is this is a great chance to place affordable housing units in what Councilwoman Guidry described as ‘an opportunity site’ on the Lafitte Greenway,” Williams said. “What we’re talking about is all of our citizens having access to high opportunity neighborhoods. Transit, grocery, jobs. That’s my commitment.”
Several Mid-City residents also scoffed at the plan, theorizing that the developers wanted to create the loan fund to keep low-income people out of the coveted proposal.
In the past, residents like Michelle Schlafly had said the development was already too “high-density” for the neighborhood, despite a waiver that would include affordability.
Both she and Patrick Armstrong, a member of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, had said for months they were discouraged by the plan’s lack of inclusion of affordable housing.
“I think it would be great to see at least a few non-luxury options to provide a wide range of price points for residents,” Armstrong said in May.
On Friday, another resident, Karen Ocker, wrote a letter to city councilmembers to express her disappointment about the newest proposal. She included Mid-City Messenger on the email list.
In the letter, Ocker said she was “very disturbed” by the council’s vote, saying the city’s zoning ordinance “appears to be meaningless” when the rules can be waived so easily.
“While I commend Councilmember Cantrell for an innovative alternative concept as a theory and look forward to hearing more creative ideas to truly solve the city’s affordable housing crisis, I expect that to be accomplished through proper and required review which includes meaningful and reasonable citizen input and participation as well as an actual amendment to our zoning laws to allow prior to implementation,” Ocker wrote. “The Council has effectively begun the segregation of this convenient prime location at an “opportunity site” on the basis of class. Not only does this project trade public greenway access for private greenway by closing a public street, the development makes it clear prime locations are not for our working class citizens.”