What does the bumper sticker slogan say? “New Orleans – 3rd World and Proud of It?” That sentiment may be fun on a snarky souvenir, but I lose the joke when it is made at the expense of so many individuals living in our city. What may be enjoyed by some tourist looking for an authentic weekend experience in a gritty New Orleans neighborhood takes on a very different meaning when we think about the living conditions of the neighbors who live there every day.
Too many of our New Orleans neighbors live in conditions that are not fit for human habitation. That’s why I’m glad to see New Orleans City Council working on the Healthy Homes ordinance. Most of you may know it as the Rental Registry.
Have you read the text of the ordinance that was passed last week at City Council’s Community Development Committee? The key parts provide for the inspection of rental units. While I’ve heard some apocalyptic predictions regarding the checklist of items inspectors will be looking for, there’s only 11 things on the list. I was ready to hate the rules at first glance, but then I started reading them. No raw sewage. Address rodents & bugs. Have a roof and walls and flashing that keep water (and mold) from getting in the unit. Running water, hot and cold. Toilets that flush. Some sort of heater. A functional electrical system. Smoke detectors.
Going through the list, it sounded an awful lot less like black helicopter government overreach and a whole lot more like a requirement to provide basic habitable conditions to renters.
Thing is, I don’t have to worry about any of that. I’ve got a great landlord and a history of great landlords. Each of them have always treated the units I’ve rented as long-term investment to be taken care of. But this ordinance isn’t about renters like me or landlords like mine. Framing it in that perspective would be looking at it from my own perch of privilege and agency. That perspective makes this feel like a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
While I have no personal experience with living in substandard conditions, I know a few people who have. You don’t have to see very many places that are not fit for human habitation to know what you’re looking at. The sights and smells will stick in your memory. New Orleans is a place where you can stay in a bubble if you want to, but you ain’t got to go far to find a situation that will break down your pre-conceived notions in a big way. When a housing advocate says there are thousands of rental units in New Orleans unfit for human habitation, I absolutely believe them. I’ve seen enough to know that’s true.
And before we get into conversations about how much this is going to cost, I want you to think about the costs the whole community bears when we continue to allow people to live in blighted, unsanitary, and unsafe conditions. I’m going to write this out as it relates to the community pocketbook, but I ain’t above reminding you that real people are living like this right now, and a lot of the folks disproportionately affected are elderly and children. Keep their faces in mind while we go through the list.
Unsafe conditions create unstable households for human beings. If someone stays in a place that has rodents or insect infestations, raw sewage, or mold in the home from a leaky roof or walls, how do you think that affects their health? I’m going to guess they get sick more often, and a chronically sick population is one way unsanitary housing costs the community. People miss work. Children miss school. Emergency healthcare and care for the uninsured or underinsured is a huge cost at the local and state levels. There’s no part of that that is OK.
If there’s no heat in a residence, someone staying there may try unsafe methods of keeping warm. Try leaving the oven or stove on, or starting a fire in a fireplace that doesn’t work. How often do we read about house fires in New Orleans that started like that? How often do people die in those fires because there weren’t any smoke alarms? How often do those fires involve other homes and businesses? Those are some ways unheated homes cost to the community.
If there’s no working electrical system in a residence, or one that isn’t set up properly, that can also cause fires. But intermittent electricity can also prevent people from storing or preparing food, or using lights to do things in the house at night like “homework.” Anyone who has ever taught in the New Orleans public schools knows at least one student who can’t study at home because they don’t have a lamp, and can’t concentrate at school because they haven’t eaten anything besides snack food. Look at the class completion rates at Delgado some time, as adult learners try to get more training but fall behind because they can’t do that work at home. Allowing families to live in blighted houses unfit for human habitation undermine New Orleans community well-being and stability for generations.
Then there are all the little things. How does someone register to vote if they’re living in an unsafe space without a functional electrical bill to prove their residence? How does someone talk to S&WB if their water is shut off, but they don’t have a lease to prove they live in the place? Where do they get their mail? How can they apply for a bank account and keep what money they do have in our regular system of commerce? All those little things that come from life in unstable and unsafe living conditions pile up into one big obstacle to an individual or family breaking the generational legacy of poverty. We all know there’s no one policy that is a silver bullet for fixing the ills of generational poverty, but safer living conditions for human beings is a place to start that could have tremendous and immediate impact.
Continuing to ignore sub-standard living conditions strikes me as not only immoral from a personal standpoint, but as an economic drag on the New Orleans community as a whole. Sometimes the right thing to do is also the thing that improves the conditions of the entire community. That’s before we get into improving neighborhood home valuations due to less blighted property in the area. Crime decreases as nuisance under-the-table rentals are returned to regular commerce. As much concern has (rightly) been expressed about short-term rentals taking housing units off the market, there’s a fair number of substandard units that only exist in the market for desperate residents who trade personal safety for any place at all. They should not have to make that sort of a choice.
Do I still have concerns about this ordinance? Hell yes. Robust notification to owners and tenants about inspection schedules is a big worry of mine, and the city better include notices in Spanish and Vietnamese. I think the program to help rehome residents from emergency unsafe conditions will be overwhelmed, and the program to help owners get their properties into compliance is going to need more resources. There’s also been an awful lot said about 4th Amendment infringement – and that does give me pause – but that’s why we have courts. Hell, as pro-property as the Louisiana state Constitution is, Federal law may not even come into play. The city will have to make sure all this is legal, or the ordinance won’t be on the books long.
There’s also the part about a big, out of state contractor doing the inspection work. Here’s hoping the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has already opened a file on those folks and made some calls. Ronald Reagan was talking about the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal when he said “trust but verify,” but he could have easily been discussing New Orleans city contracts.
Those same concerns could be said about any local laws. I’m ready to see New Orleans take the housing safety issue seriously and get moving on something we all know is a problem, whether we complain about it directly or complain about the problems unsanitary, unsafe, and blighted living conditions exacerbate elsewhere. As a city, we need a variety of residential units at multiple price points throughout our neighborhoods. But we need those units to be fit for human habitation.
Patrick Armstrong lives in Mid-City and has been a NOLA TrashMOB volunteer for 3 years. His views are his own and do not reflect official positions of any organizations or groups he is a part of. He posts inane musings on Twitter @panarmstrong.