Gearing up for this fall’s election in New Orleans, I remind myself that many of the questions I want to ask candidates for Mayor or City Council won’t be asked by the reporters who write our news or the forum moderators at various townhalls. This isn’t to disparage any reporter or moderator – they’re doing their jobs asking the questions they think the people want answered. And they also have limited time, so there’s a disincentive to get deep in the weeds when any candidate gives a non-answer that doesn’t really explain what they’re talking about.
I imagine this fall, we’re going to hear some questions about the cost of living in New Orleans. I’m sure we’ll hear about the shortage of housing or the affordability crisis, high rents and gentrification. I’m also sure we’ll hear a bunch of non-answers about how the whole city needs to work harder to do something about that. If any candidates answer in a more detailed way, I’m sure we’ll hear some confusing talking points about inclusionary zoning and how the State Legislature tried to gut that proposal that New Orleans was hoping to use.
My big worry is the conversation stops there. With only a few serious candidates who have expressed interest in running for Mayor, and what is shaping up to be only a few competitive City Council races, citizens may mentally check out and the non-answers may be enough. That would be a shame. No matter who is elected to any office, it is always important for citizens to make their priorities known, and elections are some of the best times to do so.
So here is a set of detailed questions I would ask candidates for office in New Orleans this fall, as it relates to the cost of housing and development:
1. How do you feel about substantial property tax breaks and big density bonuses to developers that only add a handful of “affordable” housing units?
2. Who will you nominate to serve on the Industrial Development Board (IDB), which is responsible for handing out big property tax breaks in exchange for development in New Orleans? Where would their priorities need to be?
3. How do you feel about New Orleans Master Plan for land use and the Community Participation Process? Despite citizens putting hundreds if not thousands of hours of civic engagement behind these processes, it seems like city decision makers view them as only loose guidelines to which thousands of exceptions are easily made.
4. Who will you nominate for the City Planning Commission (CPC) and Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA)? Where will their priorities need to be?
5. How will you get city-owned residential properties back into commerce? Will you wait until a developer comes up with a plan, do you prefer to auction them off individually, or will you use them for something different?
6. New Orleans has basically abandoned the large scale public housing model to provide affordable housing, while public private partnerships and inclusionary zoning are not getting enough affordable units into commerce. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers is in the thousands while New Orleans is on the brink of losing thousands of affordable units as existing tax breaks expire. What do you think about the Community Land Trust model as an option to developing permanently affordable housing solutions?
7. Louisiana law appears to protect property owners who continue to sit on blighted & underutilized properties, as the costs and deteriorating conditions are transferred to neighbors and the surrounding community. What is your plan to thread the policy needle between protecting property rights of owners while ensuring they are accountable for the conditions of their property and the negative impacts on surrounding property?
8. Part of the affordability crisis comes from too few government services delivered to too few areas, which focuses investment in a few select communities in the city. How will you improve services to underserved areas like New Orleans East, Hollygrove, and the Lower 9th Ward? Not only do people live there right now who are being shut out of the city’s recovery, but more services could support more residents – expanding the “supply” of housing as communities strengthen and share in the city’s growing prosperity.
9. How will New Orleans be able to pay for world class government services if we keep giving big property tax breaks to luxury developers? Property taxes on homeowners are very high, sales taxes raise the cost of living for all New Orleans residents, and we are constantly told that the city needs more, more, more tax revenue to pay for police, fire, schools, health care, mental health care, infrastructure, and jobs programs. But it seems like every time we hear how broke the city is, we hear about more property tax breaks being used as incentives to lure deep pocketed investors who only cater to the luxury class. Or we hear about how much hotel/motel and food/beverage sales taxes are siphoned away from the city.
10. How will you work with the unified Assessors Office to ensure tax justice in property tax assessments?
The answers to questions like these will help determine who gets my vote this Fall. Here’s hoping I get a chance to ask at least one at the candidate’s forum on Saturday.
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.