Taking a Turn to the Big Easy: A Conversation with Housing Expert David Marcello

Professor and Policymaker David Marcello (Image Source: Tulane Law School)
Today’s post will mark the the first interview of Talk to St Ambrose’s “Talking with the Experts” series. Professor David Marcello, a prominent policymaker and civic leader in New Orleans, has kindly responded to my questions about housing policy issues.  In addition to his academic duties at Tulane, Professor Marcello’s experience in New Orleans includes serving as the statewide coordinator of the Conservation Coalition–the first statewide environmental lobby in Louisiana.  He also headed the state’s first public interest law firm, The Louisiana Center for the Public Interest.  He has advised and served under several New Orleans mayors, including as Executive Counsel to Mayor Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, the city’s first African-American mayor.  Under Mayor Marc Morial, Professor Marcello successfully chaired the city’s Charter Revision Advisory Committee, which resulted in the first complete revision of the city’s home rule charter.  Recently, Professor Marcello co-chaired Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Blight Transition Task Force.
This post contains the first half of our interview.  The second half will appear tomorrow.

Harsha Sekar: The issue of housing in New Orleans has been deeply affected by Hurricane Katrina, whose impact has posed enormous challenges in providing affordable housing for low and middle-income people and delivering adequate housing for displaced residents, most of whom fall into the former category. What strategies have you advocated with the  goal of providing affordable housing for low-income citizens?  How can other mid-sized cities, like Baltimore, learn from the dilemma that New Orleans continues to face after Katrina?

David Marcello: Five years after Katrina, New Orleans finds itself facing significantly different housing needs from those that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the storm, but our housing finance incentives are still structured in such a way as to favor the same types of housing development that they were promoting five years ago.

After Katrina, large numbers of people sought to return to a city where vast numbers of housing units were no longer in service due to flooding. Considering the severe housing shortage that existed at the time, there was some logic in structuring housing finance incentives to foster large new multiunit apartment complexes that could quickly accommodate the needs of tens of thousands of displaced residents who urgently wanted to return to the city.

Now, in the wake of 2010 census results, we recognize that New Orleans is going to be a much smaller city—currently, about two-thirds the size that it was before Katrina. Moreover, our formerly displaced residents are no longer planning by the thousands for their imminent return to the city; many have taken up residence in other cities and have no plans to return to New Orleans. The post-Katrina “flood” of residents back into the city has slowed to a “trickle,” and that change should change our focus from large-scale development to small-scale rehabilitation of housing.

New Orleans was already an overbuilt city pre-Katrina, having reached its peak population of roughly 650,000 residents during the 1960s. By the year 2000, only approximately 485,000 residents remained to occupy a housing stock that had been built four decades earlier to accommodate more than 150,000 people who were no longer living in the city. Now we’ve lost almost another 150,000, so the disparity been “houses built” and “people to live in them” is even greater. Katrina destroyed many thousands of housing units in New Orleans and severely damaged many thousands more, but even with that loss, much remains in the built housing environment that can be rehabilitated to accommodate New Orleans’ 21st Century housing needs. That’s where our housing finance incentives should be directed currently—toward rehabilitation of existing housing, not new construction of residential mega-plexes.

Much of New Orleans’ most historic housing was either untouched or only mildly impacted by Katrina’s flooding. There was a reason why early settlers built New Orleans on the “sliver by the river” that gives the Crescent City its nickname—because that was the high ground, less susceptible to flooding when the Mississippi River periodically overflowed its banks in the days before the Corps of Engineers built levees to protect the city from flooding. This earliest, historic housing gives the city much of its charm, attracting the visitors who fuel our tourist economy. We’ve much to gain as a city, a community, and a culture in restructuring housing finance incentives to favor rehabilitation of that historic housing stock. We’ve much to lose if incentives remain tilted in favor of multi-unit apartment complexes, because for every 100 new rental units that come on the market there’s a corresponding reduction in demand for occupancy of the older historic housing. New construction undercuts the market for rehabilitation of the city’s historic housing, and in turn threatens to undermine the unique culture that gives New Orleans its worldwide appeal.

We need to restructure residential financing incentives to favor the rehabilitation of existing housing stock.

HS: New Orleans has also been characterized as a “laboratory” for government policies that encourage NGO’s and non-profit organizations.  Indeed, the city possesses a disproportionate amount of housing non-profits that are similar in function and organization to St. Ambrose.  Have non-profits played an effective role providing equal opportunity housing for New Orleanians who need it?  What do you feel is the appropriate function for non-profits and NGOs in this endeavor.

DM: I think in New Orleans we can only talk about “government policies that encourage NGO’s and non-profit organizations” if we first introduce the conversation with the proposition that, “Power abhors a vacuum.” Nonprofits surged in New Orleans after Katrina—not because government action encouraged nonprofits and NGO’s, but because government inaction demanded it. Nonprofits had to do more because local government was doing so little and was so ineffective.

Our residents recognized that they had to look to themselves for recovery and renewal, not to City Hall. Neighborhood groups all across the city responded to that need with an unprecedented outpouring of civic activism. New Orleans also benefited hugely from the volunteer activism that poured into our community from around the country—student volunteers, faith-based organizations, philanthropic organizations, first responders—from all across America they came to our assistance, and this city still feels a deep and abiding sense of gratitude for their help.

Happily, we’ve enjoyed more vigorous and capable leadership in City Hall since the mayoral transition that took place in May 2010. But even so, there is a continuing need for nonprofits to play a role across a broad front of needs. For example, the Fair Housing Action Center has relentlessly opposed housing discrimination in the metropolitan area. The Center repeatedly hauled officials from adjacent St. Bernard Parish into federal court, pursuing a series of contempt orders in a successful multi-year battle to secure “open” housing policies. That need to fight housing discrimination continues, and it’s a task well-suited to fearlessly independent nonprofits like the Fair Housing Action Center.

HS: As a follow up to the previous question, many have argued that NGO’s have, in too many instances, served as a proxy for the government, in that they have provided a service that should be the responsibility of the government, such as encouraging equal opportunity housing and supporting diverse neighborhoods.  Indeed, many housing NGO’s are supported almost entirely with government funds. Critics suggest that the rapid growth of NGO’s in the last decade has led to the further “privatization” of government services and inefficiency.  Being a policy-maker in a city with a strong NGO presence, what do you feel about this argument?

DM: I can see where that might be a problem in some cities, but I don’t think we’ve seen that effect here. Far from serving as a “proxy” for government, our neighborhood associations have traditionally played more of an oppositional role relative to government. They contribute to a pluralistic dialogue that takes place among neighborhood residents, developers, and city government. We need to empower neighborhood associations so that they can play more of a role in that ongoing dialogue and give voice to the legitimate interests of neighborhood residents. Our recently adopted master plan calls for a structured system of public participation, and we will see such a system created within the next year. Public participation is the best antidote to an incompetent or unresponsive government. Nonprofits will always have a role to play in that context.

Tune in tomorrow the Part II of Talk to St. Ambrose’s Interview with Professor David Marcello.

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