COLUMN: It’s time for Lafayette to take its housing crisis seriously

Lafayette is facing a severe housing crisis, one that’s been growing since before coronavirus. But now the pandemic threatens to escalate it to unprecedented levels.

According to a report from a state housing advocacy, it will take $54 million to keep everyone in the Lafayette metro area in their homes through year’s end and $125 million through July of next year. Put simply, thousands of people in our community are at risk of losing their homes.

Since March, the number of homeless has quadrupled, while 5,000 LUS customers in the city of Lafayette have fallen past due on their utility bills. That’s despite the $1,200 stimulus checks, the $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits, and the moratoriums on evictions.

Nationally, a third of all renters were unable to pay rent in April. And there’s every reason to think the same or worse is true in Lafayette as our economy is projected to face the state’s worst job losses and longest recovery. 

In the month of April alone, the Lafayette metro area lost 32,000 jobs. The parish of Lafayette lost 17,000 jobs, with 9,000 of those erased from the city of Lafayette. Altogether, UL economist Gary Wagner is projecting that the Lafayette metro area will lose more than 40,000 jobs in the second quarter of this year. And those jobs aren’t returning any time soon, as Wagner’s only projecting about 4,000 of those jobs coming back through the end of next year’s third quarter.

That means our economy is faltering with many people teetering on the brink, the exact scenario housing advocates have warned about. Meanwhile, Lafayette’s leadership has chosen not to make this issue a priority. Offered the chance to backstop this impending problem with $850,000 in federal housing dollars, elected officials and business leaders pushed for all of that money to go to small business grants. While other communities have made housing assistance a priority, we have chosen not to. Mayor-President Josh Guillory has even argued that housing doesn’t need any more funding because of other money that’s already available.

We’re not taking this seriously. And that’s a problem. 

Meanwhile, the statewide eviction moratorium on housing ends this week, those federal unemployment benefits evaporate at the end of July, and the restrictions against layoffs by businesses and evictions by landlords that received federal funding will be gone by early fall.

Lafayette’s housing crisis is a perfect storm for our most vulnerable neighbors. But even these terrifying numbers and trends don’t tell the whole story.

Lack of funding is a global issue affecting every aspect of this housing crisis. That’s because there’s not enough money to keep existing shelters properly maintained and open. There’s not enough money to build new shelters. There’s not enough money to sustain the temporary housing program in hotels. And there’s not enough money to help with housing or utilities assistance.

Even before coronavirus, housing was a growing issue in Lafayette. A report quantifying Louisiana’s population of working poor conducted by the Louisiana Association of United Ways found that more than 40% of Lafayette’s population is either in poverty or living near it. The people in these categories who are just managing to keep their heads above water are generally living on the edge, where a single unexpected expense can upend their budget and put their ability to pay their bills at risk. The report tracks the number of people in a community who are one disaster away — like a global pandemic — from financial catastrophe. To reiterate: That’s 40% of Lafayette Parish or close 100,000 people who faced a mounting affordability problem before coronavirus blew a hole in our oil and gas industry. The challenge now is that the crisis is growing exponentially at the same time our capacity to respond has shrunk.

What makes this housing crisis inevitable is that no matter what happens next, Lafayette’s economy is going to support tens of thousands fewer jobs than it did just a few years ago. That’s primarily due to the fall of oil and gas.

In 2014, the Lafayette metro area supported more than 23,000 oil and gas jobs. At the beginning of this year, that number had fallen below 12,000. In a May survey, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association found that its members expect to have to cut their workforces by half, which would reduce Lafayette’s oil and gas jobs to 6,000. That’s 17,000 jobs gone.

That has a ripple effect. When you hear about a new company moving to town, notice that economic developers don’t just talk about the direct jobs that are created but also the indirect jobs that will be enabled by having more people employed with money in their pockets. According to UL’s Wagner, a reasonable multiplier for calculating the number of indirect jobs from oil and gas is two. So for every oil and gas job gained, two indirect jobs are created. The problem is that this dynamic cuts both ways. So if our area has lost 17,000 oil and gas jobs, another 34,000 indirect jobs could go too, for a total of 51,000 jobs gone. To give this some context, in 2014, the total number of jobs in our metro area was 220,000. At the beginning of this year, before the coronavirus, our metro area had 200,000 jobs.

Losing tens of thousands of jobs will inevitably lead to either a lot of people moving or those who stay becoming poor enough that they risk facing housing insecurity. Fundamentally, it supports the warning coming from the human services sector that thousands of people will likely need help to keep a roof over their heads. 

Homelessness is the final status of a housing crisis in motion. There are literally tens of thousands of people in our community right now struggling to pay their bills who are at risk of losing their homes. Unfortunately, there is no magic silver bullet we can fire to fix all these problems. The size of the challenges we face dwarfs the resources currently available. But the first step to solving them is to take the problem seriously. Because this issue isn’t going to go away — even if coronavirus does.