The elephant in the room is how much longer this damn pandemic will last and who will be left standing when it finally ends. But that’s not the only aspect of our local economy with an uncertain fate.
Calling home: Sheltering in hotels to escape coronavirus, Acadiana’s homeless got back on their feet
While coronavirus raged, hundreds found their way to hotels where case managers could connect them with food, doctors and income, often for the first time.
The gist: Offered as relief, the governor’s emergency rent assistance program has met little celebration from housing advocates, who are wary that the $24 million set aside is a pittance compared with the volume of estimated need. Housing advocates say avoiding a wave of housing instability in Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the country, will cost at least 10 times what the state has cobbled together.
Up front, the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance program will launch with $7 million and grow to collect $24 million in federal housing funds. The program will be centralized and managed by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. An income cap of $25,450 limits the program to the very poor. Louisiana’s median income is around $48,000.
A report circulated by housing advocates estimates Louisiana renters need $250 million through the end of the year. Metro Lafayette alone, according to that same calculation, would need more than twice what’s been offered by the program, and little money has been offered up locally. On Tuesday, the City Council will vote to authorize $200,000 in local rent and utility relief.
“It’s like trying to soak up an oil spill with a paper towel,” says Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, of the resources thrown at housing so far. Her comments echo official statements from statewide organizations like HousingLouisiana, which issued a press release applauding the thought behind the program but questioning the effort. A $15 million program in Houston ran out of money in two hours.
Critics further point out the billions in federal assistance handed out to small businesses in Louisiana alone. Around $8 billion flowed into Louisiana’s small businesses via the CARES Act, the multi-trillion dollar stimulus stood up in a scramble by Congress to prop up the American economy as joblessness soared. Businesses in Lafayette Parish collected $600 million in forgivable federal loans valued at $150,000 or more through that program. The Louisiana Legislature authorized another $300 million for its own Main Street Recovery Act. And Lafayette Consolidated Government opened a $1 million small business grant program with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Housing advocates continue to warn of a coming wave of evictions. Legal proceedings on evictions in Louisiana resumed in June, the first shoe to drop. But the looming July 25 end of a federal moratorium on evictions has advocates in suspense. Expanded unemployment benefits will end July 31, days after the eviction protections are lifted for many of Louisiana’s 600,000 renter households. And, to be sure, many mortgage holders could be in trouble too as incomes decline and mortgage relief dries up.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time because we knew that if we could find a solution” it would take a while to make it work, Rachal says. Rent programs based on federal dollars are notoriously slow, suggesting that even as applicants flock to the rent program’s website or blow up 211 for help, the money won’t come quickly for them, both gumming up the flow of relief and — in the worst cases — arriving too little, too late.
Evictions have been abnormally low in Lafayette. The City Court docket has held steady at 30 filings per week since the eviction stay was lifted in June. Pre-Covid levels averaged around 60 evictions per week, according to City Court Chief Judge Doug Saloom. “I hold out the hope that those numbers don’t escalate,” Saloom says.
It feels like a calm before the storm. The dire predictions from housing advocates are premised on sustained, high levels of unemployment. While ticking down, unemployment figures have remained stubbornly high, suggesting the astronomical costs of need worrying housing advocates aren’t so far fetched. Even at half the value projected, the scale would be historic. Louisiana has 312,000 continued unemployment claims, posting a small decline last week. The Acadiana region bucked the trend, bumping slightly up to just more than 36,000 claims.
The early signs are there. More than 320 households, including many with children, are in hotel rooms secured as emergency housing by ARCH, Rachal says, and the number is rising. Beyond people showing up for help, advocates can’t see beyond the horizon to what’s coming. It’s unclear exactly how many people live in housing currently protected by the federal eviction moratorium, which covers any domicile that receives federal dollars — by voucher, mortgage backing or tax credit. Whatever that figure, it’s likely to dwarf the number that were covered by the state’s moratorium only.
“I have a lot of concern that people might think that’s solved now,” Rachal says of the message the rental program sends. “And it’s not.”
Lafayette is facing a severe housing crisis, with thousands of people at risk of losing their homes. This crisis started before the pandemic, but the coronavirus and its impact on our economy has just added fuel to a fire that’s now threatening to rage through our community.
The gist: A cross-sector alliance of agencies, nonprofits and community organizers soft-launched a coalition to develop a comprehensive housing strategy for Lafayette Parish.
“The ultimate north star would be a comprehensive strategy for development in Lafayette’s core neighborhoods — strategies for actually making something happen,” Acadiana Housing Alliance co-chair and Lafayette Habitat for Humanity Director Melinda Taylor says. “You can talk forever with this kind of stuff, but you have to start on specific initiatives to get things moving.”
The coalition launched in June and will reconvene every other month. A second meeting was held in August, organizing the alliance into segmented teams to tackle data collection, policy, neighborhood engagement, prep for a federal grant program and extending activities outside of Lafayette Parish.
The issue by the numbers:
- 16.5% of Lafayette Parish residents live in poverty
- 55 – amount of affordable housing units per 100 low-income households.
- $52K – median household income in Lafayette Parish
- $168K – median home value
- 1,500 – adjudicated properties parishwide, which contribute to blight and economic decline.
On paper, Lafayette’s comprehensive plan targets revitalizing the urban core. In theory, that means putting public resources and policies to work in the city’s aging neighborhoods, including closing gaps in housing. The plan has been slow to stimulate action, Taylor says, in part because of scant resources in LCG’s planning department, the agency in charge of that portion of PlanLafayette. (PlanLafayette is currently undergoing a fifth-year review.) Many neighborhoods in north Lafayette exceed 55% renter-occupied homes in their occupancy mix, demonstrating a tremendous decline in wealth concentration over the years, according to data compiled by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. Affluence and home ownership have scattered outward into surrounding municipalities, taking public resources and attention with them.
The coalition prioritizes neighborhood collaboration in developing a comprehensive housing strategy. The approach models loosely on the success of Habitat’s work in McComb-Veazey, where the nonprofit and the McComb-Veazey coterie have worked to engage residents in planning and redevelopment activities. Habitat has been the prime mover thus far in pursuing acquisition of adjudicated properties — tax-delinquent properties orphaned by owners, essentially — from consolidated government. Last month Habitat moved to acquire 10 such properties, all vacant lots in McComb-Veazey, to build a small strip of owner-occupied homes.
Coordination is everything. Disconnected funding sources and well-meaning but “siloed” housing organizations have operated in blind spaces. Meanwhile, siting new affordable housing projects in economically distressed areas has become a matter of controversy, as some nearby residents push back against developments they believe will exacerbate economic distress.
One goal here is winning a Choice Neighborhoods grant. The federal program could overhaul Lafayette’s public housing stock and provide funding for broad community work around the initiative, Taylor says. Choice Neighborhood grants require substantial upfront planning work to demonstrate community buy-in. Other Louisiana municipalities — Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans — have successfully applied for the program, drawing down tens of millions of dollars to remake public housing. Lafayette is set to shut down a few dozen units that currently sit in a floodway, making them ineligible for renovation funding from the federal government. Without intervention, says Taylor, who sits on the Lafayette Housing Authority board, much of Lafayette’s public housing will become unlivable.
Why this matters: Housing affordability isn’t an issue unique to Lafayette, nor is it unique to marginalized households. Many families struggle to make ends meet, a problem that could become more acute and difficult to resolve in Lafayette’s weakened economy and sluggish recovery. Much of the available data on local housing comes from higher altitudes like the U.S. Census Bureau, which makes snapshot estimates in between decennial censuses. The coalition’s data efforts could present a more accurate picture of economic conditions in the parish and the effects of regional development patterns.
The gist: A new study out this year highlights housing challenges in Lafayette for low-income families. A big concern: It would take the equivalent of more than two full-time, minimum-wage jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Lafayette Parish at fair market value. The study, called Out of Reach 2019, was produced by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.