Understanding Gentrification in New Orleans
By David Graber
Subsidized housing, community restoration and the role of Tulane students
What are Tulanians do to with their weekends when they find themselves no longer fulfilled by Fridays at the Boot and Saturdays at costume-themed pageants of hypermasculinity? Looking for new places to exercise their refined palates for nightlife, following an intensive, Yelp-consulted deliberation, these commercial trailblazers abandon the comfort of what they know, summon an Uber, and venture east to spend their money in Bywater (Safe & Fun!!, $$$, 4.5/5), an area known by all New Orleanians as a throbbing epicenter of gentrification.
In New Orleans, developers and realtors have profited heavily from the transformation of affordable housing neighborhoods into high-end art or historic districts. These changes have caused major increases in rent prices as well as the supplantation of locals by wealthier residents, often not from the city. Perhaps the most notorious harbinger of change was Pres Kabacoff, founder of Historic Renovations Inc.
In his efforts to facilitate post-Katrina restorations, Kabacoff opportunistically ushered New Orleans out of an era of public housing and into one of mixed-income complexes owned by his firm.
Currently, Historic Renovation Inc. is a for-profit company whose tenants afford residency through the New Orleans Section 8 program, which provides state funded vouchers for use in private businesses (much like Betsy Devos’s initiative to move away from public schools and towards a voucher system applied in private education). The agency of private ownership allows Kabacoff to exercise landlord’s prejudice and effectively outprice many low income undesirables out of his fabricated communities, streamlining the process of urban renewal.
But when did this revival begin, and was it avoidable? Rather than the historically steady nature of gentrification that was seen in cities like New York, Portland, and Austin, change in the urban demographics of New Orleans relied much more on a dialectic of catastrophe and “revival.” After Katrina, displaced residents and workers in New Orleans were unable to quickly rebound and move back into the area, leaving a vacuum to be filled by the dry inundation of gentrification.
The great deluge of Katrina, notes Tulane urban geographer Richard Campanella, resulted in a social restructuring that saw Bywater’s black population decline by 64 percent while its white population increased by 22 percent.
The knack for discrimination displayed by Pres Kabacoff served his business model well. Referring to the very people that his buildings were intended to house, Kabacoff said: “If there's crime that follows, the market rate gets nervous, votes with their feet and leaves, then it doesn't work. So what do you do with the third that's too difficult? You just don't take them, or you evict them. Just get them out of there.”
What form of “restoration” is this? For Kabacoff and people like him, restoring a community is nothing more than business; in the rhetoric of gentrification, “progress” is a false label applied by developers and realtors to cover up the reality of a market trend that echoes colonialist ventures and whose profit motive is fully dependent on the dispossession of a poorer native populace.
Regarding the gentrification of New Orleans, most Tulane students lie somewhere on the spectrum of intense apathy to profound ignorance.
So what can members of the Tulane community, chided for our seemingly implicit participation in one-sided urban renewal, do to help remediate the affordable housing crisis? Tulane students and anyone new to New Orleans should challenge the bland cultural homogeneity that tails behind the banner of gentrification by buying local and supporting affordable housing subsidization. Contribute to HousingNOLA. If you’re registered to vote in Louisiana, seriously consider voting for Desiree Charbonnet in the upcoming mayoral election. Her comprehensive plan for affordable housing has the potential to preserve the beauty, uniqueness, and diversity that make the Big Easy so special.