Omar is one of the first musicians to take advantage of an opportunity presented by Habitat For Humanity's Musicians Village, a planned community of sorts now under construction in the upper Ninth Ward. The community was conceived in response to the severe shortage of affordable housing in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and it is designed to serve the particular needs of local musicians.
The Musicians' Community Center, a local clearinghouse for musicians' aid housed at Tipitina's Uptown, hosted an application workshop recently for musicians interested in the village. About 10 of them sat in metal folding chairs and watched a PowerPoint presentation on the program's specifics. Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976 to help low- to medium-income families acquire their first homes, now has more than 2,000 affiliates in the U.S. and outposts in 100 countries. The organization provides zero-interest loans to purchase single-family homes at cost but requires a fairly lenient credit check, income verification and the hallmark "sweat equity" -- 350 hours of work alongside volunteers building the Habitat homes.
For Omar, the opportunity offered by Habitat was a big help in returning permanently to New Orleans after Katrina. Omar recalls contacting his landlord from San Francisco in October to find out what happened to his Uptown home. "He wanted me to send rent for September and October," Omar says. "It was undamaged, but it had no water or electricity, and I didn't want to send so much money sight-unseen. So he put my stuff out on the street."
Omar happened to pass through New Orleans in December on his way to play a festival in Alabama, and he heard about the Musicians Village when he stopped at Tipitina's. He decided immediately to apply.
"About half of my band has applied," he says. "They're very surprised -- at first they were skeptical, but now the first house is almost built, and they can see it's become a reality." Frames for the first houses were put up at the end of March, and Habitat New Orleans' Executive Director Jim Pate estimates the first move-in date at June 5. Omar, who is currently staying with friends in the French Quarter, hopes to move into his home early this summer.
The organization has long been a favorite charity of New Orleans-born crooner Harry Connick Jr. He and Branford Marsalis conceived Musicians Village in response to the ominous possibility that many musicians, faced with the loss of their homes or with skyrocketing rents, might leave the city for good. Although non-musicians are eligible to live in Musicians Village, Habitat New Orleans is targeting most of its outreach at that community via the Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, the Tipitina's Foundation and Habitat affiliates in areas that took in large numbers of evacuees.
"From what we've been told, it might not be such a good idea to have all the musicians living together," laughs Pate. "And, of course, we're not going to put all the musicians next to each other, cheek by jowl. They'll be interspersed with non-musician families as well."
The centerpiece of the village, though, will be musical in nature -- the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music will house classrooms and performance rooms just off North Roman and Alvar streets in the Upper Nine. In a new twist for Habitat, and in deference to their target population, the Center also will serve as the site for some of that sweat equity. While new homeowners typically work off their 350-hour requirement doing construction, musicians have another option: they can serve hours by performing at the center or teaching music to children in the neighborhood. It's an attempt to realize Ellis Marsalis' oft-quoted dictum that New Orleans music "bubbles up from the streets."
At a time when most musicians' freshest memories are of much less pleasant things bubbling up from those same streets, that sounds like a great idea.
Omar, for one, is excited about the mentoring option. "I've always, even before the storm, been involved in going out to teach kids," he says. "Now that we're back and I have the band back, one of the things I really wanted to do was something for the community."
Nowadays Omar -- sometimes with the full band -- teaches soccer to neighborhood kids on Sunday afternoons in the Marigny neighborhood, and sometimes he teaches salsa and merengue dance to students at the International School of New Orleans, which moved from its Mid-City home to Kenner after the storm.
Percussionist Joy Levine, who drummed and sang with the New Orleans world music group Lovejoy, also is enthusiastic about the mentoring option. Prior to Katrina, she taught modeling and liturgical dance at her church and worked as an intervention specialist at the Milestone SABIS Academy of New Orleans. At the Tipitina's workshop, before handing over her pre-typed resume, she made copious corrections with a ballpoint pen, scratching out and writing in new addresses and phone numbers -- a symptom of the many relocations she's seen in the last eight months. Levine was airlifted from the rising waters at her Gentilly rental and deposited, along with her daughter and two grandchildren, at a triage center on the University of New Orleans campus, and she's lived in hotels and in a FEMA-sponsored apartment in Houston since then.
"I'm normally the one with all the faith, but this time I really didn't feel like I was going to make it," Levine says. "But I knew somehow God was going to find a way to give me a home. I really want to come back for the kids -- teaching kids has always been my gift from God. I think it's really a blessing for [Habitat] to be concerned about the musicians of New Orleans."
Being concerned with the musicians of New Orleans has also presented some new and unique hurdles for Habitat. The group's standard program, in operation for 30 years, required some tweaking for the decidedly non-standard realities of post-Katrina New Orleans -- and still more tweaks for the musicians. Using Habitat's traditional template, an applicant would have to supply a verifiable local address. During her presentation at Tip's, family services coordinator Sarrah Evans addressed that issue.
"We're flexible with residents on the address," she says. "If you're living in Texas and your kids are in school, but you're working in town or your employer says you have a job as soon as you get back into town -- it's just so we know you can make your mortgage payment."
The average monthly payment on a three-bedroom single-family Habitat home, which includes the house note as well as insurance and taxes, is between $400 and $500 -- an amount that Pate says is around $100 to $200 a month below the pre-Katrina average rent on a shotgun double in that neighborhood.
"The hardest part of qualifying musicians is accounting for income," says Evans. "We know you don't always have pay stubs, or 1099s."
Verification is tricky for professional musicians, who don't, as a rule, keep regular schedules. However, proving that a musician applicant's income falls between the $16,000 minimum (for any household) and the $36,540 maximum (for a six-person household) has been easier than they thought, Habitat reps say.
"People have thought that because the nature of the music business is episodic, their income would be under our guidelines, but it seems that's not so," Pate says. "We look at regular gigs, the band or bands in which they play. One of our applicants has been playing for years with Deacon John, and we know that's a regular gig. Most regular paying gigs are reasonably verifiable. If someone says, 'I play at Tipitina's every Thursday night,' that's fine."
"We're being very accommodating," says Suzanne Mobley, a 2003 Loyola graduate who had been living in Cairo, Egypt, and returned to New Orleans in February to work for Habitat. "A lot of people are being accepted on a provisional basis. If they were employed before the storm, we'll approve them and hold their application until they're employed again. We're also getting a lot of older people, which is not what our program was designed to accommodate -- one or two people who lost their home, living on Social Security or retirement. We need new models for sweat equity for them, and for what will happen if they become disabled, if stairs become a problem."
One fix designed for the Katrina population of new applicants consists of several smaller rental units added to the Musicians Village.
The need for immediate housing for applicants still living transitionally is also a challenge. Normally, the time elapsed between application and move-in might be a year, but because of the unique circumstances presented by Katrina, Habitat is trying to speed things up.
"It's about making sure that the people who contribute to the culture of this city can stay in the city," says Mobley. "We've got so much goodwill, volunteers and money coming in from all over the country."
One compromise allows homeowners to move in with a lease/purchase agreement before fully closing the deal. Traditionally, Habitat requires new homeowners to escrow $2,200 to cover the first year's insurance and taxes -- and to complete their sweat equity hours. In New Orleans, applicants can move in sooner and hold off signing the papers until their hours are completed and the full amount is paid.
Currently, according to Mobley and Evans' estimates, 29 musicians have applied to live in the village, with two already fully approved and working on their sweat equity. Pate estimates that the 1,600 applications they've received since the storm outstrips their total for the entire year before Katrina. With that in mind, Habitat is looking at 300 more lots in the upper Ninth Ward, which means Musicians Village may eventually increase to 300 or more single-family units.
"It's going to be very interesting," says Omar. "I lived for many years in the Bywater, which is a very artistic neighborhood. It's full of painters, musicians -- that's one of the reasons I liked to live in New Orleans, living with a lot of people who make a lot of noise. So to live in that village with musicians, it'll be almost the same. And the requirements, that you have to have good credit and get up early and do your sweat equity -- I think it'll be responsible people who move in and it won't be a crazy place."