City Councilman James Carter stands silent in the middle of the confusion. He's there to listen and, they hope, take residents' plight to the City Council. As residents unload, a dry-erase board fills with details of lives distilled. Every life listed on the board carries a different set of circumstances and different resources. But they all share the same predicament: They are facing eviction, and they can't find affordable housing.
Residents have until Jan. 4 to vacate Woodlands Apartment complex, which was sold Oct. 31, 2006, to the Baton Rouge-based Johnson Property Group. Tenants were given the first of three eviction notices the day of the sale, which stated they had nine days to get out. With the help of advocates from Common Ground Collective, a local grassroots organization, as well as New Orleans Legal Assistance, residents won two reprieves. The first bought them until Nov. 28, 2006. The second, and widely believed to be the last, set the eviction date back to its current Jan. 4 deadline.
Regina Williams' name is on the board. She has four teenagers and an infant grandson living with her. Her four-bedroom apartment at Woodlands costs $750 a month. The best she's been able to find is a three bedroom for $950, but the landlord wants the first and last month's rent, along with a security deposit -- another $950 -- before she can move in.
"The thing that makes it so hard is that this is happening from no fault of ours. It's not like we didn't pay the rent," Regina Williams says. "Most people don't mind leaving, but we need time to find a place to live."
Dan Smith Jr. also is on the list. He's 83 years old. A lifelong photographer, he has lived at Woodlands since 1985 and thought he'd spend the rest of his days there. Mr. Dan, as residents call him, pays $195 a month for his two-bedroom apartment. He receives $100 a month from his pension fund and another $741, after taxes, from Social Security each month. He doesn't have a clue where to go or what to do.
Martha Garcia is there, too. She and her husband Hugo and their five children, all younger than 12, moved to New Orleans from Oklahoma in March in search of work and a new life. They rent a two-bedroom apartment at Woodlands for $500. Hugo recently got a job making $1,200 every two weeks as a deliveryman, so Martha thinks they'll be able to afford as much as $700 a month.
Of course, these aren't the only names on the board. One woman repeats again and again that she can't get her three grandchildren out of foster care in North Carolina if she doesn't have a place to live. Several men talk about how they worked at the complex as maintenance men. Now they're out both a job and a home. Another man suffers from seizures, and his wife is paralyzed from the waist down. Neither can work.
The new owner, Soundra Johnson-Temple, says she's "part of the solution, not the problem," and residents are being evicted so that much-needed renovations can begin.
In an email response to questions, Donald Clark, spokesman for Johnson Property Group, says the company plans to renovate the property with the hope of reopening it in phases beginning late this spring. But before work can begin, the complex must be secured to protect both workmen and materials. Liability issues surrounding an active construction site also require that the complex be closed, he adds.
Although rates for the renovated apartments have not been set, Clark says "current tenants of the Woodlands will go to the top of the reservation list for the planned reopening."
Over the past two months, while many tenants have struggled to find affordable housing, residents and their advocates have pleaded for help from the City Council, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They also sent Kwame Asante, executive director of Louisiana NAACP, to meet with Temple. At these various meetings, tenant representatives submitted two possible short-term solutions. They requested emergency Section 8 vouchers from HANO and HUD. When they received no response, they asked the City Council to put pressure on the housing agencies to release additional vouchers. They asked Temple to allow residents to move to one side of the sprawling complex for a couple of months to give them more time to find housing, while the other side of the complex can undergo renovations.
"There has to be a way where (the Johnson Property Group's) plans and their very real financial obligations can be met without making people homeless," says Soleil Rodrigue, coordinator for Common Ground's Legal Advocacy Committee.
Clark says former owner Anthony "Reggie" Reginelli and Common Ground pushed for renovations to begin without closing the property, but "neither group was able to address the crime and security issues. ... The extension (to Jan. 4) was an act of grace by the Johnson Property Group at considerable financial sacrifice and (was) not required by law."
With the eviction deadline looming and attempts to find a resolution at an impasse, the approximately 50 remaining tenants are frantic.
"I'm very much concerned that we won't be able to find many people a place," says Rodrigue. "I really believe that there will be a massive tragedy on [Jan.] fourth."
Housing experts and advocates say Woodlands residents' experiences are indicative of a larger and more complex problem: a lack of affordable housing that is reaching a crisis level in New Orleans. It ultimately affects tens of thousands of people who are trying to find affordable housing so they can return to the city. With a shortage of Section 8 vouchers and plans to raze four of the city's largest public housing complexes, housing advocates warn that if decent, affordable housing isn't factored into rebuilding plans, the city's socio-economic and cultural landscape could change forever.
"What we're going to see over the next several years is that the city is going to be whiter," says Bill Quigley, director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University and an advocate for the city's most vulnerable residents. "There's going to be far fewer renters. It's going to be older because families with children can't afford to come back. ... More than 100,000 African-American working poor families with children will never make it back. And as a result of that, a big part of the soul and spirit of New Orleans will be lost."
Housing advocates argue that the lack of options Woodlands residents have faced serves as a litmus test for the future of the city's housing market.
"It's extremely difficult. There's not much housing out there, much less affordable (housing)," says Laura Tuggle, an attorney with the Housing Law Unit at New Orleans Legal Assistance who has worked to secure the two eviction reprieves and locate affordable housing for Woodlands residents. "In some of the few options that might be available, you have to have a special need. There's some assistance for someone with a mental or physical disability or HIV, for example. But the most difficult population to find housing for is working families."
According to a recent survey The Times-Picayune conducted of more than 1,400 rental listings, the average rent for apartments in New Orleans spiked by 70 percent from shortly before Hurricane Katrina to October 2006.
As the CEO of the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, Jim Kelly deals with the realities of the housing market. Catholic Charities is trying to bridge the affordable-housing gap by partnering with other local Catholic organizations to address the critical need for housing. The collaborative effort, called Providence Community Housing, plans to build or repair 7,000 affordable homes and apartments over the next five years in hopes that at least 20,000 people can return to the city.
"Affordable housing is one of the top three issues affecting our city," Kelly says. "We're working to help all people from all economic situations come home."
Regina Williams says she's made calls to more apartment complexes than she can remember. Time after time, she says, the response is the same: There's a long waiting list, sometimes as long as 30 pages. If units are available, the landlord often requires tenants to pay deposits and fees that total three times the rent. When she finds a place closer to her budget, she often finds the landlord only takes tenants with Section 8 vouchers.
Williams was number 14,000 on the Section 8 waiting list when Hurricane Katrina struck 17 months ago. Although David Jackson, a spokesman for HANO, would only say there were "over 10,000" people on the Section 8 waiting list prior to the storm, Quigley says the number was closer to 18,000. Today, about 3,000 people receive Section 8 vouchers; before the storm, the number was closer to 9,000, Jackson says.
There's been a freeze on releasing new Section 8 vouchers since Katrina. Jackson says it's up to HUD to audit the local agency and determine when or if additional vouchers will be released. Based on the audit, HUD requests funding for additional vouchers as part of its annual budget, and Congress appropriates the funding. Because Congress didn't pass a 2006 budget, the agency has not received any additional funds and is still operating at the previous year's budget level, says HUD spokeswoman Donna White. Although a new Congress will take office this month, there's no indication when or if additional funds for the department will be released.
"We are more or less taking it day by day," White says. She points out that local housing authorities have emergency funds for situations like the one Woodlands residents are facing, but Jackson says it's up to HUD to authorize the release of emergency vouchers.
"Some people have been on the waiting list for as long as a decade," Jackson says, "so it's a question of whether bumping people off is fair." As of Dec. 21, 2006, HANO had approximately 900 Section 8 units ranging from efficiencies to six-bedroom units listed as available on its Web site. Many have been posted since Nov. 1.
"Lots of times you have available units, but residents don't move in because they don't like the neighborhood or they want to live close to family," Jackson says.
HUD increased the value of Section 8 vouchers by more than a third last summer to reflect fair-market rents. Today, a one-bedroom Section 8 voucher is worth $964, compared to the $595 it covered in October 2005. This increase was intended to entice more landlords to provide housing for people with vouchers, Jackson says. Housing advocates say the increased value also has a draw back: it encourages landlords to raise rents to reflect the voucher levels, further limiting the housing options for the working poor and people on fixed incomes.
"Residents cannot afford rents at the level Section 8 is paying," says Common Ground's Rodrigue, who with a team of advocates has manned an office with five computers for Woodlands residents to conduct apartment searches. "And if landlords can get more money from the government, then they are less likely to rent to working poor families."
Other housing officials point to market factors such as supply and demand, skyrocketing insurance rates and construction costs as the main culprits behind the rent hikes.
"What you have to realize is that we went from one of the most affordable cities in the country to one of the most expensive in one day," says Ivan Miestchovich, director of the Real Estate Market Data Center at UNO. The storm took out 100,000 housing units in New Orleans, he says. The housing shortage, combined with a 30 to 40 percent hike in the cost of building materials and labor, plus insurance rates that have spiked by two to four times since the storm, all have affected the price of rent. "Landlords are forced to pass those expenses on to their tenants," Miestchovich says. "It's just rational business sense."
In addition to illustrating how difficult it has become to find affordable housing since Katrina, housing advocates say Woodlands also is an example of the unhealthy conditions people desperate to find housing at pre-Katrina rents are willing to live in.
"Woodlands is a perfect example of the (housing) problem," Quigley says. "The people at Woodlands just want shelter. It's a reality-based market now because people are willing to move into a place like Woodlands, although it may not have hot water, or there may be damages, but it beats the alternative -- being homeless, living in a shelter, with family or leaving town."
The Woodlands complex was a fairly well-maintained property with an occupancy rate close to 90 percent prior to the storm. When the eviction notices were first posted on residents' doors, about 115 of the 361 one- to four-bedroom units were occupied, says Don Paul, Common Ground's chief operations coordinator.
Reginelli owned Woodlands Apartment complex from 2000 until he sold it to the Johnson Property Group on Oct. 31. Although he admits the cinderblock buildings are "structurally sound," Reginelli says hurricane winds knocked out as many as 400 windows, causing water damage in many apartments. Woodlands also was vandalized in the first couple months after the storm, when only eight tenants resided at the complex. By the time representatives from Common Ground approached Reginelli about buying the complex in May, it looked a lot like it looks today. The once-manicured lawns separating the six-story apartment buildings had grown into waist-high fields of weeds where rats roam. Contractors had dumped piles of construction debris on the site for months, and garbage was everywhere.
Common Ground came in and cut the grass, made repairs and paid a private contractor to pick up the trash. These services came to a halt after five months, however, when Reginelli sold the complex. By the middle of December, conditions had deteriorated severely.
Reginelli says he had planned to close the property last May because he didn't receive any proceeds from his insurer and couldn't afford to keep it open with only about 40 tenants living there. Instead, he and Malik Rahim, the founder of Common Ground, entered into a verbal agreement that stated Reginelli would sell Common Ground the apartment complex for $5.5 million. What happened over the next several months is in dispute.
Reginelli claims that after months of waiting on Rahim to come up with the money to buy the complex, he finally sold it to the Johnson Property Group. While he acknowledges that Common Ground cut the grass and paid for trash service, Reginelli says the organization did not manage the property and had no authority to write new leases, lower rents or allow new tenants to move in.
Rahim, however, says Common Ground managed the complex for several months with the understanding that the organization would buy it. He says the group ran day-to-day operations, paid for maintenance and repairs, drew up new leases and set rent at pre-Katrina levels. He says Reginelli refused to sign a purchase agreement, making it impossible for the organization to secure a loan to buy the property. Common Ground filed suit against Reginelli two months ago for reimbursement of money it claims it spent on renovations.
While the two parties debate the facts, most residents say they just want their security deposits returned so they can put the money toward new apartments.
Tenants who moved into the complex during the summer signed leases with Common Ground, and more than a dozen say the organization returned their security deposits in full shortly after eviction notices were posted. Those who had leases with Reginelli before Common Ground stepped in, however, receive their security deposits only after they move out; Reginelli says he asks for their new address so he can deliver the security deposit to their new landlord.
"I know a lot of these tenants need their deposit to relocate," Reginelli says. "But I have to make sure they're out. Otherwise, God forbid, I'll have to go in and physically evict them, and I don't want to do that."
In an emailed response to questions, Reginelli says it would be his responsibility to physically evict tenants after Jan. 4, even though he no longer owns the property because the Johnson Property Group asked him to "act as their agent in the eviction process." Donald Clark, spokesman for Johnson Property, says the company was not provided documentation of security deposits or leases at the time of closing so Reginelli is responsible for returning residents' deposits. It would not be his responsibility to physically evict any residents, however, as police would handle that if necessary, Clark says.
Just a few days before Christmas, Williams, Dan Smith Jr. and Martha Garcia each were at a different stage in their housing search.
Williams had not found a place for her four children and 3-month-old grandson to live. The Garcia family moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Slidell for $750 a month a week before Christmas. But the additional $250 for rent coupled with the $750 security deposit put a financial strain on the family and meant no Christmas presents for the kids.
Smith is more fortunate than most at Woodlands. He recently received a Section 8 voucher for a one-bedroom apartment. If the eviction deadline rolls around before he has found a new apartment, he says he'll move into the heavily damaged trailer his brother used to own.
"I tell you, I don't have a good feeling," he says. "It shouldn't be like this. It's like a slap in the face."