Recession and disaster recovery aren't a good mix. So it's no surprise that the fourth anniversary edition of The New Orleans Index, published by the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, is less optimistic than last year's report.
While the recession obviously hasn't aided the recovery — home sales are down by 39 percent from a year ago and general sales tax revenues in April and May 2009 declined for the first time since 2006 — New Orleans' post-Katrina recovery has staved off some of the more dramatic effects of the recession. For instance, the metro area lost less than 1 percent of total jobs since June '08, compared to a national average of 4.1 percent. And with the city growing by more than 8,500 households (a blend of new and returning residents) in the past year — the largest one-year growth since 2007 — it seems some Americans no longer see New Orleans as a place in recovery as much as a place to build for the future.
Recessions are cyclical, but New Orleans' recovery doesn't have to be. Four years after the levee failures is a good time to ask what are we doing well and where do we need to change course? Here are our suggestions:
• Resolve the future of Charity Hospital. No matter which side you're on — rebuilding old Charity and having the VA hospital nearby, or developing the LSUHSC/VA complex — most people want this issue resolved. Either option will improve local health care for the indigent, provide better services for veterans and bring state-of-the-art teaching facilities for LSU and Tulane medical students. The only unacceptable option is where we are right now: stuck on stuck.
• Continue improving public schools. During the past year, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state's Recovery School District passed the school facilities master plan — a roadmap for developing the area's public schools for the next 20 years. LEAP scores went up for the third year in a row as both traditional and charter schools posted higher scores. The next steps: Maintain that momentum while making plans to return local public schools to local control. The role and value of charter schools are becoming clearer, but charter schools are not a panacea. Neither is state control of local schools. In the long run, decisions about local schools belong in the hands of local taxpayers and local elected officials.
• Make housing more attainable. The cost of housing continues to hinder recovery and repopulation. The index notes that steep increases in monthly rents over the past four years have finally leveled off, but the average rent remains 40 percent higher than they were pre-storm. That puts local housing out of reach for many key service sector workers — particularly those in health care support, food preparation and retail sales. Those jobs have the highest vacancy rates. New Orleans is second only to Detroit in terms of overall blight, with nearly 59,000 abandoned or empty lots. Clearly, there is enough real estate available to solve this problem. The state has begun releasing the more than 4,600 properties in New Orleans it bought from homeowners as part of the Road Home program, and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority will be in charge of selling these lots. This could help long-term renters become homeowners, and it presents a chance for creative developers to buy properties for more affordable housing units — and more constructions jobs. It will take leadership and initiative from NORA, an agency that has been asking for the chance to prove itself for decades.
• Ensure flood and hurricane protection improvements continue. Flood and hurricane protection remain top local priorities, but, as the index notes, it's difficult to track improvements. Corps officials say they will meet their 2011 deadline for completing the 100-year storm protection system, but several projects are behind schedule. What's most unacceptable is the fact that this system protects only against a 100-year storm. Katrina was a 400-year storm. Our elected representatives in Washington need to do better, and recent action by U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter to get "pump to the river" studied by the Corps is a good step.
New Orleans cannot control the pace of national economic recovery, but we must never lose sight of the fact that our fate as a city will always be in our hands.
Correction: In "The Kindness of Strangers" (Commentary, Aug. 4), we misstated the recipient of the blood donations given by the Evangelical Lutheran Church volunteers. It was The Blood Center. Gambit regrets the error.