David Abbenante thinks the majority of those who receive public housing assistance are low-paid employees like service industry workers, clerical staff and unskilled laborers, whom he refers to as "the workforce backbone of our community." So when River Garden, a mixed-income housing development in the Lower Garden District, began accepting tenant applications in 2005, Abbenante, president of the for-profit HRI Management, which owns and manages River Garden, instituted a work requirement for subsidized housing applicants at the development.
"It's healthy, and I think it's healthy for the complex," Abbenante says.
He stresses that the requirement isn't onerous and exemptions are granted if the applicant is elderly, disabled or in a job-training program. Before establishing the employment rule, Abbenante says he checked with the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), the long-troubled agency (currently under federal receivership) that runs the city's housing program for low-income residents, and HANO signed off on the requirement. But as other new mixed-income developments started taking tenant applications, Abbenante found out that only one other development, Columbia Parc at Bayou District, the former site of St. Bernard housing project, has the work requirement. Most of the others do not.
Confused, Abbenante recently confronted a HANO official to clarify the agency's position. At first, the official (whom Abbenante declined to identify) would only give a broad bureaucratic answer, saying HANO abides by federal policies in regards to community service — unemployed tenants are required to do eight hours of monthly community service. Abbenante was baffled and pressed for further explanation.
"Talk to your attorney. We're not going to give you any direction," the official told him, according to Abbenante.
Abbenante has talked to his attorneys and is maintaining the work requirement on River Garden's public housing applications, as is Columbia Parc at Bayou District. One local attorney, who specializes in public housing, says it's clear the work requirement is illegal. Others, such as New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head, think the rule is fair and will help change the overall picture of public housing in New Orleans.
One thing is certain, however: With thousands of new publicly subsidized apartments becoming available in New Orleans in the next two years, HANO needs to decide whether apartment managers can require that their tenants hold jobs.
Cynthia Wiggins, president of Guste Homes Resident Management Corporation, has lived in the Guste housing development most of her life and has worked in the public housing sector for the past 25 years. She thinks the work requirement, handled correctly, would be a good idea.
"The public housing that we knew is no more," Wiggins says. "There's a shifting that's taking place and it's from the perspective of personal responsibility. The government is getting out of all of this subsidizing, so at some point in time, if we don't do something to force people back into the workforce, what's going to happen is you're going to have folks who are homeless."
The changes began in the early 1990s with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Hope VI program, which provided billions in federal dollars for the demolition and revitalization of public housing. Hope VI also broadened the public housing landscape by expanding the number of housing assistance (Section 8) vouchers, which allowed low-income families to rent apartments from private landlords rather than live in a public housing project. Hope VI funds were used to tear down the old St. Thomas Housing Development and to build River Garden, the city's first mixed-income development, designed for both low- and moderate-income tenants who would qualify for a variety of subsidized rental programs, as well as tenants with higher incomes who would rent at full market rate.
Unlike other U.S. cities, New Orleans was slow to change to the new mixed-income formula. But after the 2005 levee failures destroyed a number of subsidized apartments and displaced thousands of public housing residents, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously in December 2007 to demolish more than 4,500 apartments in four of the city's largest housing projects: B.W. Cooper, Lafitte, C.J. Peete and St. Bernard.
Head was outspoken in her support for razing the old projects and became a lightning rod for those who wanted to preserve the structures. She says she hated to see buildings torn down — many of which were structurally sound — but she adds that HANO and HUD officials assured the council it was a new day for public housing in New Orleans.
"The vision they had sold to us — and when I say 'us' I think it's most of New Orleans — is that it will be more like the Atlanta model ... East Lake," Head says. "It's a mixed-income community with incredible amenities and a social services component that helps bring people from multi-generation poverty in dangerous substandard apartments into a community that is more like average America."
Almost two years later, Head thinks developers are keeping up their end of the bargain in terms of construction, but HANO has not. She's encouraged by HUD's announcement that HANO will be reorganized with a 12-member team, headed up by the management consulting services firm Gilmore Kean, but says this new HANO needs to examine the issue of work requirements and provide some leadership.
Head has been meeting with B.W. Cooper's resident management council regarding the lack of direction provided by HANO. Problems are often mundane, such as how to get HANO to pay for minor repairs, but Head says another constant complaint is what can be done with those tenants who choose not to work.
For some elderly residents living at Cooper, it seems unfair that, according to HUD rules, a senior citizen is required to pay 30 percent of his or her Social Security check for housing, while some younger residents without jobs only pay the minimum rent.
"Out of the families we have, we have a large portion that only pay $50 a month rent, and the majority are young people," says Donna Johnigan, vice president of Cooper's resident management council.
On Oct. 15, there was a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new B.W. Cooper mixed-income housing development. When the 410-unit complex is completed, one-third of the new apartments will be conventional public housing assistance with rents based on income; one-third will be affordable rents, derived from a tax credits program and available to those with moderate incomes; and the final third will be market-rate rents. As part of the project, all of Cooper's currently remaining 303 apartments, which are all rented through conventional public housing assistance, will be torn down, meaning fewer than half of Cooper's current residents will live in the new complex.
Darrell Williams, executive director of the nonprofit B.W. Cooper Resident Management Corporation, says those with jobs will be given preference over the unemployed in the application process for public housing apartments. Williams says under HANO guidelines, he is able to score applications this way, but he can't completely exclude people who are unemployed and choose not to work.
Laura Tuggle concurs with Williams' reading of HANO policy. Tuggle, managing attorney for the housing law unit of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, says any work requirement is illegal because HANO does not have a "Moving to Work" (MTW) agreement through HUD. Under this standard, housing authorities, such as the one in Atlanta, can require those living in public housing be employed. Very few housing authorities have this designation, Tuggle says, adding that most people in public housing do work and HANO couldn't even apply for such an agreement because only high-performing authorities are allowed to do so. There is only one other way local mixed-income housing developments can legally enforce a work requirement, Tuggle says: "An amendment to the U.S. Housing Act."
As a compromise, Head thinks the number of mandatory community service hours for unemployed adults in public housing should be increased. Under current law, the minimum is eight hours per month, but Head and Wiggins would like to see that increased to 20 hours a week, and then offer job training and other programs as an option to community service hours. Last month, U.S. Sen. David Vitter proposed an amendment to renew the eight hours of community service. The amendment passed — despite opposition from Louisiana's other senator, Mary Landrieu, who said it unfairly singled out poor people.
"If you lived in public housing for 50 years, you could not possibly benefit as much from the General Treasury as if you would if you were the executive of AIG, to whom we gave a gazillion dollars," Landrieu said from the floor of the Senate. "Did we ask them to do eight hours of community service? We didn't even ask him to pay the money back."
When HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the reorganization of HANO, he told reporters that Assistant Secretary Sandra Henriquez would be in direct contact with the new HANO team. Henriquez, who previously headed up the Boston Housing Authority, says she already has been in contact with River Garden and Columbia Parc about the work requirement and is reviewing their documents to determine their legality.
"Depending on what [the documents] say, there could be a work requirement," Henriquez says, but adds that based on her experience only MTW housing authorities could negotiate a work requirement. Those without the MTW designation — Henriquez says only 30 out of about 3200 housing authorities are MTW — can only institute a "work preference" for applicants.
Henriquez says she hopes to make a decision within a week, which would satisfy Abbenante, who simply wants to know what he can and cannot do as a landlord.
"This isn't about residents, this is just about: 'What are the rules?,'" Abbenante says. "If we agree to the rules, and everybody lives up to their end of the bargain, which is what is done in most other areas, then it works."