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Friday, March 25, 2016

The USA vs. Big Freedia: on "affordable housing" in New Orleans

Posted By on Fri, Mar 25, 2016 at 6:15 PM

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Several fans shouted their support for Big Freedia as the queen of bounce walked to a black SUV parked outside U.S. District Court on Poydras Street. That afternoon, Freedia pleaded guilty in a case that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Though Big Freedia had depended on public assistance for housing, as her career took off — in the studio, on TV, on stages around the world — she no longer qualified to receive it. Freedia relied on Section 8, shorthand for the Housing Choice Voucher program, which subsidizes a portion of rent through a local public housing agency, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In New Orleans, that agency is the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO).

On March 16, Freedia faced U.S. District Judge Lance Africk and pleaded guilty to receiving those vouchers. According to federal prosecutors, Freedia, over five years, was earning more income than the threshold for voucher eligibility. Freedia admitted to the charges in the weeks before her hearing.

"Housing vouchers are a vital lifeline for many people I know in New Orleans and around the country, including struggling artists," Freedia said in March 1 statement following the U.S. Attorney’s announcement of her charges. "I truly believe there needs to be more programs for artists and musicians to teach basic financial literacy and planning. Coming from where I came from, I know that I could have used that kind of assistance.”

That statement and the courtroom hearing that followed have opened a discussion about housing assistance, who qualifies, and the city’s ongoing housing crisis following the abandonment of public housing projects and the rise of “mixed use” developments and voucher programs.

Here’s the state’s evidence against Freedia:

According to prosecutors, the income eligibility threshold for Section 8 within that time would’ve been no more than $21,700 a year. Section 8 recipients are to report changes in income or employment within 10 days and must fill out annual recertification forms, which include disclosing all income.

On March 17, 2009, Freedia submitted an application to HANO for Section 8, listing her monthly income at no more than $1,000, and disclosing no other assets. Starting that July, Freedia received Section 8 subsidies at about $521 a month for a house on Bayou Road. In November 2010, Freedia moved to Warrington Drive and submitted a request for tenancy approval to HANO. Freedia then started receiving housing assistance to the tune of $695 a month at her new address beginning in 2011.

And starting in February 2011, Freedia attended annual recertification meetings with HANO.

In total, Freedia received roughly $37,622 in assistance from July 2009 to November 2014. Her annual disclosed incomes were $0 in 2011, $14,400 in 2012, $12,000 (plus a one-time $2,000 gift) in 2013, and $12,000 in 2014.

Prosecutors said documents and testimony with HANO, HUD and bank representatives would establish Freedia "knowingly understated” income and assets for the purpose of receiving Section 8 benefits, and if Freedia had reported that income correctly, it would have disqualified her from receiving those benefits.

Meanwhile, Freedia's star was rising and her team was growing, with a staff from her hit reality TV series and on her tours, building the decade-in-the-making media empire illustrated in this week's cover story.

The demolition of the city’s Big Four housing projects and the ensuing increase in voucher eligibility effectively “re-concentrated poverty in New Orleans” — according to the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center — with families “disproportionately stuck in farther-flung, segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods with little access to public transit, jobs, or the kinds of opportunity that help families break the cycle of poverty.” 

While there are nearly 18,000 families receiving HANO assistance, there are another 6,000 families on its waiting list. Once you're in, it's difficult to trust you're able to get out. Voucher households make up nearly a quarter of all rentals in the city, while more than 30 percent of private renters pay more than half their income on rent — all while the city’s rising cost of living has outpaced stagnant incomes.

HANO itself also isn’t without its problems, outlined in a brutal 2010 HUD report, the same year former HANO COO Dwayne Muhammed was sentenced to eight months in prison for receiving more than $45,000 in Section 8 vouchers, despite earning a six-figure salary. And in 2009, HANO’s Section 8 director Naomi Roberts was suspended after she also profited from the program she was running.

In her statement, Freedia said she “knew little about how to handle” her money once her career took off. “It wasn’t until recently (after I had stopped receiving housing vouchers) that it became very clear I had received assistance to which I wasn’t entitled,” Freedia said. "It was an oversight — but one that I take full responsibility for."

“It also should be noted that for a lot of people who have been poor/working class for most of their lives, it's hard to trust changes in economic status,” says Harlot’s Neve Be. “It's hard to know if one's success, especially as a performing artist, and a black, genderflux performing artist from New Orleans, is going to stick.”

Brentin Mock at CityLab says Freedia’s case “is not a case of flaunting the gaming of the public welfare system.”

“So while what Freedia did was wrong, it must be recognized that New Orleans has been failing its residents through its flawed execution of the voucher program and rampant discrimination against tenants that use it,” Mock says.

Fair Housing Action Center Director Cashauna Hill told CityLab that “we have to understand that housing vouchers are critical assistance and a vital lifeline for low-income people in New Orleans ... These artists and musicians are the culture-bearers for the city of New Orleans and for people who support the service-based economy. So, rather than criminalizing mistakes, [the local housing authority] could look at ways to support people receiving this critical assistance and make sure they have the tools that they need to make the program work for them.”

Africk didn’t speculate on the terms of Freedia’s sentence. Freedia’s sentencing hearing is June 16. Similar federal housing fraud cases from local and federal housing agencies in Louisiana often end with restitution and several months or years of probation. There’s former New Orleans Police Department officer Tracie Medus, who defrauded the federally funded Small Rental Property Program, a part of Road Home, and was sentenced to three years probation in 2015. And there’s Alfred and Tyist Decquir Coleman, who defrauded the Disaster Housing Assistance Program and received three years probation in 2013. And there’s Nedra Bell, who fraudulently received more than $50,000 from Road Home and nearly $60,000 from HANO and was sentenced to five years probation and one year of home confinement.

Africk told Freedia, "You understand this crime was much more than an oversight?"

"Yes, sir," she said.

The maximum penalties in Freedia’s case include up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The plea deal reached with prosecutors, however, includes restitution of $34,849.

“To punish Big Freedia so extremely for receiving housing vouchers beyond when she qualified for them does not benefit anyone in need of housing in any way,” Be says, “and it would further reinforce the racist precedent that America believes black people, no matter how talented, are bodies for prisons, not houses.

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