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Q&A: Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative chief on increasing housing security

American Cities, Health

By Loren Berlin and Veronica Reed

Veronica Reed is the executive director of Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit and Kresge Foundation grantee with a mission to transform unjust housing policies, discriminatory practices and inequitable development. Founded in 2008, staff at Jane Place engage in strategies that increase housing security and expand access to affordable rental housing.

In this interview by Loren Berlin, Reed discusses how the state of Louisiana’s 150-year-old tenant landlord laws provide no protections for vulnerable renters. She also explains why the organization’s founders decided to create a community land trust, a nonprofit corporation that purchases and stewards land on behalf of a community to promote affordable housing.

In a traditional residential community land trust model, typically an individual or family purchases a home that sits on land owned by the community land trust. Because the buyer is only purchasing the house – as opposed to the underlying land, as well – the home is more affordable to the homebuyer. As part of the deal, the homeowner agrees that when the time comes to sell the home, the sale price will remain restricted to ensure long-term affordability. Nevertheless, the homeowner may still be able to realize property appreciation depending on improvements they make while living in the home. Today there are more than 225 community land trusts in the United States, and the strategy is growing more popular as communities seek ways to preserve affordable housing. The Jane Place community land trust is different in that it only stewards permanently affordable rental housing.

Q: Why did Jane’s Place decide to create a community land trust (CLT)?

Our founders saw what was happening in our Mid-City neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina with the changing demographics and gentrification, and thought that one of the ways we might be able to make a real impact would be by purchasing land to ensure it would remain owned and controlled by community members in perpetuity.

Q: What does it mean in practice for the properties to be “community controlled”?

We are a nonprofit with a 15-member board made up of one third of folks who are residents of the land trust, a third who live within the boundaries of the land trust, and a third are community-minded individuals who are committed to our mission. That board ensures that we live up to our mission and our bylaws.

Q: I saw that Jane Place is committed to keeping the organization’s rental units permanently affordable to residents with lower incomes. How is the organization able to do that?

Our rents are set using HUD HOME Program rents, but we have not raised rents since 2019. It just hasn’t made sense to do so because we went through the pandemic, and now there is inflation. And while it would be nice to have a little more with regard to the organization’s bottom line, we know we can find that money from someplace instead of our tenants. It’s our job to raise funds to do our work. The extra $20 a month rent increase might be the difference between our tenant being able to pay the electricity bill for the month. It’s not worth it to add to the financial burden of our tenants.

Q: Over time, Jane Place has expanded to address housing policy issues in New Orleans. What prompted that evolution?

It wasn’t exactly an evolution. We were always both a CLT and housing justice organizer. It was important for us to be able to affect systems level change. We have been able to have an impact beyond the boundaries of the land trust through our housing justice work. Whether we are fighting in coalition with partners for housing quality standards or for stronger ordinances to stem the proliferation of short-term rentals in our neighborhoods, we are using policy to make system-level changes. For example, we successfully fought for and won the Right to Counsel for tenants in eviction court. That work supports housing security. We also have community organizers working with renters in affordable apartment complexes and buildings across Orleans Parish. Unfortunately, many affordable rental housing units tend to have habitability issues like mold and pests. We are providing tenant education in both English and Spanish and helping them organize two tenant unions so far. Low-income renters are the most vulnerable population in the New Orleans housing market. We want to help them harness their power.

Q: Seems like there is a lot of need for renter protections. If I understand your website correctly, the state of Louisiana has failed to update its tenant protections in 150 years?

Yes, we like things old here in the Deep South. On a serious note, we are working in coalition with partners locally to expand tenant protections. That work has resulted in Right to Counsel and the Healthy Homes ordinances. Healthy Homes identified minimum standards for rental housing to be maintained by property owner or managers and enforced by the city. Tenants can report an issue and because of an anti-retaliation clause cannot be evicted because of the complaint.

Q: What sort of repercussions are you seeing from such outdated legislation?

In Louisiana, an eviction can be filed against a tenant if they are a day late and a dollar short on their rent. And if that eviction is filed and depending on how efficient the court is and what the lease says, the tenant could be served, in eviction court, given a 24-hour notice to vacate and out of the home all in less than 14 days. And the sad part is that here in the Orleans Parish, the majority of folks who end up in eviction court are multigenerational households headed by Black women. I have been in court where there is a grandmother, a mother, and children there for the eviction hearing, and the woman will say ‘Your honor, my youngest is three months old,’ and the judge will say, ‘Then I will give you a week instead of 24 hours.’” You can’t find housing in New Orleans in a week.

That was the situation before the pandemic. Thankfully now, we have Right to Counsel money through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and so rental assistance is available for folks as long as the landlord will accept the payment. Right now, those funds are a band aid for the system.

Q: As you look to the future, where do you see exciting opportunities to continue Jane Place’s work?

One of the things we are trying to do is develop some of our housing free of government restrictions. It’s not an issue of compliance, but rather how government defines household and citizen, and the like. We don’t want to say ‘no’ to blended immigrant families. We don’t want to police who is and who is not documented. We operate in the neighborhood with the largest concentration of Spanish-speaking households in the city of New Orleans and currently we don’t have a single Spanish-speaking resident in any of our rental units. And that’s because folks have to be documented since we have government money.

The other piece of this is related to how you define a family. Under the government rules, if there are minor children in the household, the adult has to be their legal guardian. But we know that there are a lot of situations where aunts, grandmothers, older siblings, or other family members are not the legal guardians of the children they are caring for but still need housing.

So, we are having to say ‘no’ to some of the most vulnerable members of our community before they can even submit an application. Now we are looking to fund some of our property acquisition and development without government dollars. So far, I’ve raised almost $1.2 million, and I’m very excited about that.

I’m also excited very about the fact that we own a large double lot and are starting to conceptualize the development of 10-12 units of affordable housing on it. This will be the biggest project we have ever undertaken. It will be new construction, and will hopefully include solar energy and include handicapped accessible units, things we haven’t been able to in past projects. I’m am going to begin raising money for the project in 2024.