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Raise Your Voice to Secure Housing Discrimination Protections

Posted on 17. Oct, 2019 by

In August, we let you know about a long-standing civil rights protection known as “Disparate Impact” that is currently under attack by the Trump Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The disparate impact theory has been used to prove housing discrimination claims since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 and despite having enjoyed bi-partisan support for more than 50 years, HUD is proposing to change the rule and make it nearly impossible to challenge discriminatory practices that are not blatant or explicit.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Disparate Impact is an important tool in fighting segregation and racial isolation. However, HUD’s proposed rule would require explicit proof of discrimination (not just proof of the discriminatory effect), provide special protections for businesses that use algorithms, and seems to lay the foundation for exempting the insurance industry from disparate impact liability.

What this change would mean, is that future discriminatory laws and policies would be harder to fight. The Disparate Impact legal theory is at the heart of dozens of cases that have protected Louisiana residents. Most notable among them is GNOFHAC’s case that secured $62 million in relief for families across South Louisiana harmed by the Road Home’s discriminatory funding formula. While the policy of offering rebuilding grants based on the pre-storm value of a home, rather than the cost to rebuild, seemed neutral, it resulted in homeowners in white neighborhoods receiving higher grant awards than homeowners in predominantly African American neighborhoods. This was true even when the homes were the same size and age, and the damage was similar.

Without Disparate Impact, we also might not have been able to stop St. Bernard Parish’s 2006 “blood relative” ordinance preventing property owners from renting to anyone but blood relatives. In addition, Disparate Impact was pivotal in protecting survivors of domestic violence from eviction because of the actions of an abuser.

Fortunately, there are steps we can take to tell HUD that Disparate Impact needs to stay. GNOFHAC is working with national groups to collect as many comments opposing the rule as possible before Friday, October 18th. To make a comment and make your voice heard, visit www.defendcivilrights.org/make-comment.

#YesOn4

Posted on 11. Oct, 2019 by

New Orleans is in the throes of a housing crisis. Much of GNOFHAC’s work in recent years has been to fight displacement and make sure that New Orleans is a community where long-term residents can stay and thrive. We’ve seen renters pushed out of their homes by rent spikes and out of town investors prioritizing tourist housing like AirBnB. Even homeowners who have lived in their houses for years—sometimes generations—are losing their homes due to skyrocketing property taxes. In response to this crisis, advocates have pushed the city to take action to lessen the displacement of long-term residents. In August New Orleans City Council passed new rules to restrict short term rentals, and on October 12th New Orleans voters will have another opportunity to keep New Orleanians in New Orleans.

A statewide constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot would allow the City of New Orleans to control its own property taxes and offer relief in exchange for affordable housing. Constitutional Amendment 4 comes with support from both sides of the political aisle, having been endorsed by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. This bipartisan support is a rare find in Louisiana, and Mayor Cantrell’s office attributes that to the proposition’s ability to “provide local solutions to local problems”.

Among those solutions is a plan suggested by Mayor Cantrell which promises to take concrete actions to ensure housing relief for New Orleanians. The plan has two main pieces. The first would address the spike in tax assessments and provide tax relief for homeowners to ensure property taxes stay affordable for long-term, low-income homeowners and first-time homebuyers. The second piece of Mayor Cantrell’s plan is to incentivize small landlords and builders to increase the number of affordable rental units on the market.

New Orleans need its long-term residents and a #YesOn4 vote means we’ll be able to set our own rules with the New Orleans City Council rather than at the state legislature in Baton Rouge. We hope you will join us in getting out the word and getting out the vote on October 12th, because we know that when New Orleans can take care of itself, the whole state thrives.
Click here to find your polling place and here to see if you’re registered to vote!

A Look into New Orleans LGBTQ+ History

Posted on 04. Oct, 2019 by

In New Orleans, queer and trans communities have many unique histories. One example is the history of Storyville, New Orleans’ legal red-light district which was operational from 1897 to 1917. Established by municipal ordinance under the New Orleans City Council to regulate prostitution and drugs, Storyville became home to a portion of New Orleans’ queer, trans, and black populations, who were pushed to the margins of society.

Restaurants, saloons and brothels lined the streets of the district, enticing travelers from the nearby train station. Given that options for work and housing were limited for queer and trans people during this time, many opted to earn a living via sex work and moved into Storyville to support themselves. There, they could live freely amongst members of their communities.

Storyville was renowned for its vibrant atmosphere and equally unique “cast of characters.” Fanny Sweet, an infamous Storyville resident, was openly gay and the owner of a well-known brothel in the district. She was described as a “thief, lesbian, Confederate spy, poisoner and procurer.” Another colorful persona, Miss Big Nelly, was a prominent member of the LGBTQIA+ community in Storyville, operating a brothel in the district that housed gay men.  The saloons in Storyville gave a soundtrack to the activities of the district. Jazz music flourished at these music clubs during the late nineteenth century. An iconic figure at the pianos of Storyville saloons was Tony Jackson. He was an openly gay black musician who played an important role in the birth of Jazz music in New Orleans and both lived and worked in Storyville.

When prostitution became illegal again in 1917, Storyville shut down and most of its buildings were later destroyed, causing the displacement of all those who once called it home. By 1940, the location was being used to build the Iberville Housing Projects, a segregated all-white housing development. Black residents who used to live in Storyville had to move 12 blocks into the Lafitte project. It is important to note that queer and trans people would not be legally protected against housing discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in Orleans parish until fairly recently. In 1991, the New Orleans City Council passed the Human Rights Ordinance protecting LGBTQIA+ people against discrimination in housing and employment in Orleans Parish.

Currently, the federal Fair Housing Act does not explicitly include protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. However, sex discrimination frequently applies to discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA+ community. There are also some newer rules on the books that extend protections to queer and transgender individuals under the law. For example, in federally funded housing, HUD’s LGBT rule protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes public housing, housing rented with a Housing Choice (Section 8) Voucher, FHA mortgages, and lots of other programs. For more information on legal protections against housing discrimination based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation please refer to this previous blog post.

If you think you have experienced housing discrimination because of your sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity call the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center at (504) 596-2100.  Help is free and confidential.

Coming Home with a Criminal Background

Posted on 20. Sep, 2019 by

The United States has a long history of discriminatory arrests, convictions, and incarcerations, the consequences of which can last long after a sentence is completed.  For formerly incarcerated people (FIP), it is more difficult to obtain employment opportunities, to vote, to receive government assistance, and to find housing opportunities. Numerous state and federal laws have influenced an unfair system that is responsible for arrest rates being 2.5 times higher for African Americans than for white individuals, resulting in African American communities being denied housing at a higher rate and furthering segregation in our neighborhoods.

A 2015 GNOFHAC investigation revealed that background checks were being used as a means to discriminate against African-Americans. The investigation showed that housing providers were not applying criminal background checks across all races equally. 50% of the housing providers that were tested in New Orleans discriminated against African American mystery shoppers who had criminal backgrounds. Additionally, the investigation found that housing providers were consistently willing to give white testers a second chance, while African American testers were not given that same leniency. Housing providers also quoted more tolerant policies to white testers, such as one housing provider who encouraged a white tester with a misdemeanor to apply for a home but told an African American tester that the misdemeanor would result in a denial.

 Even policies that are enforced equally can still have a discriminatory effect. Disparate impact occurs when policies, practices, rules or other systems, which appear to be neutral, result in a disproportionate impact on a protected group. Since people of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, are more likely to be targeted by the criminal justice system, overly broad criminal background policies will consistently have an unfair impact based on race and national origin. Even though the policy may seem equal, the effect can deny communities of color housing opportunities at an unfair rate, resulting in difficulty obtaining mailing addresses, living in safe environments, and reintegrating with society.

For some, an expungement can provide individuals with opportunities to remove prior arrest records. Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana (JAC) offers free monthly workshops that provide eligibility screenings for individuals who are trying to obtain expungements with representatives from Orleans Public Defenders, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, Voice of the Experienced, and pro bono attorneys who are available to answer questions and provide resources. You can find more information at their website: jaclouisiana.org/expungements

While expungements will not provide the social and institutional change that is needed to eliminate the discriminatory justice system, it may give FIP opportunities to live their lives with more ease. In addition, there are local efforts pushing to change city wide housing practices in regard to criminal background policies. GNOFHAC is proud to support VOTE’s (Voice of the Experienced) work to ban the box on all rental applications in New Orleans so that private landlords and public housing authorities alike cannot discriminate against a prospective tenant based on their criminal record. GNOFHAC enforces the Fair Housing Act for all individuals who have been discriminated against. The Fair Housing Act protects everyone against housing discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, color, disability, sex and having children. If you or someone that you know has faced housing discrimination of any kind, call us at (504) 596-2100 or file a complaint online at http://www.gnofairhousing.org/file-a-complaint/.

Additional resources:

Navigating HANO criminal background screening policy

Guide with basic info on Expungements

14 Years After Katrina: New Orleans Continues the Fight Against Displacement

Posted on 06. Sep, 2019 by

Last week marks 14 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall and forever changed the Gulf Coast. Since that time, New Orleanians have continued to create opportunities for the city and its legendary sense of community to flourish. However, there are still many residents who are finding themselves being pushed out of their homes and losing access to the city they helped to build. 

What’s happening in New Orleans is the result of policies that may have been well-intentioned, but resulted in perpetuating inequity. For instance, the federally-funded Road Home rebuilding program gave homeowners grants that were based on the pre-storm value of their damaged home, rather than on the cost to rebuild.  Because the grant formula failed to take into account the effects of redlining and residential segregation, homeowners in predominately white neighborhoods had homes that were valued higher than the homes that were similar in size and age in predominantly African American neighborhoods. Due in part to the discriminatory nature of the grant formula, 70 percent of long-term white residents were able to return to New Orleans within a year, but only 42 percent of long-term black residents were able to do the same.

Fourteen years after the storm, displacement in New Orleans continues. Long-term residents are being pushed out of neighborhoods due to a variety of factors, including increases in rent and property taxes, driven in part by the proliferation of short-term rentals and the rise in gentrification.  

Despite the grim parts of New Orleans’ recovery, there are positive developments. This summer, New Orleans took a big step toward regulating short-term rentals. Starting in December, STR operators will be required to reside on the property that is being rented in residentially-zoned areas of the city, which is designed to stop the practice of out-of-state speculators turning several homes into short-term rentals that can no longer house long-term New Orleanians. 

Additionally, the Housing Authority of New Orleans has partnered with a private developer to bring a mixed-income development to the Bywater, a neighborhood with one of the highest post-Katrina rates of African-American displacement.  The proposed development will bring 82 deeply affordable housing units in a neighborhood that has gentrified and is now one of the most well-resourced in the city.

14 years after the storm, the fight to keep New Orleanians in New Orleans continues. As we celebrate the recent steps the city has taken to combating displacement, we also remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and pledge to continue to work to keep New Orleans a home to those who made it great.

Newly Proposed Rule Would Make Lawsuits like Road Home and St. Bernard Parish “Blood Relative” Cases Nearly Impossible

Posted on 23. Aug, 2019 by


New Orleans—Today, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) denounced an extreme move by the Trump Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to eviscerate a long-standing civil rights protection known as “disparate impact.” HUD’s proposed rule, published today in the federal register, would make it far more difficult to challenge discriminatory practices that are not blatant or explicit.

Though the term “disparate impact” may not be well-known, residents of South Louisiana are far too familiar with the trials and tribulations of dealing with the Road Home program after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Chief among the problems with the program was its discriminatory funding formula. Initially, the program used what appeared to be a neutral policy of offering homeowners rebuilding grants determined by the pre-storm value of their damaged home. Despite being neutral on its face, the policy resulted in homeowners in segregated white neighborhoods—which had higher pre-storm values—receiving higher grant awards than homeowners in predominantly African American neighborhoods. This was true even when the homes were the same size and age, and the damage was similar. Because of disparate impact, GNOFHAC’s lawsuit resulted in HUD and the Louisiana Recovery Authority putting $62 million dollars back in the pockets of Louisianans to rebuild their homes. It’s exactly this legal principle that HUD is attempting to gut with its new rule. 

Another significant post-Katrina case that utilized disparate impact was GNOFHAC’s challenge to the St. Bernard Parish “blood relative” ordinance. That law, passed in 2006 by the Parish Council, prohibited the rental of single-family residences unless to a blood relative, at a time when 93 percent of parish homeowners were white. The lawsuit, as well as a subsequent disparate impact challenge to a ban on apartment buildings, paved the way for more rental housing available to Louisianans hoping to come home after the storms.

HUD’s proposed rule significantly raises the burden of proof for discrimination, provides special protections for businesses that use algorithms, and appears to lay the foundation for exempting the insurance industry from disparate impact liability.

The disparate impact theory has been used to prove housing discrimination claims since the passage of the Fair Housing Act, and has enjoyed bi-partisan support for more than 50 years, beginning with its application by Richard Nixon’s Administration. Disparate impact has been upheld by 11 Courts of Appeals and by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2015 Texas Dept. of Housing & Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project ruling.

“Whether you’re black, white, a family with children, or you have a disability, everyone should have a fair opportunity to find a place to call home. Disparate impact is not abstract in Louisiana—this legal tool has directly benefitted the residents of our state. Attacking this long held civil rights protection is just another way this Administration seeks to divide our country,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

Know Your Rights for Back to School: Searching for Housing When You Have an Emotional Support Animal

Posted on 16. Aug, 2019 by

Searching for housing when you come back to school – whether in the dorm or off-campus – can be a stressful process, especially if you are someone who has an emotional support animal (ESA) because of a disability. An ESA is an animal that provides emotional support that alleviates symptoms or effects of a disability. One example could be a cat whose presence reduces the symptoms of depression or anxiety in their owner. While any animal can be an assistance animal (as long as it is both necessary and reasonable), the majority are dogs or cats. These animals play an important role in the lives of many who rely on their support, but many tenants unfortunately still experience hardship and discrimination when looking for housing with an ESA.

Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers are required to make reasonable and necessary accommodations for people with disabilities, which includes allowing a service animal or emotional support animal even if they usually have a no pets policy or other restrictions on animals. Housing providers are not allowed to charge a pet fee or pet deposit, or to enforce breed or size restrictions, for a service or emotional support animal. Unfortunately, GNOFHAC still frequently sees individuals with ESAs being denied housing outright, being required to pay large pet fees or deposits, or even being mocked by housing providers who question their disability and if they really need an ESA. A housing provider must accept a letter from a doctor, psychiatrist, social worker, or similar provider who is familiar with the disability and the support that the animal provides as proof of the need for an assistance animal.

Whether you are moving into a dorm or an apartment, if your housing provider has denied your request for an accommodation due to a disability, such as allowing you to have an emotional support animal, call the GNO Fair Housing Action Center at (504) 596-2100. Help is free and confidential.

GNOFHAC Settles Lawsuit on Behalf of Woman Alleging Willful and Callous Discrimination Against People with Disabilities

Posted on 05. Aug, 2019 by

New Orleans—Today, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit against the owners and property managers of a Covington apartment complex, alleging they refused multiple requests to move a wheelchair-bound resident to available first floor apartments. As part of the settlement, the defendants will receive fair housing training, change policies related to residents with disabilities, and pay $205,000 in damages and attorneys fees.

Ms. Susan McMullen, the plaintiff in the action and a resident of the Palmetto Greens Apartment Homes, first requested to move into a first floor apartment in the summer of 2017 after surgery left her requiring the use of a wheelchair. Her apartment was on the second floor and was accessible only by stairs. Ms. McMullen alleged that, over the course of the next year, she made three additional requests to be moved to first floor units, all of which were denied by the property managers for the building, CF Real Estate Services. In the meantime, she was left to the humiliating and dangerous task of crawling down the stairs or calling 9-1-1 any time she needed to take out her trash, pick up her mail, drop off her rent, go to church, visit with friends, purchase groceries, or go to doctor’s appointments.

The St. Tammany fire district responded to over 100 calls to Ms. McMullen’s apartment. Additionally, Ms. McMullen’s complaint alleged the fire chief implored CF Real Estate Services personnel to move Ms. McMullen to a first floor apartment. She also alleged that the property managers responded to her requests by placing her at the bottom of a waitlist, even though at least one ground floor apartment was vacant at the time.

Only after GNOFHAC attorneys and the law firm of Bizer & DeReus filed suit against the complex owners and property managers on behalf of Ms. McMullen, did CF Real Estate Services offer Ms. McMullen a ground floor unit.

“The defendants in this case showed a callous and reckless disregard for Ms. McMullen’s safety and civil rights as a person with a disability,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of GNOFHAC. “The Fair Housing Act clearly entitles people with disabilities to the sort of reasonable accommodation Ms. McMullen requested. Anyone who believes they’ve been denied such an accommodation should contact GNOFHAC at (504) 596-2100,” she continued.

The settlement ensures that people with disabilities are prioritized for units that are designed to meet ADA standards and applies to nine apartment complexes across Southeast Louisiana, including:

Palmetto Green Apartments, Covington
Pine Crest Apartments, Covington
North Shore Apartments, Slidell
Lakeside Apartments, Slidell
Riverview Apartments, Chalmette
Parc Place Apartments, Chalmette
Wood Crest Apartments, Chalmette
Magnolia Park Apartments, Chalmette
Marquis Apartments, New Orleans

Ms. McMullen was represented by the law firm of Bizer & DeReus and GNOFHAC attorneys Elizabeth Owen and Peter Theis.

See the full complaint here.

Contact: Maxwell Ciardullo, 504-273-6769, mciardullo@gnofairhousing.org

The work that provided the basis for this release was supported, in part, by funding under a grant with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this release. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Government. 

Celebrating a win for tax abatement to fight gentrification

Posted on 23. Jul, 2019 by

Last month, the Louisiana State Legislature approved a pair of bills, SB 79 and SB 80, that are designed to address the city’s affordable housing crisis. The passage of these bills, under the leadership of Senator Troy Carter, is a big win for fair housing.  But because changes to tax policy in Louisiana require a constitutional amendment, it still needs voter approval via state ballot in October.

A lack of affordable housing continues to plague New Orleans, as a large number of workers – especially those in the tourism and hospitality industries – are overburdened by their housing costs. Recent research highlights a mismatch between wages earned and costs of owning or renting a home, where growth in costs far outpaces growth in wages. On average, those who make 75% less than the city’s median income pay only 25% less than median housing-related expenditures. Among other causes, the rise of Airbnb as alternative tourist lodging has accelerated the general trend of rising rents, most severely in neighborhoods adjacent to the French Quarter like Tremé, Central City, and the 7th Ward. These historically Black renter neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying to the point that low-income workers who have resided there for generations can no longer afford their homes. These residents are often the same people who create and maintain the tourism industry that attracts visitors from around the world. Affordable housing would preserve not just individuals’ livelihoods, but also the culture of New Orleans.

The citywide tax assessment that will be complete by the end of this year exacerbates concerns about rising home prices. The continuing spike in home prices since the last assessment in 2015 will mean increased tax assessments. Accordingly, residents in the most quickly-gentrifying neighborhoods have expressed fears that with higher tax bills, they’ll have no choice but to cut spending in other areas of life or will be pressed to sell their home entirely. The impact of new tax assessments, however, is still unclear and will depend largely on the approval of pending measures like tax-relief for long-time low-income homeowners.

If approved by voters this Fall, these bills will become an amendment to the state constitution  that will allow New Orleans to freeze or reduce property taxes for low-income homeowners and small-scale landlords who want to keep or create affordable units. Ultimately, this is an efficient route to increasing affordable housing stock in a unique fashion that helps both renters and homeowners without the complications of reliance on federal funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). It is clear that unique approaches are needed: a call for at least 1,500 more affordable units in New Orleans last year was answered with just 84 units built.

Both fair housing advocates and government officials agree that this is a practical way to address the city’s affordable housing crisis. It presents an opportunity for long-term residents to build and maintain wealth in historically neglected neighborhoods that are at risk of gentrification-driven displacement. Most importantly, tax relief is a measure that directly benefits suffering residents who need support to continue to afford their homes.

One step closer to effective short-term rental regulations

Posted on 12. Jul, 2019 by

After three years of debate and pressure from advocates, neighbors, and city planners to better regulate short term rentals (STR) in New Orleans, the City Planning Commission (CPC) recently voted to endorse the newest STR study – a hopeful step towards passing an effective set of regulations by the July 25th Council meeting. Per the request of City Council, this study considered the provision of several exemptions to the new set of proposed STR regulations but generally rejected them, asserting that the regulations must be given a chance to work before they can be adequately modified.

Last month, the City Council proposed a set of stricter STR regulations championed by Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, which address and validate claims that STRs are inherently destructive to the residential fabric of neighborhoods. The new changes would re-write the city’s permissive STR code implemented in 2016, most drastically altering the STR landscape by prohibiting a single operator from having more than one STR residential permit and requiring that the operator reside on the same property. This would effectively eliminate thousands of STR listings that fall into the “temporary license” type, previously the easiest to qualify for and thus most pervasive in the city. As that proposal moved forward, some Councilmembers also requested further study of the potential benefits of STRs as economic development tools in certain neighborhoods and whether exemptions to the one-permit-per-person rule could spur development in those areas. 

The study was presented and opened up for public comment at a CPC meeting on June 25th.

CPC staff began by summarizing the study, which – in addition to evaluating the creation of an Economic Development Incentive STR Zone – discusses increasing the cap on the number of commercial STRs in a corridor, and the possibility of “grandfathering” existing temporary license holders. On these concerns, it concludes that regulations should be implemented in their baseline form before being watered down or before the Council adds any exceptions. It points to peer cities with even stricter restrictions and finds little relationship between STR presence and local commercial activity. Most firmly, it argues against a grandfather provision: the “temporary license” was designed to be short-lived by definition.

A host of passionate advocates, professionals, and community leaders backed the study’s recommendations and urged CPC to keep moving forward in establishing regulations that address STRs’ harmful spillover into the acceleration of gentrification and exacerbation of the city’s affordable housing crisis. Speakers told anecdotes of watching their tourist “neighbors” take an Uber from their STR to Bourbon Street without stopping to explore the neighborhood or patronize neighborhood businesses. Some argued that STRs can never equitably function as a development incentive. On grandfathering, Breonne DeDecker of Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative reminded the CPC that its role is to promote policies that protect its citizens, not the investments of speculators.A motion to endorse the study’s recommendations was passed unanimously by the commissioners. CPC’s support of this study puts the new regulations in a good position to be formally approved at the July 25th Council meeting, which will significantly shrink the scope of STRs in New Orleans, hopefully to the benefit of residents.