Outraged by a controversial local ordinance, civil-rights activists say that although Hurricane Katrina wiped out just about everything in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, a legacy of segregation clings stubbornly to the community’s racial landscape.
In a 5-2 vote last month, the St. Bernard Parish Council passed an ordinance that would restrict owners of single-family residences from entering into rental arrangements with anyone except "blood relatives." Renting such dwellings to anyone else would require special approval by the Council. Owners and occupants who violate the ordinance would be subject to fines and civil penalties.
Citing a need to "maintain the integrity and stability of established neighborhoods as centers of family values and activities," the ordinance essentially applies to the potentially thousands of homeowners who left the parish after Katrina and may wish to rent out their otherwise-empty houses.
But fair-housing activists say the rules would instead maintain longstanding patterns of inequality.
Since the affected properties have historically been virtually all white-owned, critics predict the blood-relative restriction will drastically reduce access to housing for people of color.
On Tuesday, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center sued the parish in US district court, demanding that it rescind the ordinance. The group cited federal Fair Housing Act protections that bar housing ordinances that discriminate based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability or familial composition.
Census data indicate that before the hurricane, whites controlled nearly 93 percent of St. Bernard’s owner-occupied housing units. The ordinance, the lawsuit contends, ensures that in most cases, these properties could be rented only to other whites.
James Perry, executive director of the Fair Housing Action Center, said it is unclear whether the Council was intentionally targeting certain groups with the restrictions. But under the Fair Housing Act, the parish can be held liable if its actions result in a discriminatory impact, even inadvertently.
At the same time, Perry also found the rhetoric about maintaining the community’s "integrity" troubling. "There is some question about what that means," he said, "whether or not that’s code for ‘We want to keep other races out of the community.’"
In interviews with The NewStandard, three council members insisted that the ordinance was not driven by racial bias.
Council member Ricky Melerine said the rental restrictions would help restore homeowner neighborhoods and encourage re-occupancy by families that would "stay long term." In his view, the parish should aim to encourage strong ties to the community.
"We don’t want to change the aesthetics of a neighborhood," he said.
Council member Craig Taffaro Jr., who introduced the legislation, commented, "We didn’t restrict who lives in St. Bernard Parish before the storm, and we’re not restricting who lives in St. Bernard Parish after the storm." The ordinance, he said, would prevent real-estate developers from disrupting the traditional character of homeowner communities by transforming them into "large tracts of rental properties."
He added that the blood-relative requirement was created as an exception to what would have been a more restrictive policy: the parish originally sought a total ban on turning single-family homes into rentals, but then decided to accommodate residents who wanted to provide housing assistance to family members.
Since the law does not explicitly refer to race, Taffaro argued, "this ordinance restricts white people and non-white people the same."
But Shanna Smith, president of the Washington, DC-based National Fair Housing Alliance, countered: "Just because you say, ‘We’re going to treat everybody equally with a rule,’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t violate the Fair Housing Act. It’s intentional discrimination. These members of the Council know what the racial composition of their community is."
Smith added that the ordinance would not just discriminate against blacks and Latinos. People of a different religion, national origin or other protected categories could also be considered victims of housing discrimination as long as they were broadly denied housing under the blood-relative restriction, she said.
Lynn Dean, a 70-year resident of St. Bernard and one of two council members who voted against the ordinance, criticized the restrictions as an outgrowth of institutional racism embedded in the parish, which has historically stayed overwhelmingly white in stark contrast to its mostly-black neighbor New Orleans. He alleged that the Council’s goal was "to block the blacks from living in these areas."
"Only we’re doing it in a quiet manner," Dean continued, "so you can’t really say this is what’s happening. But I’ve watched it for years, and I know what they’ve been trying to do."
The other dissenting Council member, Mark Madary, said he opposed the ordinance as an "unconstitutional" intrusion on homeowners’ private-property rights. But he stressed he did not believe the Council’s decision was tied to race.
However, Madary said that some constituents have strongly criticized his vote, and that racial bias might be coloring the community’s views on the ordinance. A shift toward greater integration, he said, "could be a fear of some residents, and that may be what drives them."
While the ordinance covers only single-family homes and exempts units already rented before the law’s adoption, opponents say the restrictions fold into a confluence of systemic housing barriers.
According to federal estimates, about 81 percent of St. Bernard’s homes were damaged in the 2005 hurricane season, including 97 percent of rentals – more overall damage than Orleans Parish had.
The parish government has further tightened housing availability in the name of regulating the recovery process. Alongside the blood-relative ordinance for single-family rentals, the Council has also imposed a year-long moratorium on the redevelopment of multiple-family housing, which prohibits renovation without strict screening and pre-approval by the Council itself.
Critics say people of color are especially threatened by the rental-housing crisis: according to census data nearly one in two black households and one in three Latino households in St. Bernard were renters before the storm, compared to nearly one in four white households.
As it moves to restrain rental occupancy, the parish is also looking to raze and overhaul the parish’s majority-black, low-income enclave – the neighborhood of Village Square. Possible redevelopment plans that the Council is considering include converting some areas into "green space" for flood mitigation, and establishing "lower density" housing that would limit the residential population.
The neighborhood was a center of discrimination controversy even before Katrina hit. In March 2005, local property owners and managers settled a housing-discrimination suit with the Justice Department for $170,000, amid charges of systematically "steering" black residents into Village Square and deterring them from white neighborhoods.
To fair-housing advocates, St. Bernard’s housing regulations reflect widespread trends of discrimination in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In a study of rental markets in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Texas, the National Fair Housing Alliance found that in test cases of hurricane survivors seeking rental housing, whites were favored over blacks about two-thirds of the time. Landlords also frequently provided unequal terms and prices to black and white prospective renters.
Previous government research on discrimination in metropolitan rental-markets nationwide showed that whites received preferential treatment about 20 percent of the time.
St. Bernard Parish has not yet formally responded to the Fair Housing Action Center’s lawsuit, but in a September 20 press release, the council members who voted for the ordinance said they were prepared to defend it in court.
Perry said that beyond just challenging the ordinance itself, his group hopes to pressure officials to enact reforms that promote housing diversity and help mitigate the damage wrought by past segregation. "St. Bernard Parish wasn’t integrated before the storm," he said. "Now is one of these few opportunities to create integrated communities where they didn’t exist before."