In the Shadow of the Superdome
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana has a rather luxurious namesake. At night the exterior of the domed stadium is aglow in bold and beautiful colors, with the familiar Mercedes logo on prominent display. The site of many major cultural events, from Super Bowls and Saints’ games to Taylor Swift and Usher concerts, it is a site where athletes and artists earn thousands of dollars for their contributions. Spectators shell out hundreds of dollars on tickets, parking, memorabilia, and concessions. While the building is state-owned, the lettering on the facade and the events inside provide strong symbols of successful capitalism.
When the sun rises, the Superdome casts a shadow to the west upon an elevated highway. Below this concrete structure, hundreds of homeless people begin their days. At 27 percent, New Orleans poverty rate is double that of the rest of the country. This is where statistics meet reality.
To relieve themselves, the homeless folks find a dark corner in the nearby historic neighborhood of Central City. Like much of America, it has been affected by economic hardships. But unique to this area of the country, however, was the impact of Hurricane Katrina.
Housing Effect on the Superdome & Central City
As the water level rose in late August 2005, Central City was chaotic. Home to multiple government housing communities, the percentage of Central City residents relying on public assistance was particularly high even compared to the rest of the city. The nearby Superdome became an evacuation center, and to much of America, it became a symbol for the human scale of the disaster.
When the floods subsided, devastation remained. Some public housing communities were reopened, others were condemned.
In November 2015, the U.S. House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance held a subcommittee field hearing at the Port of New Orleans administrative offices on the east bank of the Mississippi River. The topic was “New Orleans: Ten Years After the Storm.” The continent’s most powerful river rushes by outside the building, just a mile or so southeast of Central City and the Superdome.
Rent Surpassing Income
As a ranking member of the subcommittee, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) was one of four committee members who invested a congressional off-day to visit New Orleans for the hearing and to tour housing rebuilding projects. In her opening statement to the audience, she noted that after the storm many efforts were enacted to ensure the gulf would recover in an intentional manner. Ms. Waters has previously attended 16 hearings in response to hurricane recovery in the Gulf. She believes, after 10 years, the city has turned a corner in the right direction. Homelessness is actually down, it turns out.
But Ms. Waters remains concerned about a lack of affordable housing options for local residents living below the poverty line. She’s concerned 58 percent of renters are spending more than 30 percent of income on rent. And according to Mr. Gregg Fortner, Executive Director of New Orleans Housing Authority and a witness to the committee, 40 percent of local renters actually spend greater than 50 percent of their income on rent.
“Our work is not done,” emphasized Ms. Waters.
Ms. Cashauna Hill of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center served as another witness to the committee. According to her statistics, rent in New Orleans has increased 40 percent since Katrina while income has only increased by 2 percent. This elicited a visibly concerned reaction from the congressional members.
A pastor and former mayor of Kansas City, Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO) is another ranking member on the subcommittee. Mr. Cleaver noted that Katrina damaged or destroyed more than a million homes and displaced more than a million people. As residents have trickled back into their home city, many have not been able to secure housing.
A Hole in the Money Trail
Mr. Cleaver observed that the federal government has invested $120 billion in post-Katrina aid, much of it specifically set aside for stabilizing housing infrastructure critical to restoring the affected populations. The state of Louisiana received the majority of the funding, approximately $76 billion.
Of the programs specifically created for utilizing this money, there is widespread sentiment that many were failures. Corruption amongst private contractors was a major problem that was evident early in the rebuilding. Ten years after the storm, funding abuse is still rampant within both the public and private sector. Plans to restrain contractor spending did not pan out.
“When a for-profit company is administering these programs, their priority is to make money,” explains Ms. Connie Uddo of the St. Paul’s Homecoming Center at the subcommittee hearing. “Therefore they avoid spending any extra money to assist homeowners.”
Ms. Udo offers observations in addition to criticisms. She notes that faith-based organizations and nonprofits whom she calls “second responders,” are early to respond after natural disasters. She credits their long-term humanitarian commitments with allowing them to stay well-prepared prior to the occurrence of events.
“They’re there for the long-haul,” says Ms. Udo. Yet when post-disaster rebuilding contracts go up for bid, nonprofit organizations are not included in the discussion.
“We are never invited to be a part of these contracts, to bid on them” she laments. “I would love to see something change, that nonprofits and the faith-based are included in being able to administer these programs.”
Change or no change, there are concerns on the ground now. The contrast is glaring between the occupants of the Superdome and the Americans of all ages who are sleeping in its shadows.
John Scanlon is a contributor based in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is a graduate of Bates College. By day, he is a marine engineer who travels the world. By night, he is a social observer and an amateur historian. He is an enthusiastic humanitarian at all hours. And while he calls himself a “geo-economist,” no one is sure what exactly that means.