On the Ballot

Housing advocates, BGR spar over $4 million New Orleans property tax

By Ben Myers

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

December 9, 2021

New Orleans voters will decide Saturday whether to continue paying a $4 million property tax for housing assistance.

The 0.91-mill levy is relatively small compared to other citywide property taxes, but housing advocates say it provides important financing to develop affordable housing, help homeowners and eliminate blight.

The nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research, however, advises voters to reject it. It says Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has failed to account for the revenue from the existing tax and to come up with adequate spending plans.

While some housing advocates disagree on Cantrell’s record, they are unified in their scathing criticism of BGR’s report. They point to a 12-year-old BGR report raising alarms about a “radical” increase in subsidized housing, which they say hampered rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

“We are not surprised BGR opposes this affordable housing fund,” said Maxwell Ciardullo, policy director for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “They actually helped create the housing crisis we are still in.”

Voters first approved the tax in 1991. Renewing it Saturday would extend it 20 years.

The revenue goes into the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund, which City Hall may use for a variety of housing initiatives. With that flexibility, the Cantrell administration last year quickly set up a rental assistance program when the pandemic struck, months before federal funding became available.

BGR approvingly highlighted that achievement in a December 2020 report, saying federal funding “cannot match the flexibility and stability” of the local housing fund. Similarly, the Cantrell administration tapped the housing fund to help cover insurance deductibles after Hurricane Ida hit Aug. 29.

“Those are all real things the money has been used for. I haven’t heard anyone argue against any of them,” Ciardullo said.

But in its latest report on the tax, in November, BGR said the Cantrell administration has not provided precise breakdowns of how the revenue has been used. Nor has the administration articulated plans for how it will spend future proceeds, according to the report.

BGR Vice President Stephen Stuart said the suggestion that BGR is biased against affordable housing is unfair.

“BGR has consistently been concerned with government’s ability to plan strategically, pay for the programs it promises and achieve effective outcomes,” Stuart said. “The report also found critical deficiencies in the city’s planning and accountability for the housing tax that undermine its potential effectiveness.”

Cantrell’s spokesperson, Beau Tidwell, countered that the administration has “successfully leveraged” tax proceeds with state and federal money, calling the housing fund “a very important tool used to address housing issues facing New Orleanians.”

HousingNOLA Executive Director Andreanecia Morris agrees the administration has not been transparent with the housing tax. But she said BGR is setting up “false choices where the only options are mismanagement of the money or no money.”

“There is a third option: These people can do their jobs, and they can do their jobs well,” Morris said, referring to the administration and City Council.

Morris pointed to a 2015 ordinance, which Cantrell sponsored as a council member, requiring that an expert advisory committee provide recommendations on how the housing fund is used. The committee, which consists of nine mayoral appointees, is to review funding applications and proposed projects, and to meet in public at least once a year.

But it is not clear how active the committee has been in recent years. A municipal government website listing the members indicates their terms expired in 2019. Cantrell’s housing director, Marjorianna Willman, said in a City Council meeting in August that the committee met in 2020 to set a budget for the housing fund, but the budget she shared did contain line items.

In any case, Morris said the committee is not living up to the requirements that Cantrell spearheaded six years ago.

“That is legislation that Councilwoman Cantrell enacted that Mayor Cantrell has not been following,” Morris said.

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