New Orleans East is not the French Quarter or Treme. It’s the suburbs, a 30-minute drive from the city’s attractions. It includes high- and low-income neighborhoods.
The stately brick houses along Lake Willow Drive in New Orleans East have pools and lake views and landscaped lawns.
A high fence separates the homes from a 263-unit apartment complex called The Willows.
The brown Willows’ buildings are two stories high, the lawns are a little straggly, and a couple of windows are boarded up. The Willows is a complex that accepts the Housing Choice Voucher, commonly known as Section 8. Housing Choice is a federal government program that pays a certain percentage of the rent for low-income people.
Dawn Hebert lives just on the other side of the fence from The Willows. Her New Orleans East is an enclave of middle- and upper-middle class African-American professionals. She has lived in New Orleans East since 1997. Hebert spent 37 years with the postal service, until her retirement. Today, she’s become a kind of neighborhood activist.
Hebert wanted me to see the fence in her backyard. Last June, Hebert woke to find that the fence had been taken down overnight. She couldn’t be certain why it was done, but she believes it was to punish her. Hebert and her neighbors have been protesting what they call substandard living conditions at The Willows. She complained, and the fence was later put back.
The non-profit that owns The Willows, the Tennessee-based Global Ministries Foundation, did not respond to our requests for comment. Global Ministries has faced public complaints from tenants in its low-income buildings in Tennessee and Florida, of things like roaches, mice, mold and crime.
Hebert said that is not acceptable in her neighborhood, which runs on written and unwritten rules.
“You cannot run a hair salon out of your neighborhood, you cannot park on the lawn, you cannot paint your house purple if you so choose to,” Hebert said.
Hebert said some of her neighbors across the fence at The Willows don’t follow the rules.
“You know, I look at the apartment complex, and a lot of times they throw trash over the fence,” she said. “I have to pick up glass bottles. Baby diapers. I literally just throw them back over.”
She and others worry that The Willows is driving down their property values. That has opened them up to accusations that they’re biased against low-income people. It’s a charge they dispute.
Beverly Wright is director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. She owns a home across the street from Dawn Hebert. She finds the charge particularly galling, given, she said, that many in the neighborhood come from lower-income backgrounds themselves.
“So, all of a sudden black people hate poor black people,” Wright said. “When most of us were poor ourselves, before we got that college degree. Most of us are those people.”
Hebert and Wright say that over the past few years, a number of apartment complexes around here have been “revamped” as low-income residences. They say that’s not happening in middle- and upper-income white areas of New Orleans. “[Developers of low-income housing] don’t pick all suburbs,” Wright said. “They only pick suburbs with, in this case African-Americans. I suspect it’s with people of color. They destroy our communities after we try so hard to make decent, safe places for us.”
I took Wright’s accusation to Earl Randall, the field office director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in New Orleans. Randall declined to talk specifically about The Willows, but said HUD takes accusations of racial bias in housing very seriously. He offered a hypothetical.
“Let’s say if there was a predominantly white area of the city, where a proposed project was going into, and there was some zoning ordinance passed where it wouldn’t,” Randall said. “That’s stuff we would look into. That’s something we would readily look into.”
A big part of the problem is that there is a housing shortage for all income levels in New Orleans. Most landlords can easily find tenants who will pay the market rate, which means they may not have a compelling reason to accept Section 8 voucher holders. Thus, a program aimed at offering people choice in where they live, instead limits them to neighborhoods that will accept them.
Cashauna Hill, executive director of The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, said there is something to the claims that voucher holders are being shunted into particular neighborhoods like New Orleans East.
“Whereas the east had been primarily an upper-middle-income neighborhood and enclave, we now have higher numbers of lower-income families that have taken their vouchers and moved to that neighborhood because those are the areas where the vouchers are being accepted,” Hill said.
And that is the change Dawn Hebert and her neighbors are grappling with. Their response is to insist they have no problem with low-income housing, if it meets the standards of the neighborhood. They insist The Willows does not.
Despite her advocacy on behalf of residents, Hebert told me she doesn’t know anyone who lives in the complex. She did, however, have a couple of phone numbers, and at the end of our interview, she called a few. She hit it off with Willows’ resident Dianne Morris. The two women traded tales of where they grew up, and talked about people they know in common from church.
Dianne Morris is a sprightly 68. Employed from the age of 16 on, she spent most of her working life as a caregiver. Today, she’s on a fixed income. She holds a Housing Choice Voucher, which covers most of her rent at The Willows.
Morris told me she loves her tidy two-bedroom apartment. She has a little ivy garden growing next to the window, and spare bedroom for visiting family. She doesn’t think conditions at The Willows are bad at all. She said the property managers are always responsive to complaints.
“Just last week, the sink in the master bedroom was so clogged up, the water kept coming back up through it,” Morris said. “I called the office, talked to Bianca, that’s my little friend, and that was it.”
Morris said she can appreciate the homeowners’ point of view.
“I understand their situation, these are homeowners, they’re paying taxes,” Morris said, adding, “you have people who are not able to do what you do. Who need this program very badly because the lord has blessed you to be able to live where you are, you shouldn’t put us down.”
When Morris looks at the fence that separates the apartments from the houses, she sees something very different than Dawn Hebert.
“I’m looking at the fence and I’m thinking how the people in Russia, Germany, felt when the wall came down,” she said. “Freedom. Just talk to us. Let us get together.”
Morris wonders why her neighbors’ concern hasn’t led to an invitation to have coffee or come by for dinner. She said sometimes she feels like she’s being judged for having that Section 8 voucher.