Esplanade Avenue housing project gets go ahead

After fighting for years to get state officials’ approval, developers got the green light Tuesday for a controversial New Orleans apartment complex.

The state Bond Commission voted 7-4 in favor of a funding component vital to turning a former nursing home at 2535 Esplanade Ave. into efficiency apartments for the homeless and working poor. The approval followed years of litigation, the U.S. Justice Department’s intervention and concerted opposition from Esplanade Ridge-Treme Civic Association members.

The Gulf Coast Housing Partnership has been working with the New York nonprofit Common Ground and a variety of charities on the development since 2009. The project’s changed a little over the years because of battles over zoning permits. However, 20 units will be set aside for the homeless and 20 units will be assigned to people with low incomes.

The Bond Commission’s chairman, state Treasurer John Kennedy, isn’t a fan of the $6.6 million development. He would prefer to see the state invest in single-family homes instead of in efficiency units that will offer 450 square feet of living space. Kennedy also objected to the $140 per square foot price.

“How many homeless folks can we help for ($6.6 million)? We’re going to help 20. Twenty. I know we can do better. … I know the fine work you do. There’s a place in heaven for all of us,” Kennedy told the developers.

GCHP’s president, Kathy Laborde, defended the project as a home for the formerly homeless and disabled. She said tenants will be screened with state government’s assistance.

“This is an apartment development. Period. It is not a group home,” Laborde said.

The funding mix for the project consists of $2 million in low-income housing tax credits, $3.2 million in hurricane recovery money, $500,000 in other funds and an $834,000 loan. The cost per unit is expected to be $166,553. The site is Bethany Home, a nursing home that closed after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Redeveloping the property meant navigating the city’s zoning laws and fighting opposition from the would-be neighbors. Skirmishes broke out over proposed variances to zoning restrictions and the proposed complex’s clientele.

Litigation references an unsigned flier that made the rounds in the neighborhood and warned the development would cater to “the homeless, ex-offenders, people with mental illness, HIV/AIDS, people with a history of drug usage, and others similarly situated in a concept described as ‘Supportive housing.’ ”

After a number of project revisions, developers got approval in December 2011 for redevelopment as low-income housing without off-street parking. The next hurdle was the State Bond Commission, which oversees borrowing involving the state and which insisted the project needed the city’s approval before it could be debated at the State Capitol. At that point, the project stalled. The city’s approval failed to arrive at the State Capitol.

Litigation ensued, with the U.S. Justice Department contending the state and the city violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against the development’s prospective disabled tenants. The federal government argued that the apartments would house disabled people who once were homeless.

Attorney Patricia Wilton, of the state Attorney General’s Office, told state officials Tuesday that the city now maintains that all permits and variances have been delivered, and the project can move forward.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s spokesman, Tyler A. Gamble, said after the meeting that the mayor hasn’t taken a position on the project. “The city did not weigh in regarding whether the State Bond Commission should provide financial support for this development,” Gamble said.

At the meeting, Wilton said a settlement is in the works to resolve the allegations that the Bond Commission enacted a moratorium on affordable housing in New Orleans. She said the Bond Commission would need to agree to follow the law.

“We all want to follow the law. … The state of Louisiana, the governor and the Bond Commission have followed the law completely. But if we’re being asked to do something differently, I’d feel more comfortable seeing it in writing,” Kennedy told her.

Meanwhile, Michele Braden, former president of the Esplanade Ridge-Treme Civic Association, told the State Bond Commission that her neighborhood is being inundated by nonprofit organizations. She said elderly residents no longer feel comfortable sitting on their porches because of the type of people now walking the streets.

Braden said her opposition has nothing to do with race. She said the neighborhood already is home to minorities and people on very limited incomes. The difference, she said, is that those people own their homes.

“Eighty percent of our neighborhood is black. No one cares about that. … These people (brought in by the nonprofits) have serious problems, and we’re not professionals,” she said.

Ultimately, the Bond Commission agreed to the project and deferred consideration of the settlement.

“The settlement is pretty one-sided,” complained state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans.

Wilton told him there are risks to rejecting the settlement.

“The risk (is) having a court tell us how we’re going to do business going forward and more than likely impose very onerous restrictions on us,” she said.