Veronica Reed is the executive director of Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization and Kresge Foundation grantee with a mission to transform unjust housing policies, discriminatory practices, and inequitable development. Founded in 2008, Jane Place staff engage in strategies that increase housing security and expand access to affordable rental housing.
In this interview by Loren Berlin, Reed discusses how Louisiana’s 150-year-old landlord-tenant laws fail to provide protections for vulnerable tenants. He also explains why the founders of the organization decided to create a community land trusta nonprofit corporation that purchases and manages land on behalf of a community to promote affordable housing.
In a traditional residential community land trust model, typically an individual or family purchases a home that is located on land owned by the community land trust. Because the buyer is only purchasing the house, as opposed to the underlying land, the house is more affordable for the buyer. As part of the agreement, the homeowner agrees that when it comes time to sell the home, the sales price will remain restricted to ensure long-term affordability. However, the homeowner may still be able to gain appreciation in the property depending on the improvements he makes while living in the home. Today there are more than 225 community land trusts in the United States and the strategy is becoming more popular as communities look for ways to preserve affordable housing. The Jane Place Community Land Trust is different in that it only manages permanently affordable rental housing.
Q: Why did Jane’s Place decide to create a community land trust (CLT)?
Our founders saw what was happening in our Mid-City neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina with demographic changes and gentrification, and thought one of the ways we could make a real impact would be to purchase land to ensure it remained owned and controlled. by members of the community in perpetuity.
Q: What does it mean in practice for properties to be “community controlled”?
We are a non-profit organization with a 15-member board made up of one-third people who are residents of the land trust, one-third who live within the boundaries of the land trust, and one-third are community-minded people committed to our mission. That board ensures that we fulfill our mission and our statutes.
Q: I saw that Jane Place is committed to keeping the organization’s rental units permanently affordable for lower-income residents. How can the organization do that?
Our rents are set using HUD HOME Program rents, but we have not increased rents since 2019. It just hasn’t made sense to do so because we went through the pandemic and now there is inflation. And while it would be nice to have a little more regarding the organization’s bottom line, we know we can find that money somewhere instead of with our tenants. Our job is to raise funds to do our work. The extra $20 a month increase in rent could be the difference between our tenant being able to pay their electric bill for the month. It is not worth increasing the financial burden on our tenants.
Q: Over time, Jane Place has expanded to address housing policy issues in New Orleans. What drove that evolution?
It wasn’t exactly an evolution. We were always both CLT and housing justice organizers. It was important to us to be able to affect change at a systems level. We have been able to have an impact beyond the boundaries of the land trust through our housing justice work. Whether we are fighting in coalition with partners for housing quality standards or for stronger ordinances to curb the proliferation of short-term rentals in our neighborhoods, we are using policy to make system-level changes. For example, we successfully fought and won the right to an attorney for tenants in eviction court. That work supports housing security. We also have community organizers who work with tenants in apartment complexes and affordable buildings throughout Orleans Parish. Unfortunately, many affordable rental housing units tend to have livability issues such as mold and pests. We are providing education to tenants in both English and Spanish and helping them organize two tenant unions so far. Low-income renters are the most vulnerable population in the New Orleans housing market. We want to help them harness their power.
Q: There seems to be a lot of need for tenant protections. If I understand your website correctly, the state of Louisiana hasn’t updated its tenant protections in 150 years?
Yes, we like old things here in the deep south. Seriously, we are working in coalition with partners at the local level to expand tenant protections. That work has resulted in the Right to Counsel and Healthy Homes ordinances. Healthy Homes identified minimum standards for rental housing that owners or managers must maintain and that the city must enforce. Tenants can report a problem and, because of an anti-retaliation clause, cannot be evicted for the complaint.
Q: What kind of repercussions do you see from such outdated legislation?
In Louisiana, an eviction can be filed against a tenant if they arrive a day late and are one dollar short on rent. And if that eviction is filed, and depending on how efficient the court is and what the lease says, the tenant could receive, in eviction court, a 24-hour notice to vacate and leave the house, all in less than 14 days. And the sad thing is that here in Orleans Parish, the majority of people who end up in eviction courts are multi-generational households headed by Black women. I’ve been in court where there was a grandmother, a mother, and children there for the eviction hearing, and the woman would say, ‘Your Honor, my youngest son is three months old,’ and the judge would say, ‘Then I’ll give him a week in place of 24 hours’”. You can’t find accommodation in New Orleans in a week.
That was the situation before the pandemic. Fortunately, we now have Right to Counsel money through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), so rental assistance is available to people as long as the landlord accepts payment. Right now, those funds are a Band-Aid for the system.
Q: As you look to the future, where do you see exciting opportunities to continue Jane Place’s work?
One of the things we are trying to do is develop some of our housing free of government restrictions. It’s not a question of compliance, but rather how the government defines household and citizen, and things like that. We don’t want to say “no” to mixed immigrant families. We do not want to control who is and who is not documented. We operate in the neighborhood with the highest concentration of Spanish-speaking households in the city of New Orleans and currently do not have a single Spanish-speaking resident in any of our rental units. And that is because people have to be documented since we have money from the government.
The other part of this has to do with how you define a family. According to government regulations, if there are minor children in the home, the adult must be their legal guardian. But we know that there are many situations where aunts, grandmothers, older siblings or other family members are not the legal guardians of children in their care but who still need housing.
Therefore, we have to say “no” to some of the most vulnerable members of our community before they can apply. We are now seeking to finance some of our real estate acquisitions and developments without government funds. So far, I have raised almost $1.2 million and I am very excited about it.
I’m also very excited about the fact that we own a large double lot and are beginning to conceptualize developing 10 to 12 units of affordable housing on it. This will be the largest project we have ever undertaken. It will be new construction and will hopefully include solar power and handicap accessible units, things we haven’t been able to do on previous projects. I will start raising money for the project in 2024.