New Orleans, Louisiana is famous for its food, music, nightlife and of course, its huge Mardi Gras celebrations that draw approximately 1.4 million visitors to the city each year. A port city under French, Spanish and American colonial rule, New Orleans has always been a melting pot of cultural influences. But today, New Orleans’ metro area is the tenth most segregated region in the US. And while many other cities, even highly segregated ones, became less segregated between 1980 and 2010, New Orleans became more segregated between 2000 and 2010, eliminating the decreases from previous decades. New Orleans’ current population is 60 percent Black and 30 percent white, and the boundaries between these groups look a bit different in a below sea level city like New Orleans. Namely, segregation means significant disparities in homeownership rates and flood risk.
Like many cities across the United States, racial residential segregation was created and sustained in New Orleans through decades of federal, state, and local policy. Before the Civil War, enslaved and free Black residents lived in every ward of New Orleans in regular proximity to white residents. After the war, exclusionary zoning, redlining, neighborhood covenants and Jim Crow laws worked to separate Black residents from white residents and from their rights. The impact has been longstanding: a 1913 covenant for New Orleans' Lakeview neighborhood included a clause that read, “no lots are to be sold to negroes or colored people.” In 1979, decades after such covenants were ruled unconstitutional, a Lakeview property was sold “subject to certain restrictions contained in an act…dated May 24, 1913.” Lakeview remains a majority white neighborhood today, and an example of how persistent residential segregation is.
Because of these mechanisms, Black residents were more likely to live in low-ground neighborhoods on the East side of the city. This left Black residents more vulnerable to displacement in the event of a disaster than their white counterparts, especially the city’s 100,000 Black renters. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 residents of all racial, ethnic, and class groups were displaced by the storm and resultant flooding; but 70 percent of long-term white residents were able to return within one year of the storm, while only 42 percent of Black residents were able to return in that same time. By the next census in 2010 the numbers of white residents had returned to their pre-Hurricane Katrina levels. But approximately 100,000 Black residents were still missing from the city.
Recovery from Katrina could have served as an opportunity to undo some of the deeply entrenched inequities in New Orleans. Instead, the post-Katrina rhetoric and policy was eerily similar to segregationist policy throughout the twentieth century: Road Home was a state-administered program that gave homeowners in New Orleans federally funded grants to rebuild. But because the grants were based on pre-storm home values, homeowners in segregated white neighborhoods were consistently given more money than homeowners in Black neighborhoods, even when homes were of similar size, age, and condition. In 2011 the State of Louisiana and HUD settled a discrimination suit regarding Road Home for $62 million, but for many Black homeowners the settlement was too little, too late—the initial low offers had made it impossible to rebuild, so they settled elsewhere. Some homeowners who did return to New Orleans rebuilt only for their homes to be seized and demolished by the state: in Mid-City, a neighborhood that is 78 percent Black, 265 homes were razed to make way for new hospitals.
Renters were no better off. Both the city of New Orleans and surrounding suburbs reduced affordable housing post-Katrina. In neighboring St. Bernard’s Parish an ordinance was passed in 2006 that prohibited renting, even in low-density housing like single-family homes, to anyone except a “blood relative.” That same year Jefferson Parish passed a city council resolution rejecting developments funded by low-income tax credits. In New Orleans, the St. Thomas housing projects had been tracked for demolition long before Katrina. Community protest had staved off the demo, “but in 2007, with its first white majority in more than two decades, the city council finally voted to knock down the remaining public housing stock…that means 12,381 people, 99 percent of whom were African American, were removed from stable public housing in New Orleans in the last two decades, most right after Katrina.”
New Orleans resident Ruth Idakula settled briefly in Shreveport, Louisiana, and then in Atlanta, Georgia for a few months after Katrina. In How to Kill a City Ruth tells author Peter Moskowitz that she filed an application with FEMA for settlement assistance, eager to return to New Orleans. After following up with the federal agency for several weeks, “Idakula said a FEMA official told her, ‘The reason you’re not getting any money is because you keep saying you’re going back to New Orleans’.” FEMA had no policy that explicitly prevented New Orleans residents from returning to the city, but in Idakula’s case, they did not seem keen to assisting in her return. When Idakula changed her application to say she would settle in Atlanta, she received money from FEMA within days.
These efforts have made New Orleans ripe for gentrification, which was great news for real estate developers like Finis Shellnutt. “The storm destroyed a great deal, and there's plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money… Most importantly, the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don't come back.”