Kenner’s apartment ban highlights need for multifamily housing, growth plans

by Ariella Cohen

James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, opposes a ban on new multifamily housing construction, such as redeveloping the Redwood Apartment Complex at the intersection of West Esplanade Avenue and Williams Boulevard.

A recently instated one-year moratorium on the construction of developments with five or more apartments in Kenner will not solve conflicts over post-Katrina growth facing the city and does not recognize the region’s need for affordable housing, real estate industry insiders and fair housing advocates say.

The ban on new multifamily housing was unanimously approved April 3 by the Kenner City Council, less than a month after Kenner saw thousands of people line up outside its Housing Authority office to receive federal rental assistance vouchers.

Already, it puts in limbo at least two developments in planning stages and threatens investment in future mixed-income projects, investors say.

“There is clearly a significant demand for affordable housing in Kenner as evidenced by the long line of people who showed up to apply for affordable housing and it concerns me that the government hasn’t recognized that need,” said Mark Madderra, a commissioner for the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency and a real estate investment banker at Madderra & Cazalot.

Madderra, who is also on the New Orleans Apartment Association’s board, hopes Kenner “would be willing to consider the affordable housing needs of its citizens” as it enforces the ordinance over the next year.

The move to block new multifamily housing came after more than a year of debate over the fate of sites that before Katrina housed hundreds of renters, many of whom qualified for federal aid because of low or non-existent incomes.

Homeowners in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of single-family homes near the 400-unit Redwood Apartment complex at the intersection of West Esplanade Avenue and Williams Boulevard have spoken against the complex’s redevelopment, citing concerns about noise, traffic, safety and strain on area infrastructure. The law is a response to that opposition, said Councilman Joe Stagni.

“We have an abundance of multifamily housing in Kenner and we have a responsibility to study the impacts (of development) on drainage, sewerage and other infrastructure matters before we build more,” Stagni said.

News that the Council’s vote will keep the 15-acre site an open, grassy field for at least another year evoked cheers at Highway Park, a playground around the corner from the vacant lot.

“The less apartments, the better,” said Kenner homeowner Ronnie Grassel as he pushed his 2-year-old daughter in a swing. “I think when you buy a home you don’t want to see those buildings around. It is what it is. Call it prejudice or whatever, but it’s pretty much the opinion of everyone you talk to.”

Fair housing advocates agree prejudice is at work in Kenner, but that is where the similarities end.

“There is a shortage of affordable rental housing in the region and to ban new construction will only worsen that,” said James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

Kenner tried to pass a similar ordinance in June but didn’t after housing advocates argued against it. Instead, the council asked the University of New Orleans to study the Redwood site.

The study, which found no shortage of multifamily housing in Kenner, recommended the city rezone the site to allow for a mixed-use district of shops, restaurants and mixed-income apartments.

“Mixed-use developments are popular around the country and are now beginning to pop up around Louisiana,” the UNO report said.

Wendell Dufour, director of the University of New Orleans Division of Planning in the Center for Urban and Public Affairs, said he doesn’t believe an all-out ban of multifamily development is the answer to unease about growth in Kenner.

“You hear people say we don’t want any multifamily because there is a perception that (the buildings) automatically translate to Section-8 tenants, crime or other problems,” said Dufour, who is working with city officials on a completing a larger land-use plan for Kenner. “But a lot of the time it is not multifamily housing that is per se the issue, it is landlords that aren’t properly maintaining developments or some tenants that aren’t doing what they should be doing.”

The land-use plan will recommend high-density residential development in the north and western regions of Kenner along Joe Yenni Drive and Vintage Drive near the St. Charles Parish line, Dufour said.

New Orleans developer Josh Bruno is one investor who has had his eye on Kenner. Last month, he broke ground on a $1.75-million apartment complex in Rivertown and announced his interest in working with Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz on his plan to bring new upscale apartments, shops and restaurants to the historic area.

“I see a demand in south Kenner for higher-end rentals for young professionals who don’t want to live in New Orleans and aren’t ready to buy a home,” said Bruno, who has expressed interest to the city about working with officials to redevelop the long-shuttered Kenner High School in Rivertown into a mixed-use anchor of the proposed district. Bruno said that he also has begun planning for a second upscale residential project in the neighborhood.

The new law could hinder progress in Rivertown, Bruno said.

“For a city that is trying to be developer-friendly and attract investment, this is not the kind of thing that investors like to see.”•