More Housing for Poor Opposed: Roberts says those from city unwelcome

At the request of a West Bank councilman who said low-income housing invites crime, the Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday backed his opposition in Gretna and Terrytown to developers' applications for federal tax credits designed to replenish the storm-ravaged region's housing stock.Councilman Chris Roberts sponsored the resolution telling the Louisiana Recovery Authority that the parish government objects to any applications for tax credits to build apartment complexes or single-family homes in Gretna and Terrytown.

Roberts said he sees a direct correlation between low-income tenants and criminal complaints in his district, a trend that prompted him in recent months to crack down on landlords whose properties have the highest 911 emergency calls. He said no new developments of the sort are wanted in the 1st District, especially if they invite poor New Orleanians.

"Crime is already at a pace that residents are reconsidering living here," Roberts said. "You would be having folks in Orleans Parish who lived in public housing complexes into Jefferson Parish. That's just not something I'm interested in."

Although the council's action simply recommends that the LRA and Louisiana Housing Finance Agency reject any applications in the district, the measure could effectively kill proposals in the intensely competitive process.

Wayne Woods, chairman of the housing agency's board of commissioners, said reviewers don't look favorably on developments opposed by the local governments. He said the tax credits apply only to developments in operation by Dec. 31, 2008, meaning some might go to waste if the board approves construction that local politicians later manage to halt.

For seniors

Nevertheless, Woods said he didn't agree with the parish's across-the-board approach to proposed developments in Roberts' district. Woods said the applications include a range of solutions for the poor, disabled and elderly.

"Just because it says 'low-income housing' doesn't mean these people aren't viable members of society contributing by working and sending their children to school and the whole economic fabric," he said.

One application that the council's resolution might derail is a 200-unit building for independent people over age 62 in an empty apartment tower on Behrman Highway.

Volunteers of America, a national service organization, wants to convert the building into an elderly community called Forest Towers East. A public notice for the application says it would pump $34.6 million into the project using $30 million in equity from the low-income tax credits.

Victor Smeltz, executive vice president of housing development, said Volunteers of America strives to build projects that fit into the fabric of a community, but he acknowledged that the organization sometimes has to dispel neighborhood groups' negative perceptions of affordable housing.

"Often, it just takes educating the neighbors about who we're serving and what our intentions are -- that we want what you want," Smeltz said. "Folks that don't make a lot of money need a decent place to live."

Smeltz said the Terrytown apartment tower would include some residents who rely on Section 8 vouchers. He said senior citizens often make the best neighbors, because they tend to be quiet, don't generate a lot of traffic and desire stable communities.

"You probably could find a number of constituents who would have their mothers or grandmothers who would be eligible to occupy this housing," Smeltz said, reacting to Roberts' prediction that Section 8 residents would be disproportionately former New Orleanians.

'Ignorant or lazy'

Roberts hasn't held back when characterizing Section 8 tenants as leaches on society. He offered his resolution from the floor, a practice that allows council members to propose resolutions that don't appear on agendas made available to the public in advance. Without discussion, the council unanimously approved it as they routinely do district-specific measures.

"With the number of jobs out there, nobody should be on public housing unless you're ignorant or lazy," he said after Wednesday's meeting, before clarifying that he is sympathetic to people who cannot work because of disabilities.

Jack Stumpf, a prominent West Bank landowner, said he understands Roberts' frustration with rising crime and greater concentration of poverty in Jefferson Parish. Stumpf hasn't applied for this round of low-income tax credits, but he used a similar tool about seven years ago to build single-family homes in Gretna.

Roberts is voicing a prevalent post-Katrina concern among his constituents who fear for the futures of their neighborhoods, Stumpf said.

"I would say now we're just getting a disproportionate share of the lower-income families than we had before," he said. "It's changing the whole complexion of the area."

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Meghan Gordon can be reached at mgordon [at] timespicayune [dot] com or (504) 826-3785.