A Fight for Survival

That’s how members of the Northshore HBA felt about their opposition to the proposed residential building moratorium in St. Tammany Parish. Executive Officer Amy Ybarzabal says the group had no choice but to throw everything they had into the fight, but did it get them what they wanted?
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In January, St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper proposed a moratorium on rezoning to restrict increasing density for residential development. The moratorium would limit homebuilders throughout St. Tammany Parish to building one unit per acre for a period of six months.

The response from the homebuilding industry was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Leading the charge was the Northshore Home Builders Association (HBA) — formed in 2015 by a merger of the St. Tammany HBA and the Tangipahoa HBA. Homebuilding is the fourth-largest industry in the parish and the Northshore HBA is among the largest HBAs in Louisiana.

Both sides of the argument agree on the problem — in this case that the quality of life in St. Tammany is being greatly affected by problems with a lack of infrastructure and flooding caused by the parish’s rapid growth. According to U.S. Census data released in August 2021, St. Tammany Parish was the second-fastest growing parish in the state with a growth rate of 13% over the last decade, behind only St. Bernard Parish’s 21% growth rate.

According to the Northshore HBA, however, the answer did not lie in a moratorium, which members feared would crush a homebuilding industry already feeling the effects of supply shortages and further exacerbate the parish’s lack of affordable housing.

“I’ve been here almost six years now and I have never had members calling like they’ve called since January, when this was announced,” said Amy Ybarzabal, executive officer at the Northshore HBA. “All day long I had members call and say, ‘What are we going to do about this? Is the HBA doing anything? Do y’all need help doing anything?’ The passion that came from a very real threat was something like I’ve never seen before, and that was felt by our board and our leadership.”

After months of arguments and revisions, the issue was finally concluded on May 5, when the St. Tammany Parish Council voted 14-0 to pass a revised version that “restricts the rezoning of property to allow more than four housing units per acre of land, or to zone such parcels as Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) or Traditional Neighborhood Development Districts (TNDs) for at least three months.

Despite being quite different from his original proposal, Parish President Cooper responded that he was, “happy with this ordinance and will sign it into law.”

But what about the homebuilding industry? What effect is the final moratorium going to have on hundreds of local businesses? For the answers — and a better understanding of the group doing the fighting — Biz spoke to Ybarzabal the day after the parish council’s vote.

Let’s start with what your membership looks like. You’re not just home builders, right?

We have two membership types — builder and associate. An associate is anyone that has to do with the homebuilding industry, which could be a mortgage broker, a roofer, a landscape company, anything that’s part of building a home, selling a home, or selling the services or fixtures in a home. Right now we’re right at about 700 members — about 380 associate members and 330 builder members.

So, you’re about half and half.

We are and, you know, a lot of HBAs around the country are higher on associates than builders —much higher, almost double. So, we think that there’s room to grow our membership. But right now, that’s not a bad ratio to be at. A lot of the members like it.

Your website says you’re also one of the largest contributors to charity in the parish. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Sure! One of the projects of the Northshore HBA is the “Raising the Roof for Charity home. For over 25 years, the HBA has built a home and sold raffle tickets for $100. We try to keep the cost as low as possible by getting our members to donate their time and product. A lot a lot of hands that go into building this home. Each year the Raising the Roof Foundation selects who’s going to be our charity partners for that year. Those charities then get the proceeds after the house is raffled off.

We also have a Northshore HBA Charitable Trust. The trust gets a smaller piece of the Raising the Roof proceeds and uses that throughout the year to make smaller donations. So, over the past 25 years, we’ve given large amounts of money to the Northshore Food Bank, the Children’s Advocacy Center, the Tammany Trace, New Orleans Mission, Habitat for Humanity, as well as a lot of smaller groups too. Really, everywhere you look in St. Tammany there’s a story behind that house — the Hospice House, the Hope House — so much in our community has been made possible by the raffle house.

What are the hot spots right now for building on the Northshore?

Well, there’s a lot that’s already developed in St. Tammany and out towards Madisonville. A lot of people want to live there. We also have a lot of new developments going in — Robindale is a new one. It’s off Highway 36. And then there’s a new development off of Sharp Road called Brentwood, where as soon as the houses are going up there, they’re being sold. People also love the area near Brewster Road — there are some smaller little loop developments going up there. There is a lot of open area in Lacombe, which is more the center of the parish and an area that we see a lot of potential for growth.

What are the benefits of membership in the HBA?

Our tagline is “We build better — better homes and better communities.” We provide education to our members — things like the latest up-to-date code revisions and regulations on the national and local level. We provide continuing ed credits to our builders who need that to keep up their licenses. …We’ve got some great builders that are building higher efficiency homes, because they’re getting the latest information from national and from their local HBA.

We also provide networking opportunities, which is great especially for our associate members who want a chance to meet with other builders. It’s a forum for connections to be made.

The third thing is advocacy. What I like to tell our members is that we know that you have a business to run, and you can go and run your business and rest assured that we’re watching local council agendas. We’re watching things happening on the state level. There’s legislation right now that we’re very involved in, even on the national level…There’s power in numbers.

On the advocacy front, the Northshore HBA came out hard against St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper’s proposed building moratorium. How did you feel about the final outcome?

Let me say it like this: We do not support moratoriums. We do not think that that is the best course of business — ever. However, we know that sometimes it is a necessary tool of government, as long as it is used properly, which means it is for a specific area and for a specific time. If it is not used like that, then it really becomes taking someone’s land and we protect property rights.

In this proposed moratorium that was announced in January, there were a few reasons why we were absolutely against it. One is that it was parish-wide. And certainly, there are areas that are feeling growing pains. We agree that traffic and drainage are issues in parts of the parish, but there are other areas that would welcome some growth.

So right off the bat, it was too broad. It did not narrow into a specific area that required it. Council members can impose moratoriums on their own district, and a lot of them do. There are several moratoriums already enacted right now. We feel like if a councilperson knows his or her district and knows there’s a reason why they need to put a temporary pause on something, then they have the right to do it. And that’s really where it belongs. It belongs in that district.

The other part that we had issue with is that building one home per acre makes the prospect of that home unaffordable for a developer to go in and develop land…The road still has to be in, the utilities still have to be in, all of the costs are the same, but now you have less lots to divide it among.

St. Tammany already has an affordability crisis. We don’t have enough homes for working class citizens and that proposed change was going to make the problem worse.

There was also a timing issue right? The original moratorium was proposed as six months.

Yes, it was going to start at six months, and there are moratoriums that have been on the books in St. Tammany Parish for over 12 years … Six months was brought up to our industry with the feeling that, “Well, it’s just six months. They can stop building for six months,” but we didn’t really think it was going to be six months. Actually, at a council meeting, Parish President Cooper said that realistically he saw this being two years. There was never any doubt. Everyone knew this was not going to be six months.

The approved moratorium is now four units per acre, but it’s still a moratorium. Do you feel like it’s still a win?

Absolutely we do. We feel like it was a balanced approach. We feel like the council members heard and understood that it was going to affect not just the builders, but the electricians and the painters and the roofers and everyone that is involved. Sixty different companies participate in building one home, and that was what we set out to try to convince the council members…The St. Tammany Parish government relies heavily on building permits and sales tax revenue, so it wouldn’t have been a great win for them either.

The reality is that most of our builders don’t build four homes per acre, they build more like three homes per acre.

In that case, is this moratorium really going to have much of an effect?

Yes, because the moratorium is on PUDs — planned unit developments (planned communities of typically single-family homes where homeowners are part of an HOA). We met with many council people one on one and almost everyone said the issue is the PUDs. They feel like they are what’s getting out of control.

Our members have said from the very beginning that they understand there needs to be a revision to the PUD ordinance. That’s what we expect is going to happen in the next three months and we are not trying to stop that. We want things that are going to protect our community. The HBA would definitely love to be part of a group that Council Chair Jerry Binder is putting together to rework some of the ordinances to make them make more sense. This definitely is going to fix some of the problems like the infrastructure, the traffic and protecting wetlands.

Has this issue brought more attention to the Northshore HBA?

Oh yes. We’ve been blessed to have some free advertisement and in interviews with local media. We did hire a PR company to try to help get our message out to the community and to the council people because one of the biggest messages that’s so important that we get out is that we don’t want to build homes that flood. We want the same things that the citizens group wants and that we live here too…We’ve always been willing to be part of the solution.

…In the end, this is what our members needed us to do. They needed us to take a stand; they expected us to. And sometimes, taking the position is so important that whether you win or not becomes less important. We needed to fight for our industry here.

 


 

Homebuilding Is Big Business on the Northshore
(St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes)

In 2018 alone there were 2,752 homes built by an industry that supported 7,080 jobs, representing $320 million in compensation and resulting in $25.6 million in sales tax revenue and $4.6 million in annual property taxes