A Healthy Habitat

Jim Pate, executive director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, discusses the impact the organization has had in the city’s recovery and what still needs to be done.
Cheryl Gerber
Executive Director Jim Pate has led the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity in the construction of over 460 new homes in the past 10 years.

Long before Hurricane Katrina, home ownership remained elusive for a high percentage of New Orleanians. The devastation from the floodwaters only made the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity’s role even more crucial.

Over the last decade, Jim Pate, executive director of the affordable housing nonprofit, has led the organization through a dramatic expansion, growing from four employees immediately after the storm to nearly 60 during the peak rebuilding period in 2009.

In the past decade, approximately 150,000 volunteers from around the world have worked alongside locals to hang drywall on hundreds of new homes, sledgehammer dozens of decrepit buildings, build wheelchair ramps and new fences for elderly residents, clean up blighted blocks and even plant fruit in a growing number of urban gardens.

As rebuilding continues, Pate says Habitat now enjoys a stronger relationship with the business community and is forming new partnerships with advocacy groups to continue to aid some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Biz: How many homes has Habitat built in New Orleans since Katrina?

JP: Habitat has built in excess of 460 new construction houses and done a handful of rehabs. These have been scattered across mostly the Orleans area, but we’ve got about 50 to 55 in St. Bernard Parish and about 50 to 60 in Jefferson Parish. The bulk of the new construction has been in six or seven neighborhoods in Central City, Mid-City, and our key area has been the upper 9th Ward. We have a number of houses in the larger Hollygrove area — which we call the Carrollton Corridor. In eastern New Orleans, we’ve been building in the Pecan Grove neighborhood.

Biz: What post-Katrina projects are you most proud of?

JP: The Musicians’ Village was a signature project, but not for the simple reason that it’s a notable project, but because it was so critical as a symbol of our resiliency and our return. And it focused upon the city’s rich musical heritage. We actually started (building out) that project in March of 2006. We have recruited and deployed over 150,000 volunteers, and roughly 40,000 worked on the village project. At that point in the recovery, seeing those numbers of volunteers coming in was emotionally and spiritually uplifting for all of us local people working on the recovery. The fact that we had people traveling from all over the world to stand by our side and help us rebuild – that imagery was so important to the community.

Since Katrina, 150,000 volunteers from around the world have joined in the organization’s efforts.

Biz: Where does that project stand today?

JP: Musicians’ Village residential units are completed, and roughly 98 percent of the houses are owned by musicians. We also have 10 elderly-friendly duplex units. Two units are used by The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music because, frankly, they are so successful they are oversubscribed and needed the space. The village has 72 homes. And we’ve built about 150 in other areas of the upper 9th Ward, some of those are also occupied by musicians.

Biz: What were your biggest challenges after Katrina?

JP: Like everyone else, we had the challenges that were directly due to the failure of the levees and flood walls. We lost both of our recently finished AmeriCorps housing projects. We lost every tool we owned and all of our vehicles.

We also had the challenge of dealing with the severely damaged human infrastructure. Everyone talks about the loss of roads and buildings and homes, and all of that is incredibly poignant, but we so often forget about the loss of so many workers. To give you an example, the (City of New Orleans) building permit department was totally relocated and was at one point in the convention center and operating with 25 percent of its pre-Katrina employees.

Like hundreds of other people, we had a run-in with the corrosive Chinese drywall. So we had to go back and totally remediate almost 200 homes. We had no legal obligation to do so, but we knew our families did not have the resources to do their own rehabilitation.

Biz: There were well-documented setbacks to rebuilding initiatives during Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration. What was
the most frustrating?

JP: Probably the greatest frustration during the Nagin administration’s response to the recovery efforts was the reliance on Ed Blakely, who I personally thought was totally ineffective. Even if he did not have direct supervisory authority, he had impact up and down the line. I think he chose neighborhoods more or less on a whim and from an academic ivory tower. Doing that, he totally ignored ongoing solid efforts. We were building many more houses than anyone else who had returned and when Ed Blakely was carving out where city resources would be focused, he had talked with me. He then carved us out of the budget because basically — the mayor confirmed later — the feeling was we were so successful that the city could put their resources elsewhere.

Biz: Is there a particular neighborhood or single block where Habitat has made the greatest impact?

JP: We built 14 to 16 houses on a one-block-long area named Ferry Place in the Riverbend area of Hollygrove, and that street became a project of an organization called Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans, RHINO, that was sponsored, organized and nurtured by St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church. Church members sometimes participated, but they also hosted, recruited and deployed mission groups from Presbyterian (churches?) all over the country. RHINO volunteers exclusively did all but two of the houses. That one I’m very proud of because of the partnership with the St. Charles Presbyterian Church. Ferry Place is a notable achievement because it so exquisitely shows how a focused effort by a group of volunteers can have an impact.

Biz: New Orleans has made an amazing comeback, but part of that includes high rents and purchase prices in certain neighborhoods. How has Habitat responded to this?

JP: Because of the generosity of our donors and sponsors, we are able to both build the house and provide the permanent financing to our partner families. These families are not only building the house with 350 hours of what we call “sweat equity” — working on their own and other Habitat houses — but they also take out a mortgage with us that covers the hard costs of their home — the land, material and work of licensed subcontractors. There’s nothing built in to charge for the overhead of my staff, equipment and tools.

Habitat bases its financing model on Exodus 22:25. I’ll paraphrase because I’m not a preacher: When you sell or lend to a brother or sister in the community, make no profit and make no interest. So every mortgage is at 0 interest.

The average rent for a three-bedroom unit in New Orleans right now is approximately $1,100 a month. The total monthly payment for a Habitat homeowner in the last four to five years is between $600 and $700 a month (that includes principal payment, real estate taxes, homeowner’s insurance, flood insurance and an annual termite contract). This means people are able to buy their own home at literally half the cost of renting.

We have also initiated a transitional incubator program. This means that if we have an applicant who is almost qualified (for a newly constructed home) we can actually rent them a home at a very reasonable rate, and when they are ready, transition them into full Habitat home ownership.

Future Habitat homeowners invest “sweat equity,” building their own home, as well as others.

Biz: How has Habitat’s relationship with the business community changed since Katrina?

JP: We were a modest nonprofit that had a fairly light footprint in the affordable housing area. Post-Katrina, there has been a much closer relationship.

For example, of our 450 homeowners, over 40 of them work in the hospitality industry. We have a very close relationship with the (Greater New Orleans) Hotel and Lodging Association, and they have put out almost $250,000 in financial support and tens of thousand of volunteer hours building Habitat homes. It’s workforce housing for them. When hotel employees become a Habitat homeowner, their reliability and stability as employees is vastly improved.

We’re also now strong and active members of the homeowners association and have seen tremendous support out of the homebuilders. Now, when they are building a house and have excess material, builders are actively donating that material to our ReStore, where we sell it, and those funds go to build Habitat houses.

Biz: Tell me about lesser-known programs such as A Brush with Kindness and Attack the Block.

JP: Everyone knows New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods. If we saw somebody in a wheelchair with no wheelchair ramp, it was not uncommon for us to go down and ask if they needed a ramp. But it was not organized. It was ad hoc. As we have had an increasingly larger presence in specific neighborhoods, we felt there was much more we could do to help the entire neighborhood rebound, rebuild and get better.

Part of that is introducing new homeowners, but the other part is to help people with aging in place and accessibility issues. A Brush with Kindness will paint up, fix up, do weatherization, and alter an interior door for a wheelchair to get through. We have also tried to address public spaces — streets, sidewalks, parks — with Attack the Block, which is largely focused around our alternative spring break period.

Biz: What are some projects we haven’t heard of?

JP: We have some pilot programs we’re not ready to announce — some strategic alliances and partnerships with other nonprofits that provide services to a needy population. We’re going to be expanding into, not rental per se, but rental options that address transitional and supportive housing with other nonprofits.

We’ve also got a program with the cutest acronym: HUGS initiative, which stands for Habitat Urban Gardens. Through this program we create urban gardens and sell the produce to several prominent restaurants, including MoPho.

We currently have 39 urban gardens on Habitat lots scattered throughout the city. We may be the largest urban garden program around.

We can only accept volunteers age 16 and over on a job site, but sometimes we have mission groups or school groups. With this program, we can now put them in touch with our gardeners, who are delighted to welcome younger volunteers. It provides an alternative experience for volunteers, and is a valuable opportunity for both them and our local restaurant industry.

Biz: Habitat International’s AmeriCorps Build-A-Thon just finished up its blitz building project with a goal of 10 homes in 10 days to mark the 10th anniversary of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Were you able to meet that goal?

JP: Yes, we did meet the goal. Families have already started moving in. The project was titled “Rebuilding a Street with AmeriCorps” because six of the 10 houses were on America Street in New Orleans East, and the others were within a block. We had 400 volunteers a day every day for 10 straight days, and they were successful in completing the houses.

Biz: What unfinished business from Katrina still needs to be addressed by Habitat and the community?

JP: We’ve got so many exciting advancements in the educational system — the opening of the V.A. system, the new Charity Hospital (project), expansion of the streetcars — so many things going the right way. But one of the great injustices that arose was an inequitable distribution of recovery funds between wealthy neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods. The storm didn’t care if you were black or white, rich or poor, but when the federal government came in to distribute recovery funds it did make a difference. If you had a 2,000 square-foot house in Lakeview and 2,000 square-foot house in the Lower 9th Ward, the amount of funding was related to your property’s assessed value. A person in the Lower 9th got considerably less than someone in Lakeview. So one of the big challenges remaining is to restore equity in some of our poorer neighborhoods.

The exciting thing is, the State Office of Community Development, Louisiana Housing Corp., and a lot of local neighborhood organizations are banding together to find an equitable way to do that. Getting through the bureaucratic challenges of getting that done remains a very big challenge but it needs to be done.

Biz: What other lasting impacts have you seen from the outpouring of volunteer efforts post-Katrina?

JP: One of the incredible things that has taken place in the last 10 years is the influx of creative, typically young, entrepreneurial folks who are taking our city to new, interesting areas. And I’m proud that many of those young people who have remained and made New Orleans their home and are working hard with whatever they are doing came through New Orleans Habitat or AmeriCorps. Many from AmeriCorps and people who came down with college groups or faith groups to help with the recovery have chosen to stay and give us in the New Orleans area a very bright and exciting future.

Habitat for Humanity New Orleans Completed projects

YELLOW – Habitat Urban Gardens

RED – Completed homes after Hurricane Katrina

PURPLE – Completed homes before Hurricane Katrina

BLUE – A Brush With Kindness projects

GREEN – Homes currently under construction



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