May 30, 2017; New Orleans Times-Picayune, “Real Estate”
It is not easy for a state legislature to resist preempting local government from addressing a local problem. In fact, preemption is the go-to strategy when private interests want to run roughshod over local needs and local democratic processes. Disregarding local process, a powerful lobby just needs to find a state representative or two to pass a law that takes away the rights of local citizens. Easy peasy.
Make no mistake: Preemption is a weapon of mass destruction that is used by state officials to retaliate against a single proposal in a single jurisdiction. The New Orleans Advocate reviews this issue in greater depth in an article entitled, “Bill to block affordable-housing mandate in New Orleans dies in House committee.” In this case, preemption proponents didn’t even wait for the democratic process in New Orleans to play out. The state Senate voted quickly to bar any Louisianans from acting to address affordable housing and then sent the bill to the state House.
This week’s vote in the state House Commerce Committee stopped the bill from moving to the whole House. The lone Republican House member voting against the bill was concerned the city might turn to the state for financial help if they were blocked from making their own plans.
A main proponent of the preemption bill, Jon Luther, CEO of the Home Builders Association for Greater New Orleans, sees regulating the construction of large multifamily rental developments as the edge of a slippery slope. Interfering with “market forces” would put New Orleans in league with the socialist city governments of the northeast and northwest.
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How bad is the problem of affordable housing in New Orleans? Most of the development since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina has focused on upper income housing—and for good reason. It is a better return on investment to build for the upscale market. According to the New Orleans Tribune,
New Orleans has only 47 affordable rental units for every 100 low-income residents. Thirty-seven percent of households in the city are paying half of their income for housing. And 36 percent of renters pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing, a more than 100 percent increase from 2004, when about 24 percent residents spent more than half their earnings on housing. The New Orleans metro area ranks second in the top 10 worst metro areas for renters, according to the Make Room Initiative, a nationwide campaign launched in 2015 to raise awareness about and bring an end to the rental affordability crisis in America.
Was race an issue? The New Orleans Advocate article helps connect the dots: “The plan was intended to bring New Orleans in line with a controversial U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rule that cities must work to foster racial and class integration in their neighborhoods if they want to continue to receive federal funding.”
The fact that a state preemption effort has been turned back is noteworthy. The problem of states barring local action is endemic. Earlier this year, the mayor of Jacksonville, Florida, became the leader of an informal campaign to combat state preemption efforts around the country.
Kriston Capps in CityLab defines preemption as a partisan weapon used by Republican controlled legislatures against urban Democratic strongholds. Cleveland is one exception that proves the rule. In December, with the encouragement of Cleveland city officials, the state of Ohio barred local municipalities from enacting a local minimum wage. At issue in that case was a citizen initiative, which was not supported by many local Democrats, that would have put the issue to a vote. The Republican governor and the Republican-controlled General Assembly were only too glad to help the local Democrats.—Spencer Wells