A woman in a jean jacket sitting in a row of chairs holds a phone up to her ear.
Arnetta Harris sits in the waiting room of the Housing Authority of New Orleans building on Touro St. on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. Credit: Michelle Liu/Verite

On Valentine’s Day, Arnetta Harris walked into the lobby of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, where mostly empty rows of chairs faced a television airing local news segments on long-married couples and Carnival festivities.

Harris wasn’t in the mood for celebration. She was busy thinking about other things, namely money. She had been looking for a place to stay for most of the last year, without luck, while living with family and friends. A landlord had recently quoted her $2,800 to cover a deposit and the first month’s rent for an apartment Harris had been eyeing. Harris, who makes about $13 an hour as a janitor at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, didn’t have that much saved. She didn’t even have enough to buy a gift for her grandson, who was turning 5 that day. “I ain’t got nothing to give him but love,” she said. 

Petite and round-cheeked, Harris usually looks younger than her 47 years. But she appeared tired that morning, her face unadorned and her blond braids in a bun. Clutching a worn paper packet of rental listings, she settled into a chair to wait for the administrative hearing that would determine whether she could keep her Section 8 voucher, the federally funded subsidy that covers part of her rent. 

She had spent more than half a year looking for a new home after she learned her landlord was selling the shotgun double she rented in the Upper 9th Ward. Countless phone calls and apartment tours were fruitless, she said. The search time allotted by the housing authority had run out in December, and now Harris needed to make her case: that she was trying her hardest in an increasingly unnavigable rental market for low-income tenants like herself.

In New Orleans, where about half of residents are renters and almost two-thirds of renters are considered low-income, affordable housing remains in short supply. The city outpaced the nation in rising rents from 2004 to 2021. Here, the housing authority supports about one in four renters. The remaining need can be seen in HANO’s waiting lists for subsidized housing, which have amassed tens of thousands of applications since Hurricane Katrina. Families on the list can wait years before receiving a voucher; recent federal data show those in New Orleans wait an average of three-and-a-half years. 

Section 8 tenants searching for housing often face discrimination from landlords and rising rents that exceed the maximum amounts housing agencies will subsidize, according to affordable housing advocates. In New Orleans, Hurricane Ida has also worsened the problem, according to Hannah Adams of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. Some damaged units were pulled off the market, while other owners have renovated their properties with insurance payouts and are now charging higher rents or converting the units to short-term rentals, Adams said.

The rate of voucher holders successfully signing leases in New Orleans dropped from 80% to 60%, following the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and Hurricane Ida in 2021, HANO officials said at a recent board meeting. 

HANO is relatively generous with the amount of time it gives Section 8 clients to look for homes. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development only requires public housing authorities give clients two months to find a place to live. By contrast, HANO currently offers 120 days of search time, with extensions totaling another three months.

Harris’ time had run out. A HANO staffer informed Harris she would lose her housing benefits by mid-December, unless she successfully appealed her case. HANO also includes informal hearings as part of its voucher termination procedures, so tenants like Harris have a chance to tell their stories and keep their benefits. 

Suzanne Whitaker, a spokeswoman for the authority, declined to comment on Harris’ appeal. 

After being informed by HANO, Harris contacted Southeast Louisiana Legal Services for help. The legal aid group assigned her an attorney, a man named Michael Veters, whose arrival in the HANO lobby on Feb. 14 marked the first time the two had met in person. Veters was several months into a job with the city’s Right to Counsel program, where he worked on eviction and rental subsidy cases.

Though Southeast Louisiana Legal Services couldn’t comment on Harris’ case, the group has had other clients on Section 8 who have failed to find housing despite searching for six or seven months, according to Adams. Some clients have located homes, only to realize they are in such poor condition that they cannot pass a federally mandated Section 8 inspection.

“Although HANO has been generous with extensions in light of market conditions, these tenants ultimately are at risk of losing their housing assistance if they cannot lease up in time,” Adams said in a statement. “A flaw in the design of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program is that in areas without source-of-income protection, which prohibits discrimination against voucher holders, the program does not provide adequate housing options or choice.”

‘I don’t want to be in here’

Sitting next to Veters inside a carpeted conference room, Harris tried to gather her thoughts. Months of living in other people’s houses had left her overwhelmed and strained her relationship with her kids.

Harris, her teenage son, and her 26-year-old daughter, who was pregnant, were by then staying in a family friend’s one-bedroom apartment on Chef Menteur Highway. There, the family of three shared a bed. Harris often felt uneasy at the apartment complex, which was tucked between a car dealership and a motel in New Orleans East. “Where I’m at is dangerous, real dangerous,” Harris said. Gun violence is prevalent in the area, including in the complex that has become her temporary home, where a shootout left two young men dead last year. 

She thought about trying to find a place where her son wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder every time he left the house. She thought about leaving New Orleans altogether, even though it was her city, the one she grew up in. 

She said she was depressed, just thinking about it all. “I’m trying to keep my head above …” she trailed off. “I don’t want to be in here, emotional.”

Veters, was there to frame her troubles within the guidelines of the authority’s 255-page administration handbook for Section 8. Those rules state the “list of extenuating circumstances” the authority is allowed to consider in extending her search time, among them family illnesses, deaths or emergencies, and obstacles due to employment.

A close-up shot of someone holding a pen over a paper packet of apartment listings.
Arnetta Harris reviews rental listings from a paper packet provided by the Housing Authority of New Orleans on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.

HANO employees did not allow a Verite reporter to attend the hearing that day. But in interviews, Harris recounted the fruitless search that ultimately led her to the conference room. 

Harris’ usual strategy of looking up listings in the newspaper, no longer worked, so she tried to use real estate websites like Zillow, though she struggled to navigate the internet.

She had also rifled through a paper packet of Section 8 listings HANO sets out for clients at its front desk, though landlords listed in the packets either told her their properties weren’t available or never returned her calls. The housing authority has itself acknowledged that the onus is on landlords to update their properties in the agency’s listing service; one recent paper packet contained listings last updated in 2021.

There were various impediments, logistical and emotional. Without a car, she had to take the bus everywhere or cut into her budget by calling a Lyft. Sometimes, she had to take time off work to look at houses. Her son’s epileptic episodes and his doctor’s visits often forced her to leave work and retrieve him from school, another scheduling setback. 

Once, last September, she found a landlord who urged her to move quickly and sign a lease. But Harris only had $1,000 of the $1,400 deposit the landlord sought. Around that time, she was laid off from work for a month. Unable to find the other $400, Harris lost the house.

After Harris made her case, the hearing officer told her she would receive a decision within 10 business days, though with the office closed for Mardi Gras, she might wait a little longer. Her attorney did not respond to a request Monday for comment on the status of her case. 

Following the hearing, the housing authority staffers, both women, mentioned their own children as they made small talk with Harris. Harris felt some small stirring of optimism, drawn from the rapport between working parents. “They’re a mother like I am a mother,” Harris said afterward. “They understand my situation.”

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...