“This is my confession.” - Usher Patel
Future Black New Orleans, if you're reading this - if you even fucking exist, that is - I'm sorry.
In March 2018, I co-authored “Short-Term Rentals, Long-Term Impacts: Housing Access and Affordability in New Orleans,” a report about the relationship between the proliferation of Airbnbs and the like on displacement/gentrification in the city. Last Thursday, City Council began a series of votes to reform the current policy, largely in response to our report. These policy reforms will do more harm than good for Black people from New Orleans, and I regret the role I had, as the person whose voice/writing gave the report validity, in pushing the short-term rental reform agenda and really in all this Social Justice™ scam.
The report was published by an organization that I first served as a board member before transitioning to a brief staff position as a tenant organizer (in which, I openly admit, I did not fulfill my commitments). The data in the report is real and was absolutely not funded by any hotels or hotel-affiliated entities or individuals, contrary to the propaganda spread by Beverly McKenna’s Tribune article. At the time of publication, there were north of 4,000 short-term rentals, a disproportionately high number of which are owned by a minority of out-of-state operators who’d taken the opportunity created by the City of New Orleans’ 2016 agreement with Airbnb and HomeAway and the absence of oversight to establish scattered-site hotels. The majority of the listings offer whole-home rentals that were not owner-occupied, meaning these were entire units of housing that had been completely removed from the residential rental market in order to profit from the tourist market. Short-term rentals have contributed to a lack of rental options and increasing unaffordability for homeowners too, problems created by public and private decisions to capitalize on and further the displacement of Black people from New Orleans that was initiated by Hurricane Katrina. Unequivocal fact.
Yet every single one of those whole-home short-term rentals could be placed back on the residential rental market at relatively affordable rates, and the Black people most vulnerable to displacement and gentrification would still not have access to them. Because the rental market had already priced out many Black people from New Orleans before the City legalized short-term rentals in 2016 and replaced them with gentrifiers here to leave their mark on our blank canvas of a 301-year old city. Because the root of the lack of access to “housing” for Black New Orleans renters is the belief that Black people - especially if we’re poor, women, have bad credit, and/or operating outside of hetero nuclear families (like me, like me, like me, and like me) - do not deserve the stability of safe homes. And that belief is reflected in the inherently discriminatory practice of landlordship that while, yes, is affirmed by policy, will not be undone through policy. Policy, after all, is not the place to address root issues. Bottom line: White transplants will be the primary benefactors of short-term rental reform*.
There is no stability for Black people in “housing justice.” As long as we're using the "housing justice" framework, we give the State the power to provide or to deny people "housing", which in the American context has always, from slavery to present, been a provision to facilitate the exploitation of labor. Enslavers provided housing for the enslaved in order to maximize their labor capacity. “Housing” serves as leverage for State-sanctioned exploitation. We need to change the way we think and the language we use. But I’ve been told that’s secondary to getting numbers out. The "movement building" focus of contemporary calls for Social Justice™, beyond and including housing justice, breeds disharmony and untruth as self-proclaimed radicals seek to undo harm through policy change while practicing the same ideology used to justify the harm in the first place.
When the Civil War ended, most of the freed remained on the properties of their former enslavers; their enslaved-enslaver relationships transformed into tenant-landlord relationships - though the power dynamic did not budge. In the introductory chapter to “Up from Slavery,” Booker T. Washington writes about the newly freed creeping to their former enslavers’ homes to negotiate their stay after a Union soldier read the Emancipation Proclamation to them. Of course, the former enslavers let them stay - not because of a sense of justice or compassion - but so that they could continue to work for them for free. The provision of housing, allowing the newly freed people to remain on their properties, justified their continued exploitation of Black labor and bodies.
If the State values the labor that they can exploit from you, they’ll provide or protect access to housing in whatever condition they deem acceptable (the fight for it, as my friend Kristina Kay Robinson recently pointed out, is to maintain the facade of democracy). Short-term rental reform advocates often point to the displacement of “culture bearers” in support of their argument that short-term rentals, left unchecked, are dangerous to the city’s social ecology. I’ve read at least three articles that feature musicians, Black masking Indians, and a photographer, that centered this argument. At its foundation is the belief that those who provide a labor valued by white people deserve “housing.” Within New Orleans’ tourist economy that, in the aftermath of HK, now centers the same Black cultural traditions that two months before the storm got people beat in the street by police, the most important Black laborers are those who can provide the authentic New Orleans experience. Once granted housing access and affordability on the basis of being a culture bearer, Black people will have to bear their culture, a culture that has historically subverted Black social death by honoring that which has sustained us (I call such traditions eco-celebratory), to the people in power who granted them housing - therein diminishing the value of the tradition. Some people applaud the exposure, but Black New Orleanians have never needed numbers to infect the masses with our spirit.
The contemporary idea of a “movement for social justice” centers mass mobilization. In order to mobilize large numbers of people on a timeline dictated by politicians who decide if your cause matters and funders who are evaluating if you deserve their money, you have to forego informed consent. You have to coerce people into taking the pre-strategized action that will catch the eyes of decision makers - understanding be damned - by means of emotional manipulation.
Black people from New Orleans are sensitive about displacement. Rightfully. Not only do we, like all Africans in the Americas as a result of enslavement, have the ancestral memory of being removed from Home, we have the lived experience of displacement from Hurricane Katrina and from the cycle of gentrification it has ushered in. Black people from New Orleans - I’m saying this as one of ‘em - are scared of not being able to live in New Orleans. If you tell a fearful person that you can eliminate their cause for fear (but only with their voice! Together we are powerful!), they are more likely to do what you say particularly if you have institutional backing. Though some call that building a base of power, I call it a scam. As someone who spent her childhood knocking on strangers’ doors to ask them if they’d like to live in a world free from pain and death (Revelations 21:4), I know a good scam when I see one.
Future Black New Orleans, I pray these concepts - of coercion, conversion, and domination - make no sense to you. They make too much sense to me right now. Over the past two years, I've attended meetings about workers rights, housing, education, immigration, and incarceration in which the people 'being organized' could recite a platform but could not articulate a critical argument as to why the platform mattered beyond the immediate policy win they sought. TBH most of the “organizers” couldn’t either, they too having been duped by the white and/or white-socialized “organizers” who’d exceptionalized them away from their communities. It is not within non-profits’ interests for “the organized” to be able to engage as equals (that would undermine the organizers’ dominance and by extension the organization’s fundability, besides being too much of a time investment). The lack of a critical perspective on race, ethnicity, gender, class, regionalism, by people who have been members of social justice organizations for years, points to the prioritization of action over understanding in the Social Justice™ scene. How unfortunate that it’s just a scene.
This same belief that understanding (aka truth aka consent) is an inconvenience to action and movement-building has been used to shelter abusers. Men in leadership positions have publicly perpetrated violence against Black women that has been intentionally hidden by their fellow organizers (including other Black women) or glossed over by witnesses all for the sake of “the movement.” One popular leader publicly referred to a queer Black woman as a “dyke bitch,” and a week later, led a rally in Congo Square to celebrate a white woman who’d been killed while protesting Confederate monuments. I was especially disheartened when I saw that a white transplant journalist was propping up a known rapist as an example of the type of “valuable Blackness” (the culture bearer kind) threatened by displacement to support the short-term rental agenda. Is it possible to manifest peace while shielding those sewing disharmony from accountability?
Short-term rentals were not the first nor will they be the last nail in the coffin of Black New Orleans. I don’t believe we’ll get to a “last” - unless by last we just mean the one put in before we pop out dat bih with the uzi (figuratively speaking). See, I’m not all doom and gloom. I believe in the human capacity for change. I believe that the nation-state as a model of social organization will cease to exist (maybe after a Bird Box-like cataclysmic event). But what happens when our ideas about who deserves what and the language and images we use to communicate those ideas don’t disappear with it? I pray you haven’t had to find out.
That's where the work is, I'm convinced - it's in conversations about ideas, about language, about images. Conversations that cannot be owned by your non-profit, stylized on their professionally designed PowerPoint deck. It’s in the eco-celebratory traditions that we pass on, that aren’t photographed and framed. It's in the way we respond to the word no, or any hint that someone might want to say it if only they could. It’s in the way we respond when people we’ve been socialized to believe we dominate say something feels wrong. It’s in the way we pray and to whom we choose to pray. And in so many other small and often unplanned and often uncomfortable exchanges in which we get to choose ourselves over the will to power.
I don’t claim to be right or to have all the answers. I still face my own will to dominate daily and give into it probably more than I even notice. I am furthering my commitment to sorting out what it means to be worthy - of harmonious relationships; of truths that I can and can’t handle; of balance and joy and compassion and pleasure and respect and acknowledgement and care; of justice. Of justice.
Because justice is not a lost cause, even if institutions have pimped it out.
Future Black New Orleans, you are my God. You are my freedom. You are my independence. Future Black New Orleans, only your existence can absolve me.
*This is in no way a dig at the organization that published the report. I respect a lot of their work, and enjoy the vast majority of the board and staff as individuals. I think the short-term rental policy reform work is evidence of how people, as individuals and within institutions, who have done great things that have long gone unacknowledged can be seduced by acknowledgement in ways that can hinder growth, divert focus, and limit their ability to hear other sides (like mine, when I repeatedly tried to voice my discomfort withthe policy and its centrality in our programming) without offense. And it’s leading me to reflect on this question: do I social justice (verb) in search of love (defined by bell hooks as trust, acknowledgement, respect, and care) that I have yet to offer myself?
Now give me all your money! Lydia Y. Nichols is a self-supporting writer and single mother native to New Orleans. Her work blends critical theory, empirical research, and creative non-fiction in examining images and language in visual art, literature, film, and vernacular culture. She’s great and has more great work to offer the world on the horizons. She wrote this and doesn’t know why she is continuing to type this in third person, but she is. If you’d like to support, please donate to her Venmo @lydiaynichols or CashApp $lydienicks.