How Housing Costs are Driving Out New Orleans’ Music Culture
Don’t get me wrong: I love New Orleans. But we have ran the real people out, the ones who created this whole culture. The people who gave, you know, the soul. HOST: Skyrocketing housing costs are making for harder living in the Big Easy. Since before Katrina in 2005, average home prices have seen especially steep jumps. And since 2010, the median rent by square foot has exceeded the national average. Here in New Orleans, the particular paradox is that the backbone of the tourism economy, musicians and service workers, are being priced out of the city limits. BOUTTE: I’m going to take you to, uh- the last place I lived in the Treme. This house here, which is not a house anymore. It was taken down in the storm. This is where I wrote the “Treme Song.” HOST: John’s “Treme Song”— playing right now— became the theme song for HBO’s “Treme,” a show about rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina. Ironically though, the guy that wrote the theme song for “Treme” feels he can no longer afford to live there. Three years ago, John made the hard decision to move outside the city limits. Well, I was born and raised in uh… the 7th Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. There was always music in the air and out here… Listen. [golf swing] Nothing. I would have probably bought something in New Orleans if I would have found something that I thought was, uh, worth the value, you know, for the money. I’ve seen from 2006 the prices of homes going from $40,000 to $350,000. Now, John lives out here across the lake in Lacombe. Back in New Orleans proper, the fruits of New Orleans recovery have been distributed unequally. The hospitality and tourism industry is the biggest employer in town, but its average wages are some of the lowest. And the average musician makes even less. HILL: At this point in time, you know, we’re really facing a crisis. We’ve got about one-third of the renters here in the city that are paying more than half of their monthly income for housing costs. And then the folks who are the culture bearers, who are the working class folks who made New Orleans what it is, they’re really facing some tough decisions. All this market pressure comes from many different places: – Katrina decimated the city’s housing stock in 2005. – an influx of people moving to town for quality of life – the trend of millennials moving back into urban cores – short-term rentals making it more valuable to Airbnb your home than live in it. Whatever the exact causes, long-time residents of New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods are getting squeezed out. BOUTTE: New Orleans was always, like, defined by neighborhoods. And we’ve stayed in those neighborhoods. Even, you know, throughout segregation and desegregation. We just— people just, like, more or less clung to their own little culture: uptown, downtown, 9th Ward, 7th Ward. It was very tribal-like, you know? HOST: For decades, New Orleans’ neighborhoods have been incubators for the music. Jazz parades, jam sessions, musical families, mentorships, chance encounters… All those casual connections created an ecosystem where music could thrive. MOBLEY: So when you look at a neighborhood like Treme, or like the 7th Ward, you’re looking at an informal system that’s an incredibly efficient transmission system. When we see change happening so rapidly that people can’t adapt, there’s a risk of loss there that no amount of planning is gonna help us get back. This is New Orleans’ economy. This is a third of our economy is contingent upon relatively low wage workers who are gigging workers. HOST: Growing up in New Orleans proper, John had the benefit of rubbing shoulders his musical elders. But today, it’s harder to return the favor if he’s commuting 45 minutes each way. Still, it’s not just the music that could suffer. MOBLEY: Musicians need homes. So do bus drivers So do teachers. BOUTTE: Who’s gonna clean the hotel rooms? Who’s gonna cook your crawfish etouffee? Who’s gonna clean out your bidet? You know? HOST: In the last year housing prices have leveled off, but the problem remains. BOUTTE: I still have faith in the fact that we’re going to continue to move on and be a city that hopefully a city that still innovates musically and artistically. So we have to just muddle through the uh… gyrations of the market I guess, you know. I don’t know man.