The history of the city’s development patterns has particular relevance in post–Katrina New Orleans as city officials and nonprofits grapple with how to revitalize neighborhoods and preserve historic housing stock, given a greatly reduced population. But it’s important to remember that blight in New Orleans is not strictly a post–Katrina phenomenon. Historical settlement patterns provide clues regarding the impact of policies as well as changing preferences of the private market. To optimally address blight, decisionmakers must identify and deploy effective polices and also capitalize on the power of the private market and consumer preferences to remediate blight. The most effective housing, community development, and blight policies for New Orleans will be informed by an historical perspective as well as by current market indicators.
Most of us know that New Orleans had its peak population back in 1960. But did you know we were also huddled more closely by the river? Since 1960, as we lost population, we spread out to new suburban style housing both within the city limits and outside the city limits. And in that process, we left behind thousands of older homes.
To shed light on the relationship between housing development and abandonment, we analyzed the distribution of occupied housing units within the city of New Orleans as well as across the metro* since 1960. First, we will focus on those trends within the city limits, and then we will start over with the New Orleans metro.
- Between 1960 and 1980, historic neighborhoods lost thousands of households as families opted for new suburban–style housing near the lake, in New Orleans East, and on the west bank.
- Through the oil bust of the 1980s, thousands more households left the city altogether and the vacancy rate soared. Only newer subdivisions in New Orleans East and the west bank continued to grow. But during the 1990s, a small resurgence begins in several historic neighborhoods along the river, including the CBD and Warehouse District.
- Between 2000 and 2010, the levee failures caused vacancies to spike across the city. Even neighborhoods in the higher–elevated “sliver by the river” lost households and experienced abandonment.
*The New Orleans metro area is defined as the seven–parish Metropolitan Statistical Area encompassing New Orleans, and its suburban parishes, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, and St. Tammany.
To quantify these patterns, we divided the city into three rings and analyzed changes in households within each ring.
- The inner ring was developed pre–1900 and encompasses the historic, more elevated areas near the river as well as Mid–City.
- The middle ring was developed between 1900 and 1950. It primarily includes Lakeview and Gentilly as well as Broadmoor and Lower Ninth Ward.
- The outer ring was developed post–1950 and includes most of New Orleans East and outer parts of the west bank.
We analyzed changes in housing units rather than population because of our interest in changes within the physical housing stock. In fact, the number of occupied housing units can grow even as population shrinks if the smaller population is spreading out across more housing units with fewer people in each household. And that is exactly what happened in the city between 1960 and 1980 when the number of occupied housing units in the city grew slightly from 189,801 to 206,435 even as the total population declined from 627,525 to 557,515.
The next several slides depict the changing distribution of households across the city. In 1960, 58 percent of New Orleans households resided in the historic, more elevated inner ring section of the city; 37 percent of households lived in the middle ring; and only 5 percent of households resided in New Orleans East and the west bank.
[As we click through the next several maps, note that the lighter colors represent areas with low density residential development, and dark areas represent high density.]
Between 1960 and 1980, the construction of new levees, drainage systems, and highways opened up parts of the city for development that were previously off–limits. Many New Orleans households expressed their preference for suburban style homes on the edges of the city.
Between 1960 and 1980, the inner ring lost nearly 17,000 households. The middle ring gained about 10,000 households, and the outer ring gained about 24,000.
Through the weak economy of the 1980s and slow recovery of the 1990s, migration to the outer ring continued, although at a slower rate. Meanwhile, the middle ring lost 10,000 households — about the same number it had gained during the previous two decades. The inner ring lost nearly 18,000 households during the 1980s, but then began to hold its ground during the 1990s.
In fact, a small resurgence began in historic areas during the 1990s. The CBD, Warehouse District, and several adjacent neighborhoods from the Bywater to Touro gained households during the 1990s. But some historic neighborhoods continued to decline during the 90s.
Looking at citywide trends in occupied housing unit density again, the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures are clear in changes between 2000 and 2010. The number of households citywide plummeted and the vacancy rate doubled to 25 percent. The middle ring sustained the largest losses. The flooding of New Orleans East neighborhoods caused the outer ring’s first ever loss of households there.
This slide reflects the changes in occupied housing units by neighborhood from 2000 to 2010, and the visible gains on the west bank (in orange). In addition, the slide shows that while the CBD and Lower Garden District continued to grow, the rest of the unflooded “sliver by the river neighborhoods (except St. Thomas/ River Gardens) actually lost households over the decade.
The map on this slide shows the gains in the downtown area more precisely, while also demonstrating how the remainder of the “sliver by the river declined.
We also looked at vacant housing units. The Census Bureau distinguishes between vacant units that are for sale or rent, vacant units that are for seasonal use, and “other vacants.” These “other vacants” include blighted units that are boarded up. Between 2000 and 2010, all but a few of the “sliver by the river” neighborhoods also saw increases in "other vacant" housing units. The exceptions were the CBD, St. Thomas, Lower Garden District, and the Garden District.
To summarize the preceding few slides, even unflooded “sliver by the river” neighborhoods have fewer households, and more abandoned housing units, since 2000. Such neighborhoods include Black Pearl, Bywater, East Carrollton, East Riverside, Irish Channel, Touro, Uptown, and West Riverside.
The Data Center examined demographic changes in order to gain clues about what is happening in these neighborhoods, and we found that African American headed households, families with children, and elderly were the most likely to have moved away.
For a downloadable spreadsheet where you can compare 2000 and 2010 demographic data for all 72 New Orleans neighborhoods, be sure to visit: https://www.datacenterresearch.org/reports_analysis/housing-development-and-abandonment/
Looking beyond the city, we see that the construction of new highways and levees that allowed households to move from the historic core of New Orleans to the city’s fringes also facilitated the movement of households toward suburban and exurban parishes. In addition, as public schools were integrated, many white families fled to surrounding parishes. These moves from the historic section of the city to suburban developments led to a dramatic shift in the concentration of households toward suburban and exurban parishes.
For a full set of maps depicting suburbanization across the metro for every decade since 1960, be sure to visit: https://www.datacenterresearch.org/maps/housing-development-abandonment/l
From 1960 to 1980, the metro area booms — adding 168,000 households. While Orleans grew by only 16,634 households (or 9 percent), Jefferson Parish gained 100,395 households, and St. Tammany gained 25,268 households. The gain in Jefferson represented a near tripling of households in that parish, while St. Tammany’s gain more than tripled its number of households.
As New Orleans lost 18,814 households from 1980 to 2000, the number of households in St. Tammany nearly doubled to 69,253. Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles and St. John increased their combined number of households from 49,133 to 64,849. Although Jefferson Parish’s growth rate slowed, it gained 20,549 households and ended the century with almost as many households as Orleans Parish. Thus, the concentration of households in the metro continued to shift toward suburban parishes with Orleans’ share of households dropping to 38 percent by 2000.
Katrina inflicted significant losses across several parishes in the southern portion of the metro, in addition to the substantial loss of households from Orleans Parish. Between 2000 and 2010, Jefferson lost 6,587 households, St. Bernard lost 11,902 households, and Plaquemines lost 944 households. St. Bernard took the biggest hit in percentage terms, losing 47 percent of households. Plaquemines and Jefferson ended the decade with 10 percent and 4 percent fewer households than in 2000, respectively.
St. Charles, St. John, and St. Tammany received an influx of evacuees from harder–hit areas that contributed to household gains in these parishes. St. Tammany grew by 18,268 households and had 87,521 households in 2010. St. John added 1,682 households to reach 15,965 households in 2010. Finally, St. Charles grew by 2,135 households to reach 18,557 households in 2010. However, the growth in these three parishes only equaled one–third of the combined losses in the other four parishes, indicating that many households have moved away from the metro area entirely since 2000.
By 2010, the concentration of households in the metro had shifted dramatically toward northern and western exurban parishes with Orleans’ share of metro households dropping to 31 percent.
Suburban parishes in the New Orleans metro have received large influxes of city residents since 1960, and yet, because of post–Katrina losses in Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, the suburban metro parishes had roughly the same number of households in 2010 that they had in 2000. The post–Katrina loss of households in nearby parishes as well as within New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods suggests that as New Orleans looks to reduce blight and preserve historic architecture, we must place just as much emphasis on retaining current residents as we place on attracting new ones.