It isn’t surprising that New Orleans experienced a large population drop from 2000 to 2017. Many (quite correctly) blame the large drop on Hurricane Katrina. However, what might be surprising is how disproportionate the population changes in the city have been.
Shrinking African American Population
According to a report by The Data Center, in 2017 there were 91,274 fewer African Americans living in New Orleans than there were in 2000. By comparison, there were only 7,945 fewer whites, and there were 7,498 more Hispanics.
In the year 2000, African Americans made up 67 percent of the city’s population. In 2017 that percentage, while still the majority, was only 59 percent. In contrast, the share of whites increased from 27 percent to 31 percent.
Many blame these changing demographics on the way the city handled the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Recovery efforts were concentrated in areas of businesses and wealthier, white neighborhoods. The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) pulled funding from displaced residents living in hotel rooms, which resulted in them being homeless. Those who did return had to wait for months before being given a FEMA trailer.
The lower Ninth Ward, which had been home to many of the city’s hospitality, restaurant, and other tourism industry workers was the last to have its utilities restored, and today remains relatively empty.
Fewer Young People
The report also shows that while more residents are returning than leaving New Orleans, fewer families are returning. In the year 2000, 34 percent of households in the metro area had children under 18. In 2017, that number was down to 24 percent. The total number of children under 18 in the metro decreased from 358,092 to 284,167.
Following Hurricane Katrina, most of the city’s public schools were closed, replaced with charter schools. In 2018, New Orleans became the first city in the country to function with an all-charter school system. This has led to a number of problems. Because admission to the schools is based on a lottery system, many children are unable to attend schools in their own neighborhoods. This leads to long bus rides, and a “revolving door” of sorts where poor performing schools are closed, and students are constantly shifted to new schools with different teachers and different standards – all of which are detrimental to a child’s education.
Many parents did not want to bring their children into this system, and so did not return to the city.
More Education, Less Income
While still higher than the national average, the share of adults 25 and older who had less than a high school degree fell from 25 percent to 14 percent. At the same time, the share of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose from 23 to 30 percent.
Unfortunately, household incomes haven’t changed accordingly. In the metro area, the average household income declined slightly, from $50,808/yr to $50,528 per year. In Orleans Parish, the decline was greater, from $39,034/yr to $36,999/yr.
This isn’t surprising, considering that national income hasn’t increased in decades. Since the 1970s, hourly wages have risen only 0.2% per year when adjusted for inflation.
Less Affordable Housing
Although wages in the city largely remained the same from 2000 to 2017, housing costs spiked alarmingly. It is well-known that there is an affordable housing crisis in the city, but many people are unaware of just how large the difference is. In the year 2000, only 22 percent of metro area households had severe housing cost burdens. In 2017, that number had spiked to 32 percent. In Orleans Parish, the disparity was even greater, rising from 24 to 38 percent.
In 2000, the average rent (adjusted for inflation) was $808. In 2017, rents rose 30 percent to $965. In addition, in Orleans Parish, 41 percent of all housing units are pre-1950s structures. These homes are less energy efficient, harder to maintain, and often have problems such as lead paint.
The problems of affordable housing have been exacerbated by the rise of short term rentals, which has led to increased gentrification. The “whole house” rental phenomenon led to many developers buying up houses in desirable neighborhoods and using them for short term rentals rather than allowing families and residents to move in. While the city council has now taken steps to curb this phenomenon, and otherwise “rein in” short term rentals across the city, for some, the effort is too little, too late.
A More Segregated City
Segregation and gentrification are also both issues. In 2016, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) released a report showing that New Orleans became more heavily segregated following Katrina. In a city where elevation is everything, traditionally African-American neighborhoods on lower ground (such as New Orleans East and Gentilly) increased their percentage of African American residents. However, traditionally African American neighborhoods that were on the higher ground (Bywater, Treme, St. Roch, St. Claude) became “majority-white or moving in that direction.”
Losing Her Culture
These changing demographics have led to concerns that New Orleans is beginning to lose the very thing that attracts new residents and tens of thousands of visitors here each year – its culture. As more long-term residents are pushed out because of a lack of affordable housing, accessible schools, and stagnant wages, many are afraid the city is losing its roots. In 2018, City Councilmember Kristen Palmer gave voice to these concerns, saying: “People have been consistently pushed out… If we lose our people and our culture, we lose our city.”
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor whose work has been featured in publications such as The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_