New Orleans: A Vanilla City

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin famously promised that New Orleans would remain a “chocolate city.” (He later apologized to anyone who took offense at the remark.)

I interpreted his promise to mean that he would make sure that low-income people who had been driven from their homes by the flood would be able to return. He hasn’t kept that promise. According to the latest report, low-income people who have been receiving section 8 rental assistance say they aren’t allowed to return to New Orleans because New Orleans is considered a “higher rent” city and they won’t be allowed to get rental assistance there.

Were it not for the planners, this neighborhood might have been rebuilt already.
Flickr photo by Ed Yourdon.

If New Orleans is now a “higher rent” city, it is the fault of Mayor Nagin and the other government officials and planners who have obstructed efforts to reconstruct the city. As Mercatus scholar Daniel Rothschild pointed out in his presentation at the Preserving the American Dream conference in Houston, planners talked Nagin into the idea that reconstruction should be along New Urbanist lines.

This created two problems. First, it can take years to plan, but people want to rebuild right away. Second, despite claims to the contrary, New Urbanism drives up the cost of housing.

Rothschild’s fellow researcher, Eileen Norcross, also gave a presentation at the conference comparing Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s approaches to reconstruction. (You can read the paper on which Norcross’ PowerPoint presentation was based.) In a nutshell, Mississippi handed out a lot of money and got out of the way. Louisiana imposed a bunch of rules that changed all the time, and the rules tended to favor people who already had money. As one New Orleans resident said, “They were giving out money to people on the outskirts who had minor damage. What about people at the epicenter?”

As I’ve noted before, when Bandon, Oregon, was burned to the ground in 1936, the city immediately handed out permits to rebuild. All the paper in the town was burned, so they wrote the permits on some cedar shingles that happened to survive. The state of Oregon hired a planner who wrote a detailed plan for reconstruction. People claimed to love it, but by the time the plan was done, it was too late: the town was already rebuilt.

As one planner emailed me recently, “people are in no mood for big new plans immediately in the wake of a disaster. They are traumatized and mostly want to go back to the stability and comfort of ‘the day before,’ even with the old problems (like inevitable flooding). There are also, frankly, more boring tangible things that hobble brave new plans, ie property and
political boundaries and buried infrastructure.” As a result, most cities hit by disaster are “built almost exactly as before.”

The Mercatus Center has an entire project looking at the effects of planning and regulation on reconstruction. I particularly recommend a paper on how planning can create uncertainty that discourages reconstruction.


9 thoughts on “New Orleans: A Vanilla City

  1. D4P

    planners talked Nagin into the idea that reconstruction should be along New Urbanist lines

    Were these public sector or private sector planners?

  2. Neal Meyer


    Rothschild’s and Norcross’s presentations were some of the most interesting of the conference. I’ve met some people from New Orleans who complain of similar ways in which the state of Louisiana handled the mess.

    FWIW: I read a book a while back on the history of London. In the aftermath of the fire of 1666, residents of that City also wanted to rebuild as fast as possible, despite, you guessed it, all kinds of plans that were put forth. Some ideas were adopted, like the building of St. Paul’s cathedral and the ordination that streets needed to be at least 14 feet wide to help abet fleeing the City in the event of another disaster, but for the most part, once again people simply wanted to put their lives back together as soon as possible.

  3. Hugh Jardonn

    The worst example of excessive planning and not building after an atrocity is what’s going on in New York, at the World Trade Center site. Excessive “planning” and government ineptitude led to the current lack of action while citizens who advocated rebuilding the Twin Towers were ignored.

  4. rationalitate

    Were it not for planners, that house wouldn’t have existed in the first place. (Both because planning lowers the cost of far-out living, and because much of New Orleans’ building was enabled by government-built levees and government-subsidized flood insurance.) So, the fact that it hasn’t been rebuilt would seem to be a triumph of the market, no?

  5. the highwayman

    Brilliant idea jackass(aka Anti-planner), rebuild in a flood plain! Why not just return it to being marshland and avoid future trouble.

  6. Dan

    When one is haranguing a politician toward a desired outcome, one is “Public Sector”

    Surely the current crop of war profiteers, who harangued for their desired outcome, are not public sector.


  7. foxmarks

    Dan, you seem to have slobbered off topic again. Sorry to have to keep reminding you…

    rat, you are arguing both sides. That’s a party foul. Two shots for you.

    highwayman, most of the world’s population lives on some flood plain or other. I suspect you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    What “the market” would do in today’s New Orleans is only a thought experiment. Near the root of corruption and subsidy, in this case, one will find non-market insurance mandates. NOLA faces particular risks, but private innovators are not allowed to freely offer mitigation. Meanwhile, those who ignored those risks are rewarded for their lack of foresight. Government planners are seldom the sole culprits.

    A more robust critique of AP’s post might be in his assigning now-higher rent to the inefficiencies of government. Big Brother is always culpable, but more direct than current rebuilding misadventures, we lost 350 thousand (or so) mostly low-rent dwellings. Even before lack of supply could raise the average rent, the simple average goes up when the lowest elements are removed from the set.

    And, always, interpretation of Nagin’s statements is an art, not a science.

  8. gwwood99

    There were two master plans developed for the rebuilding of New Orleans.

    The first was driven by the Urban Land Institute. It envisions abandoning the lowest parts of the city and returning them to green space. It addressed the reality of a city that will not be able to afford the infrastructure and footprint that was built for 600,000 people but will likely never exceed 350,000 in the foreseeable future.

    Mayor Nagin rejected this plan because of the so-called right to return for every citizen.

    The other plan was driven by neighborhood associations. I am not sure how it was organized originally but the usual activists created neighborhood plans throughout the city with the advice of largely new urbanists. Duany was heavily involved.

    In theory, this was adopted as the recovery plan. In reality this plan would cost over $100 billion with about $5 billion actually funded. It is pie in the sky that would turn a city with large areas that are nothing more than crime ridden ghettos into a boutique city with coffee shops and architecturally correct housing dotting the landscape everywhere.

    The reality is that the recovery has done well on the high ground and the lowest ground with the greatest flooding is a mess. Blight is everywhere. The city has become expensive because housing that was paid off three generations ago is gone. It is expensive to renovate old homes, and insurance and utility rates have skyrocketed.

    This following site sums up the recovery so far. The city continues its slow decline, although the tourist areas and some relatively wealthy areas will be around a long time.

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