How a New Orleans neighborhood has reinvented itself since Katrina

December 04, 2019

Community input and creative financing has transformed Iberville public housing project into Bienville Basin. 

Cody Marshall has fond memories of growing up on Robertson Street in the Iberville Public Housing Project, just steps from New Orleans’ famed French Quarter. Iberville was a close-knit community where everyone knew each other. If his mom wasn’t home, Cody walked to his grandmother’s house just around the corner, or his godmother’s house just next door to her. 

But the neighborhood changed, crime and drug use became the norm, and eventually Hurricane Katrina dealt the final blow: Though there was no significant damage, many families who fled did not return, marking the beginning of the end for this huge, historic New Deal-era public housing complex built in 1942. 

Today – with Marshall’s help – Iberville has been reimagined as Bienville Basin. The streets are filled with a mix of new townhomes and apartments. These include 227 market rate apartments, 151 workforce housing units and 304 public housing replacement units, including 51 senior housing units. Retail and amenities range from a yoga studio and coffee shop to fitness centers and a computer lab. There’s even an area for food truck parking.

“I can still remember what buildings were here,” Marshall said. “It’s a big change. Change can be for the bad or change can be for the good. I think the change is for the good. It was time.”

Developed by HRI Communities, Bienville Basin is the result of strong public-private partnerships. In 2011, the City of New Orleans and the Housing Authority of New Orleans applied for and received a federal $30.5 million Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) grant – though the transformation of the Iberville project into Bienville Basin required more than $225 million in government and private funding.

Work has been underway at the site since 2012, bringing the community’s vision to life – with input from residents like Marshall. Early in the process he became one of a seven-member group called the Iberville Resident Working Team. Marshall was elected by his neighbors to represent their voices and be a partner in planning. 

“I’m glad I gave it a try. As residents, we want everybody to have a right to return,” he said. “I understand we’re renters, but I think we needed to be heard and treated fairly.”

His role on the working team not only shaped the community he still calls home, but helped Marshall discover new passions of his own in the areas of design and architecture. He helped select colors for the exterior of the new units by exploring and matching hues found in the French Quarter, and even created the CNI logo. 

“Participatory planning is frequently used from a best practices perspective”, said Josh Collen, president of HRI Communities, “but the role the Iberville Resident Working Team played transcended the typical inclusionary processes and ensured we were collectively re-envisioning the best neighborhood possible for all stakeholders.”

U.S. Bank invested $80.8+ million in federal affordable housing tax credits, $7.8+ million in historic tax credits and $89.6 million in construction debt over the seven phases of the Bienville Basin development plus two nearby senior housing phases called the Residences at Treme’ Market. Beth Stohr, director of Affordable Housing for U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation, said the long-term partnership allowed the bank to have a transformational impact on the community and its residents. USBCDC is the community development subsidiary of U.S. Bank.

“Being part of such a large-scale and collaborative public-private partnership to provide so many units of mixed-income housing to a single community does not present itself every day,” Stohr said. “This development has not only transformed a neighborhood, but more importantly, changed the lives of those who call Bienville Basin home – because a stable home is the foundation for opportunity. By partnering together on projects like this, we can help close the gap between people and possibilities and make a meaningful and lasting impact in our communities.”

Marshall and the resident working team had a role in saving 16 of the red brick, historic buildings at the community’s center.

“We wanted the housing development to keep the original buildings as a reminder of Iberville. It was a long fight and good one,” Marshall said. “They worked with us and agreed with it. I was glad I was part of that group and Urban Strategies helped us along the way. Without their help, we would be pretty much lost sheep.”

The CNI grant comes with a requirement to provide supportive services for residents, and Urban Strategies, Inc. is on the ground in the community doing that work. The nonprofit’s services are focused on comprehensive neighborhood revitalization, transforming communities by focusing on equitable opportunity to help families thrive. In Bienville Basin, it’s providing case management services to every family that was living in Iberville at the time of relocation – more than 400 in all.

“We play a big role in being on the ground and working with residents. We meet them where they are and help them achieve whatever goals they have,” said Mai Dang, project manager with Urban Strategies. Support might include helping residents navigate housing issues, find jobs or return to school.

“We want to build resident leaders. It’s not our job to do it for them. It’s about creating leadership,” Dang said.

Marshall is one of Urban Strategies’ regular volunteers and is seen as a leader in his community.

“I’m glad my fingerprints are on pretty much the whole development,” Marshall said.

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