Lafayette has a housing problem. What should its housing authority do about it?

A house with boarded up windows and a stuffed mailbox
LHA’s St. Antoine Gardens development is likely to be sold to private developers. Photo by Robin May

At any given time, hundreds of Lafayette area families are waiting for help finding or paying for a place to stay.

The demand for affordable housing in Lafayette has overwhelmed the local housing authority, the agency charged with administering federal housing funds. Now, local leaders and housing advocates are pushing to revitalize the agency with a change of leadership.

Mayor-President Monique Boulet announced Wednesday the appointment of three new board members to the five-member board in an effort to reinvigorate the authority, which critics say has languished from a lack of vision, potentially leaving Lafayette managing a housing crunch with a weakened hand. Current housing authority leaders rebut that characterization, saying they’re doing what they can with what little they have.

The Lafayette Housing Authority, once a hotbed for local political scandal, has largely slipped under the radar in recent efforts to address the need for affordable housing locally. Catholic Charities of Acadiana’s recent Homeless to Housed initiative ended without the LHA’s participation, and Lafayette’s most recent affordable housing developments, like the Bottle Art Lofts on University Avenue and the Uptown Lofts on Pierce Street, went up without its involvement.

The LHA has faced criticism for its limited role in addressing Lafayette’s housing crunch, which is affecting people in various price points within the local housing market even as its effects are most pronounced among low-income renters who rely on public assistance through the parish’s housing authority. Approximately 450 families live in its public housing and another 500-plus are on its waitlist, which can leave families waiting years for a chance to live somewhere they can afford.

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“We have our hands full addressing what we currently have … with the waitlist and all,” says LHA Executive Director Lydia Bergeron. “We wish we had more Section 8 landlords to be able to honor all the Section 8 vouchers that we’ve been receiving through HUD. There’s a ton of things that are on the wish list. But we need to handle one thing at a time.”

Housing advocates say the authority should be wielded as a tool for loosening the local housing market. Overhauling its leadership is the first step toward realizing that potential.

“I think part of the reason why ours has been so insipid in its impact here is because its leadership has not been interested enough to really come to fully understand the power that having a decent housing authority can have for a community if you’ve got the proper leadership,” says Lafayette Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Melinda Taylor, who previously served on the LHA board.

Taylor quit the board in 2021 after its other members decided to forgo another meaningful search for a new executive director following the abrupt departure of Ted Ortivez, who was hired through an extensive national search but left after less than a year on the job. The board instead promoted Bergeron, previously the LHA’s human resources director, to the top job, which Taylor says illustrated the board’s lack of vision for the authority.

The housing authority and its board, which is appointed by the mayor-president, have been a political hot potato for years following the 2010 resignation of Executive Director Walter Guillory, who eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges of fraud and bribery related to housing authority projects and was sentenced to 28 months in federal prison in 2014. Guillory was hired to a parks job at Lafayette Consolidated Government in 2019, but recently resigned amid a probe into that department’s athletic program funds.

During the earlier scandal at the LHA, former City-Parish President Joey Durel dismissed the authority’s board, and it was taken over by HUD for years before a new board was appointed by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux in 2016 and largely replaced by former Mayor-President Josh Guillory in recent years.

The LHA’s current leadership is at least one part of the problem Boulet is planning to address in short order. The new M-P, who made affordable housing part of her campaign for the job last fall, named to the board outgoing Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux, former UL administrator Alterman “Chip” Jackson and Maisha Chargois Drexler, a law firm administrator and director of Lafayette’s African American Heritage Foundation. The appointments became effective June 20 in a memo to the Council clerk, and were announced publicly this week. The board had been operating with only four of five members, Rickey Hardy, Lloyd Rochon, Shelton Cobb and Laura Ward. Comeaux replaced Rochon, Drexler replaced Cobb, and Jackson replaced Cory Levier, who resigned in June 2023 and had not been replaced. Hardy's term expires in November, and Ward's in November 2025.

“We are having critical shortages across many different types of housing, so having a healthy, functional housing authority that can get in there and have an impact and solve problems is really my goal,” says Boulet. “Many of the seats [on the board] are expired. They were appointed many, many years ago, and we are looking to seat a strong board of diverse people with different backgrounds in real estate, in property, as well as in community leadership roles.”

But a lack of vision among leadership isn’t what’s holding the housing authority back, insists Bergeron, who was a longtime LHA employee before being hired to lead it in 2021. Instead, she says, the agency is hamstrung by a lack of resources, primarily available housing to place low-income tenants into.

The authority administers more than 1,600 Section 8 vouchers, which low-income tenants use to pay some or all of their rent to private landlords. Its waitlist for vouchers is similarly long at more than 400 families, and it includes dozens of families who’ve qualified for vouchers but can’t find private landlords willing to accept them. That’s one issue holding back the authority’s effectiveness, Bergeron argues, and the other is a lack of resources to improve existing units and expand its housing stock.

“We would have to have money, to obtain money through grants, or have people willing to donate buildings, for us to expand the market,” she says.

Read our Series on Adjudicated Property

Construction workers turn dirt on a formerly adjudicated property

Bit by bit, LCG is tackling a frustrating and costly problem that has festered for decades. With well over 1,000 adjudicated properties on the rolls at any one time, there’s a long way to go. And for those who live next to the properties, resolution can’t come fast enough.

Those barriers have been exacerbated, Bergeron says, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s push toward Rent Assistance Demonstration conversions, which sell existing public housing stock to private developers who then agree to lease dwellings to low-income and market rate users, sometimes improving living conditions and promoting mixed-income neighborhoods in the process. That is the likely fate for LHA’s St. Antoine Gardens development on Helen Street, she says, since its ownership structure excludes it from federal funding for necessary renovations on the homes.

“HUD’s vision is they want to convert to have more Rental Assistance Demonstration conversion … that has been a goal of this for a number of years,” says Bergeron. “So we could probably follow suit with them. They do continue to encourage us to look into developers coming in and converting what we currently have.”

But while such conversions can loosen the market for some lower-income renters, they don’t actually add to the city’s supply of affordable housing, which is a critical part of Lafayette’s housing problem. That’s something other housing authorities in Louisiana have gone to great lengths to do with major support from the federal government.

In 2010, New Orleans was awarded $30.5 million in federal funding for a 2,400-unit project in the Treme and Iberville neighborhoods, and Shreveport won $24.2 million in 2016 for a 312-unit project that spanned several of its central neighborhoods.

Most recently, Lake Charles won a $40 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant from HUD to develop a 562-unit mixed-income neighborhood to replace the 240 units damaged or destroyed by hurricanes in 2020. That was a bit of an anomaly, admits Lake Charles Housing Authority board member Nicole Miller, since Choice Neighborhood Grants typically take years of planning and sending in applications to win. But communities in need of affordable housing, particularly in Louisiana, have a strong track record of success with the grants when they put in the enormous amount of work it takes to develop a solid plan.

“I’ve said in several of the presentations I’ve done that this was the pinnacle of my career to see this kind of collaboration and communication,” says Miller. “I wouldn’t say every Choice Neighborhood [Grant] has happened that way. I don’t know that you have to have every miracle come to fruition to get a Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant. But certainly everybody coming together and saying, ‘Yes, this is meaningful work, and we all want to commit to making it happen,’ certainly makes moving heaven and earth easier.”

Bergeron says her office has looked into that option repeatedly, but it doesn’t have the funding or the staff power to do so successfully.

But it’s an option that should be the top priority for improving the housing market in Lafayette, says Taylor.

“The fact is, [housing authorities] can be a force to be reckoned with as a developer, and not just a developer and a manager like what people think of when they have the stereotype of low-income housing, but of really great mixed-income communities that have elements of affordable housing and moderate-income housing, rental and ownership,” Taylor says. “The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative is an opportunity to do something like that in a broad neighborhood context.”

That kind of vision is what’s needed for the LHA, says Boulet, who expects the authority to take on a new charge of expanding its housing impact beyond vouchers and conversions now that her three new appointees have joined the board.

“We can do more than that. And I don’t necessarily want to see a bunch of low-income housing grouped together in spaces. I don’t think that is the healthiest way to do it,” Boulet says. “But I do think we can get creative, and I do think we can do more. They can have an impact on the housing stock, and they need to have an impact on the housing stock.”