Fellows in Focus: Building Affordable Homeownership Opportunities in New Orleans

By Jon Gorey, January 19, 2024


The Lincoln Institute provides a variety of early- and mid-career fellowship opportunities for researchers. In this series, we follow up with our fellows to learn more about their work.

Oji Alexander is the CEO of People’s Housing+, a New Orleans nonprofit that aims to close the racial wealth gap by developing affordable homeownership opportunities, providing long-term financial stewardship services, and ensuring perpetual affordability through its community land trust and shared ownership arrangements. Alexander participated in the Center for Community Investment’s 2022–2023 Fulcrum Fellowship, a one-year, intensive program for field-level community leaders. In this interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, he explained how the fellowship shifted his perspective on affordable housing, and how People’s Housing+ is working to create generational wealth for New Orleans families.

JON GOREY: What is the focus of your organization, and how did your Fulcrum Fellowship help you build upon that work?

OJI ALEXANDER: People’s Housing+ is the result of a strategic merger between three New Orleans-based affordable housing organizations. My organization was called Home by Hand—we were historically a single-family affordable homeownership developer. Tulane Canal Neighborhood Development Corporation was also a single-family affordable housing developer for homeownership, but their unique wrinkle was in-house financial fitness work and homebuyer training. And the third organization was the Crescent City Community Land Trust, one of the city’s two community land trusts. Three small organizations, two of them Black-led, with similar missions; we partnered pretty often, and it was the same old story of competing for the same limited resources. So we built a larger scale, Black-led organization that’s able to provide a greater breadth of services to our community.

Our mission is African American wealth creation, shrinking the racial wealth gap. We do that through affordable real estate development, as we know homeownership is a reliable driver of wealth creation, and by providing stewardship services. So not only are we building the units, identifying the families, identifying the resources, getting those families into the homes, but really the important work, and what distinguishes us from some of our peers, is that first five to seven years that folks are in their homes, making sure that they understand the asset they have just acquired, how to keep and maintain that asset, and how to grow that asset, with the goal of being able to transfer that asset. We’re also providing resources for folks in our network who have been in their homes for 10 to 15 years, which is a completely different set of services.

Alexander, center, with the People’s Housing+ team. Credit: People’s Housing+.

I’d always thought of housing as a transactional process—it was always about building more units, numbers, more and more and more. Before Fulcrum, my goal would have been to be the biggest, most productive affordable housing organization for our size—we have developed more single-family housing, I think, than any organization in South Louisiana, other than Habitat for Humanity. What Fulcrum helped me realize is that our organization alone is not the answer, and it’s really helped me think about systems-level change and what we can do—what is our part in the broader affordable housing ecosystem and community development ecosystem? It has completely changed my approach to our work.

Fulcrum also helped me pull myself out of the weeds. I was always proud to know not just the big picture but how a house gets built, start to finish—the nuts and bolts—and Fulcrum helped me take that balcony view and start looking at the broader ecosystem, really incorporating the capital absorption framework and figuring out where we fit within the pipeline of deals.

The Center for Community Investment’s Capital Absorption Framework helps communities identify shared goals, develop an investment pipeline, and strengthen pertinent policies and processes. Credit: CCI.

JG: What are you working on now, and what do you have planned next?

OA: The ‘Plus’ in our name is that we’re also working toward some shared ownership and community ownership projects, where we have partnered with folks who own land but have not had the resources to get the land back into commerce. We had Hurricane Katrina, and we have a lot of families who are still trying to recover from a storm back in 2005—who have blighted property, who are deemed unbankable by traditional lending institutions. So we partner with organizations, lend our balance sheet and our access to resources, to help them get properties back in commerce, in situations where we can incorporate affordable housing as well. We’ve got quite a mountain to climb.

We are also working on our first small, multi-family rental, mixed-use project. It’s the historic restoration of a blighted firehouse that was built in the early 1900s in a neighborhood called Central City, a historically African American neighborhood that is really starting to see the effects of gentrification and displacement. The firehouse will have seven permanently affordable rental apartments upstairs, and a 65-seat early childhood development center downstairs, which is the first cohabitation of affordable housing and early childhood education in the city.

A current project led by People’s Housing+ and For Providers By Providers will transform a blighted firehouse into a mixed-use development that includes an early childhood education center and affordable apartments. Credit: People’s Housing+.

What we’re looking to start working on is more community ownership, shared ownership, shared equity. We’re always looking to provide benefits not just to the direct recipients of our products, but to folks who are already living in the neighborhoods that we’re working in. There are a number of different shared ownership models nationwide, but we’re involved with the Community Investment Trust, which was started in Portland and spun off by Mercy Corps, and is a way for residents of a particular neighborhood to safely invest in commercial real estate. The potential is for them to realize the upside of real estate development in their neighborhood—again, without being direct recipients of some of the new housing that’s going in—but making sure that we’re giving people the opportunity to invest and capitalize on neighborhoods transitioning, as opposed to being displaced by that transition.

JG: Can you talk about the twin challenges of developing not just affordable housing but also climate-resilient housing, in a city that’s particularly vulnerable to climate change?

OA: Because of Hurricane Katrina, we’re in a unique position: we’re talking about rebuilding a city. And conventional wisdom has been, if we’re going to rebuild the city, we’ve got to build a resilient city. We have always approached it from a practical standpoint. For us, it was always about the families, always about the end user—how can we build a resilient home that’s going to have low operating costs. The goal is predictability: You want to have predictability in your payments, whether they be rental payments or mortgage payments, and you want to have predictability in your utility bills. So we’re building with insulation, efficient HVAC systems. We want to make sure that the end user has a building they can afford to maintain. With some of the mitigation features that we build into the houses, people are realizing discounts on their insurance rates.

It’s also predictability that when a storm comes, and you have the opportunity to evacuate, your house is still going to be there when you get home. And this is where stewardship comes in. If you do come home after a storm, and your home does sustain some damage, we’re there to help you navigate the transactions with your insurance company and FEMA and things like that. 

We’re a city that sits below sea level, and the way our city deals with water is we try to pump it out faster than it rains. So we’re building green infrastructure and stormwater management into our homes at no cost to our homeowners. Stormwater management is an area where you’re not going to see a lower water bill; it’s really a community benefit. And low- and moderate-income folks generally don’t have expendable income to provide community benefits. So we want to make sure that we’re providing that at no cost.

People’s Housing+ is installing stormwater gardens at all of its new homes to provide climate-resilient landscaping and combat the city’s notorious property subsidence. Credit: People’s Housing+.

JG. What do you wish more people knew about affordable housing?

OA: Overwhelmingly, people come to us thinking that there was no way that they could have possibly purchased a home. In addition to what we know about the racial wealth gap from an asset standpoint—those disparities are understood and well known—I think there’s also a gap in the wealth of knowledge that comes along with generational wealth. And a lot of our folks who don’t come from generational wealth just don’t have the understanding of what owning an asset can do for a family.

So if there was something I wish the broader community knew, especially the African American community, who has historically—purposefully, through racist housing practices and policies—been denied access to homeownership, it’s that there’s a pretty simple recipe. And with a little bit of support, in a reasonable timeframe, most folks who have steady work, steady income, can achieve homeownership if they follow that path. Homeownership is not unattainable for folks who do not come from generational wealth.

JG: When it comes to your work, what keeps you up at night? And what gives you hope?

OA: What keeps me up at night is really the fact that we have to fight so hard for what should be a basic right, which is shelter. The fact that an organization like ours has to exist. What gives me hope, though, is the compound nature of wealth—the impact that one individual home can have on a family from a generational standpoint. There were folks who were raising kids when we first started working with them. Now those kids are graduating or in college and in certain cases actually inheriting these homes. So we’re actually starting to see the transfer process. You plant the seed, you water it and give it resources, and then you just watch it grow.

JG: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

OA: It’s not related to housing, but it really is related to the work that we did at Fulcrum. The best book I’ve read lately was called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor. A lot of the work that we did in the Fulcrum Fellowship, in addition to the redevelopment framework and leadership training, was on self-care—as nonprofit leaders, we often take self-care for granted, we kill ourselves in these jobs. And the power of what breath can do, the physiological impact that breathing and the way you breathe has on you, is really amazing.


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Jon Gorey is staff writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Lead image: Oji Alexander, CEO of People’s Housing+ and a former Fulcrum Fellow, in front of two People’s Housing+ homes. Credit: Courtesy photo.