by Karen Mackey, Diocese of Louisiana

The Formation of the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative After Hurricane Katrina

A week after Hurricane Katrina, the Very Rev. David duPlantier, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, was listening to an NPR’s All Things Considered segment speculating on the chances of developers swooping in and purchasing land in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. “There was the likelihood that a lot of the area they referred to as Central City that didn’t flood but was not prosperous, developers would swoop in and expand the Garden District and turn it into a Disneyland with drinks,” said duPlantier. “That phrase went into my soul and I thought we would lose one the most important predominantly black historic neighborhoods in the city. It scared me to death.”

The cathedral, since the late 19th century, straddles the line between the wealthy Garden District neighborhood and the poor Central City neighborhood. duPlantier was determined that there was something the cathedral could do to help save Central City so its residents could return home.

duPlantier was on his way to dinner with Rob Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief & Development, when he heard the NPR report. Radtke was in Louisiana on behalf of Episcopal Relief & Development assisting with the formation of post-Hurricane Katrina relief projects. duPlantier mentioned the report to Radtke and asked if there were any funds available to help purchase property to help save Central City from the developers.

While this was not within the usual scope of Episcopal Relief & Development projects, Radtke brought the idea back to their vice-president, Abigail Nelson who had experience rebuilding in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. She began working closely with duPlaniter. In March 2006, a partnership was formed between Episcopal Relief & Development, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, and Christ Church Cathedral to build affordable housing in the Central City neighborhood. Episcopal Relief & Development provided the initial $2.3 million investment from donations received following Hurricane Katrina.

Brad Powers, a New Orleans area lawyer, was hired to be the founding executive director. He did all the initial research and exploration of all that was possible and all that was in risk in the Central City.

The Rt. Rev. Charles Jenkins, bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana, served as the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative’s first board chair. It was by his insistence that the board would be made up of a healthy mixture of Episcopalians and African American pastors from the Central City neighborhood. He also traveled across the Episcopal Church to fundraise for the ministry.

The name of the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative was derived from a line in the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech: “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

It was at a diocesan clergy retreat in early 2006 the name of the housing initiative came into being. “On the second day at the mass at the retreat, Bishop Jenkins preached and he quoted for the first time ever in my hearing, the Martin Luther King speech ’Beyond Vietnam’ that talked about rebuilding the Jericho Road,” duPlantier said. “ I just sat there and had this electric shock. I guess it going to be called Jericho.”

In the initial pilot program, the Diocese of Louisiana purchased three lots in Central City that would be developed and sold as affordable housing to low-income residents. The purpose of the pilot program was to initiate and critique all aspects of Jericho Road including site selection, client identification and training, cost of mortgage products, availability of homeowners insurance, and an understanding of the building process.

One thing became clear. It was not enough to just build houses. In order to have the fullest impact revitalizing Central City, Jericho Road must build community. The only way to build community was to engage with the residents of Central City and have them become vital partners in the decisions that impact them and in what programs they wanted to see in their neighborhood.

At the February 2007 celebration of the first houses built, Jenkins said: “The initiative is about community. It could be an act of those who have means, but that is not what Jericho Road is about. We don’t want it to be seen as a sense of power over those who have no power. We want this to be a community offering. We are not simply building homes for people but transforming lives and changing neighborhoods.”

Building Community for 15 years

Since its founding, Jericho Road has continued to provide a holistic approach to community development. Not only do they provide affordable housing development, but they are also involved in workforce development, community engagement, vacant land management, and pre and post-purchase homeownership classes.

Jericho Road is now solely in partnership with Christ Church Cathedral and its offices are located on the second floor of the cathedral’s administration building. In 2019, they acquired another affordable housing non-profit, Project Homecoming, effectively expanding their reach throughout the New Orleans area.

Nicole Barnes is the current and second executive director of Jericho Road. She has 25 years of experience in addressing the needs of public and affordable housing through her work with the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HUD) and Builders of Hope (BOH). A number of staff members also have extensive experience with community development, community engagement, and housing.

Since 2006, Jericho Road has developed 106 single-family homes, co-developed 263 mixed-income rentals, and rehabilitated 272 homes in not only Central City but throughout the New Orleans area. They have invested more than $40 million in the Greater New Orleans area.

“Jericho Road is a pillar in this work,” Barnes said “We started out with some very basic plans that were built by volunteers. We evolved over time. We focus now on what it means for someone to retain their house. We build homes that look like the homes in the neighborhood. We want to respect the architectural integrity. That’s huge in New Orleans. The houses we build in Gentilly look like the houses in Gentilly. The houses we build Uptown look like the houses Uptown. We are very conscious and intentional about that.”

Jericho Road homes feature metal railings, PermaCast columns, and composite decking. “The construction costs may be more but in the long run, we know it is going to save our family in maintenance costs that they may not be able to handle,” said Barnes.

Over time, Jericho Road homes have evolved to include stormwater management, energy efficient, and aging-in-place features. “For the majority of our clients, this is going to be their forever home,” Barnes said. “As we age and become mobility impaired, the cost to retrofit your house to accommodate that can be prohibitive. If you are on a fixed income at a senior age, you may have to give your house. We have evolved in terms of thinking of all of those things as we build.”

“In 2018, Jericho Road was designated a HUD-approved non-profit. What that allows us to do is buy homes off the HUD website at a discounted price,” Barnes said “It took us about 18 months to obtain that status.” During periods where construction prices are high, rehabilitating homes is often the best method for providing affordable housing.

Jericho Road continues to uphold their commitment to community engagement. Over the past 15 years, a number of programs were formed that encourages healthy, local-level growth throughout the neighborhoods they serve. Jericho Road has assisted in the formation of neighborhood associations, works with neighbors to reduce blight, and publishes neighborhood resource and program guides.

Jericho Road helps residents repair their homes through their Owner Occupied Rehab program. They also hold “Bling Your Block” days where community members and volunteers gather to participate in home beautification projects.

A healthy living program was formed to help combat the issues associated with lack of access to healthy foods. In Central City, a community garden was established, a fruit tree orchard was planted, and healthy cooking lessons were offered.

The Central Circle program offers a method for all stakeholders in Central City (residents, developers, government officials, non-profit organizations, and neighborhood groups, schools, churches, and businesses) to engage in dialogue. The meetings provide for an exchange of ideas, mobilize resources, and to generate calls of action to develop a healthy, living, workable neighborhood.

Jericho Road provides the knowledge and skills to assist people in purchasing a home. They also provide the same care through post-home purchase workshops to provide the knowledge and skills to help people thrive in homeownership. “We take for granted that everyone knows all that is entailed in homeownership,” said Barnes. “When you rent a home, you just call the landlord to make repairs. When you own a home, it’s on you. We bring in experts and programming that is relevant to new homeowners. For example, we have workshops on getting you’re A/C ready for summer, on termite control, and weatherization in the wintertime. We have workshops on how to avoid foreclosures.”

In 2019, before the acquisition of Project Homecoming, Jericho Road brought in financial consultants to conduct a feasibility study. It was determined they could save 25% in overall costs by having their own in-house construction crew. The goal is to have three in-house crews. Two crews will build Jericho Road projects. The third will be available to loan out to other non-profits who need reliable construction contractors. They can also provide construction crews to community members who need low costs construction for repairs and renovation.

Jericho Road has started a workforce development program that has trained 21 people in the construction industry. They partner with Delgado Community College and HUD to provide the training. They are in year two of a three-year program. The next step is to train the crew members to become master plasterers and ironworkers. “If in New Orleans you can become a master plasterer, you can write your own ticket,” said Barnes.

Jericho Road’s work is fundamental in helping to close the racial wealth divide. “The number one way to build assets, to build wealth in this country through real estate. Owning your own home is the basis for economic uplift in America,” said Barnes. “There is a huge racial wealth divide when it comes to that. We don’t only sell houses to minorities but the overwhelming majority of our buyers are single African American mothers. That demographic is a demographic that has subsisted in lower economic income brackets forever because of the nature of having to take care of kids.”

In 2014, Jericho Road started working with Prosperity Now taking part in a pilot program called “Bridging the Racial Wealth Divide.” Since 1979, Prosperity Now has helped make it possible for millions of low- and moderate-income families and people of color to achieve financial security, stability, and, ultimately, prosperity. Collaborating with non-profits, like Jericho Road, is what makes their work possible.

Jericho Road has become a leader among other nonprofit affordable housing organizations in the State of Louisiana. Jericho Road has received state certification as a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) from the Louisiana Housing Corporation. Barnes stated, “We are asked to partner with smaller, less experienced CHDOs on projects so they can learn.”

Barnes stated, “Only a handful of affordable housing and building nonprofits that started after Hurricane Katrina are still in operation. Jericho Road has survived and is thriving. This is a testament to all of the dedication of the Episcopal Church, our staff, and our board.”

Jericho Road has internship programs in community engagement, green space management, housing sustainability, and urban planning. It is not uncommon for the former interns to move elsewhere in the country taking with them the skills and practices obtained through their time at Jericho Road. “We are making a lasting impact not just on the City of New Orleans but moving outward,” said Barnes. “It is much farther than just about the individuals we have helped buy a home.”

Navigating Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jericho Road had to make the abrupt change to an all-virtual format for their programs. “So much of our work is front-facing we were concerned about the transition to a virtual format,” Barnes said. “We were pleasantly surprised that we had more participation in our virtual workshops and virtual financial coaching than we did previously. Accessibility has not been an issue.”

Jericho Road received a grant through the United Thank Offering to upgrade the technology to meet the challenges of staff teleworking from home and providing their programs virtually. They were able to upgrade computers and subscribe to Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Some of their community engagement programs, like the community garden and orchard, are on a temporary break. Others lent itself well to a more creative virtual format.

Bling Your Block is coming back this year as Bling Your Block in a Box. Homeowners received all the materials and tools they needed for projects in a box delivered to their homes. Instructional sessions will be offered via Zoom. All the individual households will work on their houses on the same day. “This was one of the things that people just loved,” said Barnes. “We try to focus on doing four of these per year. We didn’t do any last year.”

The rise in costs of construction materials has been an issue this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, trade wars, and landfalling hurricanes. “We have been doing more renovations. Our workforce development construction crew does the renovation and it looks like a new house. That allows us to provide affordable housing during these times when the prices are at an elevated level,” said Barnes.

Jericho Road is working closely with their homeowners, especially those who work in the hospitality sector, who may be adversely affected post-pandemic. “We did an initial survey of everyone to see where they were and if they were taking advantage of all the forbearance and deferment and loan modification products out there,” said Barnes. “We are doing a follow up survey now.”

Celebrating Jericho Road’s 15th Anniversary

In the fall of 2021, Jericho Road will have a public celebration of their 15th anniversary. More information will be announced soon.

“Jericho Road is highly identified with the Episcopal community,” said Barnes. “It never fails, when I am out in the community talking about Jericho Road, somebody comes up to me and tells me they are Episcopalian. It elicits a pride of ownership. My church, we did this. We are doing this. It is a testament to Bishop Jenkins, Dean duPlantier, and Abigal Nelson and to all the people who said we can do this.”