It was reported this week that New Orleans hit a milestone: In 2016, for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that New Orleans suffered a deficit in terms of domestic migration. Put more simply, this means that more people moved out of the city to other parts of the United States than the reverse.
Meanwhile, another story reported that New Orleans hosted a record-breaking 10.45 million visitors in 2016, more than any year since before Hurricane Katrina. Those visitors also spent more than ever before – a whopping $7.41 billion dollars, to be precise.
These two stories dovetail with what I wrote a few weeks ago, that despite Mayor Landrieu’s public relations scheme designed to convince everyone that he’s worked some grand economic miracle New Orleans, the fact is that our fair city is an “economic basket case.” It should surprise no one that people are beginning to jump ship.
Tourism, unfortunately, is a bad way of paying the bills. It is low-hanging fruit in terms of generating economic activity, but is doesn’t create enough good-paying jobs to keep pace with a rising cost-of-living. Those cost-of-living increases, it should be noted, have actually been abetted by local policies that elevate stringent zoning and other insular regulation above economic growth.
We know that solutions exist. New Orleanians needs a more diversified economy, and we need to bolster existing industries (not just the sexy ones) that generate high-wage positions. More than that, we need a mayor who cares.
Alas, instead of dealing with these obvious economic problems, city government is focused on distractions. Mayor Landrieu has been consumed with a wide variety of needless crusades, including the following noteworthy examples:
- An abortive attempt to pass a new, stringent noise ordinance to clamp down on crowded clubs and street music.
- The passing of new gun laws requiring the reporting of stolen firearms and barring possession of firearms on NORDC properties, laws that are unenforceable under state preemption law.
- The installation of new, expensive streetcar lines that service limited areas and primarily benefit tourists (in contrast to bus service, has not been fully restored since Hurricane Katrina).
- The so-called “monuments controversy” driven by Mayor Landrieu’s singular desire to purge select monuments to Confederate figures.
- The French Quarter security plan, including a scheme to shut off Bourbon Street to vehicular traffic and keep patrons inside bars.
- Pursuing creative revenue schemes, like traffic cameras and taxing the “air rights” of balconies that carry over public sidewalks.
A more comprehensive list could be made, but the point is made. Landrieu has not lacked the opportunity to pursue programs and policies that would provide a more solid footing for the New Orleans economy. Rather, he simply seems to lack the inclination.
Mayor Landrieu’s entire legacy seems to be that of the unapologetic gentrifier – a mayor who sees and understands the problems of crushing poverty, but views the solution in terms of forcing poor residents out and attracting wealthier ones. He doesn’t want to generate wealth among the existing residents of this city. That’s too hard. Instead, he wants to import it.
There is some silver lining to all of this. We’re falling, but we haven’t hit rock bottom. New Orleans is still growing slightly due to international migration and domestic births. To wit, Orleans Parish grew to 391,495 residents as of July 2016, compared to 389,738 the previous year.
However, the deficit of domestic migration should be regarded as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. It’s the first unequivocal sign that something is wrong. Despite Mayor Landrieu’s ridiculous PR, our economic situation is dire and getting worse.
Landrieu’s plan has failed. Even if it were desirable to replace existing residents with more well-heeled outsiders, we aren’t accomplishing that. Instead, we’ve been left with a population that increasingly can’t afford to live here and is increasingly deciding to leave. As Landrieu’s administration winds to a close, it will leave his successor a grand debacle to contend with.
If trends continue, New Orleans will begin shrinking again, as it was before Hurricane Katrina. Our next mayor needs to change direction, because that’s the next milestone on our present road.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.