This Innovative Nonprofit Is Turning Old Properties into Affordable Housing Across Louisiana

February 15, 2019

More than a dozen years after it was founded to replace workforce rental housing that was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, the nonprofit Renaissance Neighborhood Development Corp. continues to develop affordable housing across the state.

A subsidiary of the highly regarded Volunteers of America, the RNDC has spearheaded a variety of innovative projects, including transforming a historic elementary school building in Houma into a mixed-income development with affordable senior housing and developing rent-to-own cottages in Covington designed as workforce housing for veterans.

“We try to focus on communities where there is a need,” says RNDC Executive Director Victor Smeltz.

Smeltz will share how the organization has developed inclusive, community-driven strategies to overcome barriers for housing preservation during the state’s first all-inclusive housing conference, Connections, in Baton Rouge in April.

The event, which is being held by the Louisiana Housing Corporation, will bring together 400 housing professionals for a unique opportunity to connect with housing experts and advocates from across the state to solve the pressing housing issues that Louisiana faces.

Here’s a peek at some of the work the RNDC is doing around the state.

Making an impact

Founded in 2006, the RNDC is a collaboration between Volunteers of America National Services and Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans. The RNDC was formed specifically to replace workforce rental housing that was destroyed during Katrina.

The RNDC has focused on emerging neighborhoods to create developments that are close to employment opportunities, that have good access to basic commercial services and that are well-served by public transportation. It is committed to serving working households at all income levels in key service sectors, such as hospitality, education, medical, police, fire, office and retail.

The organization, which branched out to all of Louisiana in 2012, has completed about 1,000 units around the state.

“We believe each project has its own opportunity to create a special living experience not found in the typical market for affordable or even market-rate housing,” Smeltz says.

Developing Creative Approaches

The RNDC relies on a variety of funding mechanisms for its developments, but all are underpinned by the low-income housing tax credit, which provides a strong incentive for the development of affordable rental housing through a dollar-for-dollar reduction to an investor’s federal tax liability. The program is facilitated in the state by the Louisiana Housing Corporation.

Last year the RNDC completed the redevelopment of Academy Place, a one-acre site in a walkable mixed-use neighborhood adjacent to downtown Houma.

The development includes 47 apartments in a fully restored historic 1931 former Houma Elementary school building, with an additional 56 apartments in a new three-story complementary building on the site. The development brings a total of 103 much-needed mixed-income senior apartments to the market.

“Like most developers we’re using stirring together four or five funding sources to make these projects work,” Smeltz says.

Also completed in 2017 were The Cottages at Mile Branch in Covington, with 25 new single-family homes on individual lots within an existing landscaped and well-maintained neighborhood.

The houses are part of a lease-to-own program and designed as workforce housing with a preference for veterans. After 15 years the rentals will convert to for-sale properties, with the intent that the existing residents will be able to purchase the home they’ve been renting.

“Those have been very popular because they are three-bedroom cottages with front porches, front yards, and built around a central park,” Smeltz says. “The families love them.”

One of the organization's largest projects was a $21 million substantial rehabilitation of a property damaged during Katrina. The property was redeveloped into the Elysian Courtyards of Gentilly, a 150-unit workforce development located across from Dillard University. The mixed-income property provides apartments across a variety of income levels.

Financing for the project included low-income housing tax credits, Community Development Block Grant funds from Louisiana’s Office of Community Development, Tax Credit Assistance Program funds, FEMA dollars and private foundation support.

“We overcame challenges on that project,” says Smeltz, who will explain how the RNDC navigated those obstacles during a panel at the Connections.

With the need for affordable housing on the rise, developers must weave together funding sources, employ state and municipal policy tools, and collaborate with stakeholders. The RNDC has managed to effectively navigate all of these factors to make a real impact on Louisiana’s housing landscape.

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