NEW ORLEANS—Five years after Hurricane Katrina, Providence Community Housing has emerged as one of the most active affordable housing developers in the Gulf Coast.

That's a big feat for a group conceived by several nonprofits in the months after the levees broke.

“It wasn't about apartment construction or apartment management,” says James Kelly, president and CEO of the recently established group. “These were faith-based organizations with the goal of bringing home 20,000 people.”

Kelly also has served as CEO of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New Orleans since 2002.

Providence is just one of several new names making a stand in the region. The rebuilding is also bringing a new wave of affordable housing that's safer, greener, and more diverse to the Gulf Coast.

Before Katrina, a number of the local churches had done some small-scale construction through their community development affiliates, producing a modest number of homes a year.

Following the hurricane, church leaders knew that was not nearly enough and launched Providence, which has since built or renovated 1,227 homes, including 720 affordable apartments. Another 264 homes and apartments were under development in July, bringing its total development activity to about $185 million.

One of Providence's strategies has been to team with organizations that can bring their affordable housing experience and resources to the table, including NeighborWorks America and Enterprise Community Partners.

Another strategy has been to work on several different fronts, including assisting 18 elderly homeowners repair and paint their homes each month. While it sounds like a small number, it adds up to more than 200 houses each year.

The nonprofit is also involved in the redevelopment of the big Lafitte public housing site, where it will build 517 new homes and hundreds more in the surrounding community.

St. Bakhita rises

One of Providence's early accomplishments is the 100-unit St. Bakhita Apartments in Jefferson Parish, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Built in partnership with CLB Porter, LLC, the new community replaces 200 blighted and burned-out units that had been on the site.

Kelly calls it “the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

Financing for the $21 million development included $17 million in low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) equity from Enterprise and a $12.5 million construction loan from Regions Bank.

“St. Bakhita is a great example of the high-quality housing that has been built in this region with Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone tax credits,” says Michelle Whetten, Enterprise vice president and impact market leader in the Gulf Coast. “The stormresistant property provides an energy-efficient, healthy living environment using cost-effective green building practices.”

The development, which was completed last year, features passive solar heating, recycled materials, and Energy Star appliances.

Others are also using the rebuilding to bring new green projects to the area. Global Green USA is working on several showcase sustainable developments in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

“We certainly see a stronger emphasis on green and energy efficiency that didn't exist before the storm,” says Matt Petersen, Global Green president and CEO.

New developments emerge

Several other new firms also have stepped forward, including the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership. The organization recently marked 1,200 units completed or under construction, with another 330 in the pipeline, says President Kathy Laborde.

Like Providence, it is tackling both single- family and multifamily projects.

Renaissance Neighborhood Development Corp., a subsidiary of Volunteers of America (VOA), also emerged in 2006. The national organization has had a long history in New Orleans, with about 1,000 units, many of which were damaged in the hurricane.

As VOA and Renaissance rebuild, they made a key decision early on to support existing neighborhood development in areas close to jobs and commercial centers, says Victor Smeltz, Renaissance executive director.

Their strategy has been to select sites in areas where you can see community development happening and to complement those activities.

An example is VOA's Terraces on Tulane, a new seniors housing complex. It replaces a property that was damaged in the hurricane. The group could have stayed and rebuilt in the same location, but that neighborhood remained largely abandoned and residents would have had few services. Instead, VOA relocated its seniors development to Mid-City, where lots of rebuilding is taking place.

Much of the Mid-City rebirth can be traced to The Domain Cos., which has completed three celebrated mixed-income developments totaling 500 units. About 40 percent of those apartments are affordable.

The principals of the New York firm, Matt Schwartz and Chris Papamichael, attended Tulane University and were eyeing opportunities in the Crescent City prior to Katrina.

“The challenges we faced there included a general lack of resources in the market relative to what we would have been able to find in other areas to do the type of mixed-income, mixed-used development that we do,” says Schwartz.

Following the storms, there was new demand for housing and recovery funds that helped make projects feasible. Plus, the partners felt that the local economy would eventually come back stronger than before. Domain zeroed in on the Tulane Corridor, which is targeted with new hospitals and bioscience businesses that will bring jobs and renters to the neighborhood.

For Domain and other affordable housing developers, the biggest financing tools have been GO Zone credits and Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs).

Few developers know the region as well as Pres Kabacoff, CEO and cochair of the board of directors at HRI Properties in New Orleans. A native of the city, he has done a number of prominent adaptive-reuse and other projects throughout the region. HRI has been involved in about 10 projects since 2005, including the Bywater Art Lofts, a historic renovation of a garment factory into affordable apartments for artists, and River Garden, a mixed-income development that has transformed the St. Thomas public housing site.

Kabacoff agrees that one of the biggest changes has been the growth in mixed-income properties. New policies and funding sources, including the state LIHTC-CDBG “piggyback” program, have supported these deals.

“I've always believed that mixed-income housing is one of the best solutions, and it made it possible to do mixed-income housing with those funds,” says Kabacoff, who co-chaired Mayor Mitch Landrieu's housing task force as he transitioned into office this year.

The task force recommended focusing on neighborhoods on the cusp. The idea is to target limited housing resources first around lines of transportation, schools, and significant commercial centers in order to foster recovery.

In its April report, the group cites data showing that the greatest housing need over the next several years will be from an estimated 25,000 households earning less than 50 percent of the area median income but spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Other strategies

In Mississippi, Realtex Development Corp. has completed nine developments, including 872 replacement units and the rehabilitation of 75 seniors housing units for more than $129.5 million in development activity.

LIHTCs and CDBG funds were used in eight of the projects. PNC Real Estate was involved in five of the deals, and SunAmerica Affordable Housing Partners funded three. The rehab project was fi- nanced with CDBG money and a conventional loan.

The Texas-based company has focused on three coastal counties, bringing the experience and product it has utilized in the coastal areas of its home state, says President Rick Deyoe.

Realtex's other strategy has been to partner with the Mississippi Regional Housing Authority VIII, which lost a large number of units in the storm.

Herman & Kittle Properties, Inc., an Indianapolis-based developer that's worked mostly in the Midwest, has completed two deals in Louisiana—one in Baton Rouge and another in Slidell. Firm officials believe their 120-unit Canterbury House Apartments is one of the first, if not the first, LIHTC projects in Slidell. There are several in the surrounding area.

For any outside developer, a big challenge is earning the trust of the local community. Herman & Kittle went in with the idea that it was not going to do just one project, says President Jeff Kittle. That mind-set helped demonstrate the firm's commitment to the region.

With two projects done, the company is looking at building more housing in Louisiana and Texas.