Dig Baton Rouge

Unwelcome Mat

By Leslie D. Rose

Challenged by a pending ruling from the Louisiana Supreme Court, property owner Steve Myers advertised in hopes of filling any rental void left by the Court’s definition of family housing. And while advertising seems logical, it’s what’s written on the sign that’s got some property owners in one Baton Rouge neighborhood becoming vandals.

In March, Myers posted signs boasting “Section 8 Welcome” on his property in the posh Southdowns neighborhood. Shortly after being posted, they were all vandalized, torn or stolen.

Myers said he is sure the reaction stems from a level of bigotry and ignorance towards Section 8.

Reading Between the Lines

Section 8 is a federal assistance program to help low-income people pay rent. People with Section 8 vouchers find their own housing and pay a percentage of their income and Section 8 pays the landlord the difference. Individuals who receive assistance from this federal program range from the elderly and retired to disabled and working poor. In East Baton Rouge Parish, there are about 3,800 approved Section 8 housing vouchers with a waiting list of 10,000.

Myers began accepting the voucher last year and has since rented one of his Broadmoor area homes through the program. He said that Section 8 is a good market to fill in his properties as he waits for the Court’s ruling.

“I rent to whoever can pay the rent, I don’t discriminate at all,” Myers said. “Baton Rouge has a definition of family that was implemented in 1954, after Brown v. Board of Education, and most people think it was pretty clear that it was intended to keep minorities out of these all white neighborhoods.”

President and CEO of Dialogue on Race Maxine Crump agreed that it is likely a list of assumptions that people have about the voucher program.

“What evidence do [Southdowns residents] have that these assumptions will play out?” Crump questioned. “If they don’t accept [Section 8] in their neighborhood, where would they suggest these people live? And what evidence do they have that if all concentrated in one area, that that area would have quality resources, and if they wouldn’t have enough resources in that area, what are they to do?

“So they should really ask themselves those questions, and I bet you, none of them have done that.”

With Myers’s family housing initiative and pending court judgment in mind, Crump held tight to her belief that the issue is merely reactionary.

“I don’t think it’s okay to spew out a set of assumptions with nothing to back it and walk away from it and leave other people to figure it out,” Crump said. “No one is referring to these people as individuals. I think we lost community in this whole conversation. If it’s about race and income, they need to be forthcoming about that.”

Myers is steadfast in his belief that it is racism and classism that has targeted him.

“You can read between the lines – it’s not a secret to anyone – they ought to just come out and say it,” Myers said. “The Southdowns people obviously think a landlord can discriminate against people of lesser means, minorities, [and] non-traditional families. I think the bigotry is pretty obvious, but it doesn’t concern me because I’m going to do what’s allowable under the law.”

Enemy of Civilization

Myers pointed out that just because the signs were placed on his Southdowns property doesn’t mean that particular house will be occupied by a Section 8 recipient. He owns property throughout Baton Rouge and prints generic leasing signs. When an interested person responds to the advertisement, Myers sends his full listing of available homes. He also said he is sure to always have face-to-face interaction with residents surrounding his properties, so he is not concerned that any tenants will be side-eyed by neighbors due to his “Section 8 Welcome” advertising.

“We have never had any problems with what I call ‘immediate neighbors,’” Myers said. “I know who they are next to all of my properties. It’s just one guy a block away that’s causing the problems.”

Myers said that one guy is Paul Naquin, a vocal landowner and member of the Southside Civic Association, the semi-governing board over the Southdowns neighborhood. Naquin assisted the city-parish in filing the lawsuits against Myers that have led to the Louisiana Supreme Court case. Myers has in the past referred to the Association as a hate group based on what he called vigilante tactics to maintain pristine standards of the neighborhood. The Association has removed itself from some of Naquin’s more offensive comments, including an interview Naquin had done with Jim Engster on WRFK in which he stated he did not want to live next to poor people because they are more likely to commit crimes.

“The reality is, I just want to be left alone and I want my tenants to be left alone,” Myers said. “I don’t want [Naquin] hiding in the bushes taking pictures of them trying to prove that I’m in violation of some 60-year-old law.”

The issue between Naquin and Myers has made the news several times. Myers said he has been reading the comments section of the articles and enjoyed one where he was referred to as an “enemy of civilization.”

“You’re an enemy of civilization because you have the compassion to take less money in rent from a person of lesser means who wants to live in a good neighborhood,” Myers questioned. “I don’t understand the kind of hate coming out of those people.”

The 8 Debate

Older Baton Rouge resident Elaine Doyle grew up in the Southdowns neighboring area of Valley Park. She said Southdowns has always been a predominately white and middle class neighborhood. Doyle, who is an African-American, purchased her current home in the nearby Concord area in 1977 and experienced bigotry that she believes is similar to the Southdowns issue.

“When my dad poured the foundation, the guy next door was a veterinary professor at LSU,” she recalled. “He came over and told my daddy that the neighbors wanted to make sure that the house was up to standard and that good people would want to live there.”

Doyle’s father reassured the professor of his credibility as a father helping his daughter in her new home, but before long, Doyle saw signs of her own.

“He put his house up for sale,” she said, “because we were black.”

Residential segregation dates back as far as slavery in the United States. While no longer legal, housing patterns show persistent segregation for certain races and income groups. And even having been a victim of it herself, Doyle admits to moving from her first home in the Fairfields neighborhood when it became crime ridden within a few months of its transition from mostly white to mostly black inhabitants.

And Doyle said she would move again, immediately, if a “Section 8 Welcome” sign was posted in her neighborhood.

“I think the Southdowns residents are worried about crime,” Doyle said. “Even myself now, I have an investment here and this area I live in is not bad and I don’t want them [Section 8 recipients] to become my neighbors, I’m just being honest. I would put a [sale] sign on my house quick, because at my age, I don’t want to be bothered with foolishness.”

Southdowns home and property owner Dan Cuendet would agree that his property is an investment for which he would allow no foolishness to ruin. But he refuted that he is upset about Myers’s rental signs at all, and certainly not because of bigotry. Cuendet’s main issue is maintenance – he has taken issue with multiple parked cars blocking passage through the narrow streets and an eye-sore decoration of a parking cone and owl sitting atop the roof of one home. He said he does not care who rents property in the neighborhood as long as the tenant and land owner maintain a high standard of upkeep and behavior.

“My number one concern is property management in this area,” Cuendet said. “Doesn’t matter where you get the money from, doesn’t matter who you rent to – it’s all about how you manage it.”

Myers, however, insisted that he and his tenants both care deeply for his properties.

“I maintain my property to higher standards than other property owners do,” Myers said. “Southdowns needs to make it clear who they want to discriminate against and not speak in code.”

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