READ: How NOLA’s Housing Crisis Caught Up to Big Freedia

By Sameer Rao Aug 26, 2016

The New Orleans Advocate reported yesterday (August 25) that Big Freedia, the queer Black artist and reality TV star near-synonymous with the Crescent City’s bounce music scene, must serve three years probation and pay a $35,000 fine for theft of Section 8 vouchers. The crime, to which she pleaded guilty in March, could have landed her in jail for up to 10 years. A new Pitchfork piece argues that Freedia’s crime and sentence stemmed from the instability artists must endure given the city’s housing crisis.

Writer Alison Fensterstock breaks down the crime and crisis as follows:

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, or Section 8, subsidizes renters in need by paying a portion of fair-market rent to a private landlord. The income cap for eligibility and the amount of the subsidy varies based on the recipient’s income and the size of the household. Between the beginning of 2010 and the end of 2014, when Big Freedia received about $600 per month from the Housing Authority of New Orleans [HANO] (for a grand total around $35,000), the rapper should not have been earning more than $21,700 per year. According to court documents, a team of [Department of Housing and Urban Development] and HANO investigators, as well as a forensic accountant, proved that this had not been the case.

$35,000 is a lot of money, difficult to see as entirely an oversight. But some with knowledge of the program, from inside and out, say it can be a byzantine challenge to navigate. And the stakes are high, both for New Orleans residents facing diminished availability of subsidized housing, as well as rent and home prices that have risen much faster than wages since Katrina—and, arguably, for the city’s tourism, which leans heavily on musicians who carry the torch for New Orleans’ storied cultural heritage.

The article goes on to explain how Freedia’s quick rise to fame, after years of hustling in a cash-based economy (not unusual for musicians), may have lead to the oversight in payment. Freedia, who was ordered in July to live in a halfway house after failing court-ordered drug tests, pleaded guilty in an environment where the post-Katrina recovery exacerbated communication difficulties over Section 8 viability:

Caity Bower, a Section 8 landlord in New Orleans, said that the taxed Section 8 system, "was one of the most disorganized bureaucratic processes, with some of the most confusing paperwork. It took about two weeks to even find out how to become a landlord. I can only imagine how arduous and complicated it is for someone trying to receive benefits—it’s very difficult to get any answers."

After helping tenants in her four Section 8 apartments through the process, Bower said, "I could also attest that to someone with variable monthly income, it would be really easy for there to be miscommunication about the amount of money made. Some of the terminology that was used, I didn’t even understand what it said."

Read the full piece here.