Sour Note
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Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

No playing favorites

Earlier this year, Habitat's response was fairly rigid. The organization cannot play favorites, said the spokeswoman, Tusa, because according to Fair Housing law, all applicants must be equal. In the past six months, however, Habitat has made more musician-specific efforts.

"We've had a lot of success in fundraising because of the musician angle," said Andy Lee, Habitat board vice president. "So we know that we have a responsibility to not only resettle displaced families but also displaced musicians."

In other words, Habitat is fulfilling "something of a cultural mission," Lee said.

Fulfilling that mission is just not a nice idea, it's mandatory, according to those concerned over the high rejection rate for musicians. "If Habitat for Humanity is calling it Musicians Village, they should make sure that the village houses musicians," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University and an expert on nonprofit management. Depending on the challenges faced, the new mission may require some adjustments, he said.

"If Habitat for Humanity needs to change their practices to make this happen through debt relief and other means, it should do so. Otherwise it is false advertising and the kind of error in judgment that affects public trust in charities."

Tusa said that Habitat hasn't wavered on its credit policies, but it is letting musicians prove their income with gig calendars instead of the conventional W-2 and 1099 forms.

Legal volunteers

Lee, a lawyer with Jones Walker, said that "Habitat has stepped up to the plate" by forming coalitions and finding resources. Lee has tried to help musicians clean up their credit by negotiating with creditors. He's also recruited other lawyers for the effort, including the Entertainment Law Legal Assistance program, which is sponsored by Tulane University Law School, the Tipitina's Foundation and the Arts Council of New Orleans.

But the process is slow, said ELLA supervising attorney Ashlye Keaton, who said that her project has taken on about 20 cases so far. "I think that a couple of our cases have gotten through," she said.

Lee has also found the process slow-going, due partly to applicants' missed appointments and failure to complete paperwork. "I'm not a social worker," he said. "You start to think, 'If he really wants this, he'll call me.' "

One thing is clear, say both Lee and Tusa, Habitat will not be administering any debt-relief program for musicians. "To use funds dedicated to building houses for paying off debt would be improper," Lee said. "It would not be faithful to donors' intentions."

Branford Marsalis, phoning in from North Carolina, agrees that debt relief isn't the answer. But he said that the issue is complicated, because it means confronting the fact that musicians don't make much money in this city. "New Orleans musicians get the short shrift amidst the short shrift," he said. "It's why many of us leave, and it's why a lot of musicians are in debt."

Marsalis understands that musicians may need help dealing with tax forms and creditors. "I'm all for handholding, and if I could, I'd fly down there and do some of that," he said. "But I'd be firm—'I'll hold your hand, but when I'm through holding it, this paperwork needs to be done.' "

Personal outreach

Cherice Harrison-Nelson, counsel queen for the Mardi Gras Indian gang Guardians of the Flame, is one of the 14 musicians who have been assigned addresses in the Village.

But she spent the day after Christmas in bed, depressed. A Mardi Gras Indian who really wanted to get home was rejected for the Village, said Harrison-Nelson, who has been volunteering to help Habitat with grass-roots outreach to Indians and brass band musicians—"people who are close to the community, who help the community celebrate themselves."

Her sadness about her fellow Indian came from being brought up in a strong community that sticks together. "We know that we all sink or we all float. So we want everyone to be OK."

That stick-together attitude has spurred Harrison-Nelson to deliver applications to the Habitat office, to go through applications step by step, and to get phone numbers at a parade and then follow up with a phone call. But so far, despite her efforts, she is the only Indian in the Village.

If the nature of the music-industry finances is one reason for the dearth of musicians in Musicians Village, another is that the city's jazz artists and Indians often come from this city's poorest neighborhoods, where bad credit is common.

Creative bill-paying

"The credit-worthiness issue is big," she said. "I always say, 'Creative people are creative 24/7. They pay their bills creatively, too.' "

If the nature of music-industry finances is one reason for the dearth of musicians in Musicians Village, another is that the city's jazz artists and Indians often come from this city's poorest neighborhoods, where bad credit is common. A recent Brookings Institution report, "Credit Scores, Reports and Getting Ahead in America," found that, in general, Southerners are more likely to fall behind on payments than borrowers elsewhere in the United States.

Matt Fellowes, the report's author, compared credit scores across the country and found that "the South just lit up by its low average credit score." He also found that average credit scores were lower in areas with high concentrations of minorities.

Why? Fellowes said he doesn't know, but he speculates that it may be due to lower wages, higher expenses or the way businesses finance credit in this region.

Harrison-Nelson said that her outreach time is limited now that she's working in public schools again. She believes that Habitat wants to do the right thing, but that will take intense grass-roots efforts that might seem like baby-sitting or hand-holding to some people. That's necessary, she said, because "working for a community and working in a community are two different things."

She gives Habitat credit for addressing artists' need for housing. More recent efforts, such as Sweet Home New Orleans, began looking at housing needs because of Habitat's focus on the issue, she said.

Tragedy intervenes

Around the corner from Harrison-Nelson's future house, brass band musician Alfred Growe was doing carpentry work last week, putting in his Habitat for Humanity service hours. A trombonist with the Free Agents Brass Band and a field service rep for Cox Communications, he walked out the front door, dusty but happy, after being approved for a Musicians Village house. His first application had been denied, but he then worked through his credit problems.

That triumph, he said, was dampened by the fact that no other brass band musicians—no one from Rebirth, no one from New Birth—had made it into the Village, no one except his buddy Dinerral Shavers, snare drummer with the Hot 8 Brass Band.

Fans on the road often come up to band members and tell them that they donated to Habitat for Humanity, and are disappointed to learn that not everyone can get into the Village, Growe said. And many of the musicians who have been accepted, Growe said, are transplants from other places who do not play traditional New Orleans music.

Habitat could not release the names of the 14 accepted musicians because of privacy concerns. Tusa said that it's also been difficult to define who's a New Orleans musician and who's not. "If I play the flute at home, but I do PR for my job, I can call myself a musician," she said.

Growe got excited, talking about the future he envisioned in the Musicians Village—living next door to his friend Shavers, taking care of each other's kids, grilling out in their back yards together. He and Shavers had decided to do a fundraiser to help brass band musicians pay off their bad credit, Growe said.

That could help musicians they know like Glen David Andrews, who, with few gigs in post-Katrina New Orleans, has little hope of tackling his debts without assistance.

Robert Osinoff, a volunteer from Washington, D.C., who had spent the day cutting wood and pounding nails with Growe and Shavers, chimed in to support the fundraiser idea. Jazz fans like him, he said, would be willing to chip in money toward reasonable debt relief—if they knew it would put more musicians into the Village.

That night, Growe and Shavers called a bunch of bandmates and told them they were going to find ways to get them into the Village. It felt good, Growe said.

But less than a day later, Shavers lay dead at Broad and Dumaine streets, shot in the back of his head. Police have arrested 17-year-old in the killing, and say that he was aiming for Shavers' stepson. The two young men had feuded at school, according to the New Orleans Police Department.

"We were happy and joyous about being there," Growe said after word reached him. "Now it's just me there. There's a sense of loneliness."

Originally published on January 2, 2007, in The Times-Picayune. © 2007 The Times-Picayune, L.L.C. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com.