When Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. announced that they were partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build Musicians' Village in the Upper Ninth Ward, the concept immediately generated a worldwide buzz among volunteers and philanthropists -- and high hopes among low-income musicians and non-musicians alike in New Orleans. What many here and elsewhere might not have understood, say Connick and Marsalis, is that Musicians' Village is not, and never was intended to be, a "giveaway" program for musicians.
Marsalis, in fact, bristles at the notion that because the project bears the name "Musicians' Village," all musicians should "simply get a key" to a new house.
"That will not happen," he says.
What can happen, though, and what continues to happen, say both men, is that musicians who want to qualify for interest-free loans from Habitat for a home in the village can get help resolving their credit problems and other issues that might stand in the way.
But they have to work at it.
That's not a rule set down by Connick and Marsalis, but by Habitat. The organization long ago adopted a bedrock principle that requires its low-income homebuyers to qualify for Habitat's 20-year, interest-free loans (which means they must have a clean credit record) and to invest "sweat equity" in lieu of a down payment. It's part of what Habitat sees as a larger, life-changing approach that is required of disadvantaged persons seeking to enter the economic mainstream.
"It's like that old story about giving somebody fish instead of giving them a fishing pole," says Marsalis. "We have a lot of fish-givers in the city, and I think that whole system needs to be uprooted. Homeownership is a crucial step towards that. ... If I have anything to do with it, the days of giving the starving musician a fish are over. Katrina has washed that away."
Moreover, as a federally qualified lender, Habitat cannot discriminate in favor of musicians over other applicants, nor can it use its funds to simply erase musicians' debts. It can and does, however, refer applicants with credit problems to volunteer professionals who will help them clean up credit problems and then qualify for a Habitat home.
Because some musicians might have misconceptions about the program, Connick and Marsalis returned home last week to encourage them not to give up on the dream of a home if they don't qualify right away for one of the 70 homes that ultimately will comprise Musicians' Village. The project also will include 10 duplex-style apartments for elderly musicians and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music as a gathering place for musicians and non-musicians in the new neighborhood.
Both men acknowledge that musicians may have seen or heard conflicting reports about the process that all applicants -- musician and non-musician alike -- must go through to get a home in the village. In particular, they want to dispel the notion that musician applicants have been "flat-out turned down."
"What we want to say is that Habitat isn't a giveaway program," says Connick. "It's not gonna see an applicant and give him a set of keys on the first exchange. It's going to be a process that people have to go through. And everybody is going to have to go through a different process, depending on that individual's situation.
"What really needs to be established is that there is help for folks applying for these homes. It's not like a lease or rental situation. It's all about owning a home, which is a whole different level of responsibility and pride. Perhaps that's intimidating to some people, but once they apply and read the information and heed the phone calls and advice that's available to them, they'll realize that it's not as complicated as it might seem."
Marsalis says he hopes the experience of buying and owning a home will forever end a long-standing local tradition among musicians of living on the financial brink -- a lifestyle that he hates to see so many musicians accepting.
"Musicians, to me, are metaphoric for a lot of stuff that goes on in this city," he says. "There needs to be a lot of change all over the city. The mentality has to change. Musicians have to understand that if you want to live a cash-and-carry existence and hide in the system, the system allows for that. We've all done it -- get paid in cash -- I personally remember times when I was a younger man, 25 or 30 years ago, if you got paid in cash you just put it in your pocket. But I didn't own a home. I didn't have a family. I didn't have a job. I didn't have an extended career. The system allowed me to do that. But the moment you own a home, you are now in the system ... and if you don't understand that there has to be a change in mentality, you won't own the home very long.
"There is now an opportunity to have homeownership for a mortgage that's less than rent is in New Orleans right now. In exchange for that, you have to make a maximum effort."
Habitat, as a lender, requires applicants to meet minimum creditworthiness standards. While this has created problems for some musicians because they operate on a cash basis, Habitat has "bent over backwards," says Connick, by letting musicians prove their incomes by using gig calendars in lieu of W-2s and 1099s.
"The credit issue facing New Orleans musicians is not unique," says Marsalis. "Almost all low-income applicants have bad credit. But Habitat has over 25 years' experience working with this issue, and we trust them in this matter. ... Many of these issues regarding musicians are small and not insurmountable with the proper diligence."
To that end, Connick and Marsalis have hired Jackie Harris, former director of the New Orleans Music and Entertainment Commission, to work with applicants who initially failed to qualify for a loan but who want to improve their credit scores and reapply.
"One of the musicians in the village, the first time he applied his debt was so bad, he got a letter suggesting debt counseling," Marsalis says. "He went to debt counseling, and six months later he reapplied and got a place. That's the kind of effort, that's what we're here for -- to help musicians who want to help themselves."
Thus far, 34 homes in Musicians Village have been assigned to individual homebuyers, 14 of whom are musicians -- a ratio that pleases both founders. In addition, another 14 musicians are working on Habitat's required "sweat equity" portion of the application process, and a total of 120 musicians are "in the application pipeline." Connick and Marsalis want to encourage musicians to keep at it, because Habitat plans to build 1,500 homes citywide in the next five years -- including more than 100 additional homes in the vicinity of Musicians' Village.
"When I was growing up and hanging out with older musicians, they knew I wanted it so badly," says Connick. "I would just go around them, and the same with Branford. We got schooled. It's the same thing with going through the process with Musicians' Village. Just like you wanted to learn the music, you gotta really want this house."
"They cannot give up," Marsalis adds. "Every letter from Habitat has phone numbers offering help. Call the numbers. I know how frustrating it can be. You feel like you're on a dead-end street. I do know how that feels. ... But there's phone numbers on those sheets. If your credit's not right, there are other people who are already in the village who could tell them their credit wasn't right, but they didn't give up. They don't have to go it alone. Call the numbers. The people there will direct you. They will put you on track so that you can come back and get it together."
Musicians who are interested in getting information about help with credit or other issues can contact Harris at 670-9018.
- Cheryl Gerber
"Musicians, to me, are metaphoric for a lot of stuff that goes on in this city. There needs to be a lot of change all over the city. The mentality has to change."
- Cheryl Gerber
- Habitat for Humanity volunteers from Maryland work on houses in Musicians' Village. Locals who qualify for one of the houses in the village also must work on structures there, investing "sweat equity" instead of a down payment.