Three months ago, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons and her husband, John “Kid” Simmons, thought they had dodged a bullet, avoiding a rent increase that would have forced them to move from their below-market rate apartment in the historic Pythian Building.
Now, they’re under threat again. The landlord, ERG Enterprises, owned by Erik George, is not renewing their lease but will, instead, let them stay in the $750 unit on a month-to-month basis. Though the Simmonses are not being evicted or having to pay more, they could be at any time without the protection of a long-term agreement. That troubles the octogenarian couple.
“John is very worried,” Smith-Simmons said. “I am, too. But my attitude is, I’m 80 and I can’t let stuff like this stress me out. Whatever happens happens.”
The uncertainty facing the Pythian’s 80 residential tenants mirrors the uncertainty over the building’s ground-floor food hall, the Pythian Market. The market closed at the end of 2022, after its operator was evicted for failing to pay back rent. At the time, ERG said it hoped to reopen the venue by Mardi Gras under new management. But that didn’t happen, and some of the former vendors have since moved to new locations.
ERG, in a statement Tuesday, vowed to protect the below-market apartments such as the one occupied by Smith-Simmons and her husband, and to figure out a new sustainable plan for the building.
“As we work to chart the path forward for the Pythian, we are committed to finding a way to honor the affordable housing vision for the property,” the statement said. “We’ve reached out to the city and other stakeholders to assist our efforts to achieve long-term affordability.”
Ambitious and complicated
The 115-year-old Pythian Building, at 234 Loyola Ave. in the Central Business District, underwent an ambitious, $46 million redevelopment that opened in 2016. The project involved public financing, private investors, a nonprofit developer and plans for office tenants, a food hall and large entertainment space.
The building also has 80 apartments, 25 of which were set aside as rent-adjusted affordable units for low- and middle-income tenants. The Simmonses were among those tenants and, indeed, had been recruited to the building in 2017, after being evicted from their rent-adjusted apartment in the American Can Co. building when it was sold to a new owner.
A lot would happen at the building over the next several years. The Pythian’s investors became embroiled in a series of lawsuits over control of the building, which resulted in ERG becoming the sole owner last fall. A contract to lock in the rent-adjusted units was never signed. Along the way, the pandemic closed the food hall and its second-floor entertainment venue. Then interest rates, insurance and inflation all made a difficult investment property all the more challenging.
In December, the property manager slipped a note under the Simmonses’ door, saying the building’s owner would no longer offer “income-based units” and that the rent of their one-bedroom unit would almost double, to $1,535, when their lease expires March 31.
The Simmonses were shocked. After news media scrutiny called attention to their plight, the couple was told the note had been a mistake. So when they went to renew their lease earlier this month, they weren’t worried.
“But when we got to see the property manager, he said they were no longer signing annual leases but only doing month to month,” Dodie Smith-Simmons said. “When I asked why, he said the owner was trying to wrap his head around the finances of this building.”
In its statement, ERG indicates it will honor the rent-adjusted units. The statement also alludes to City Hall, which has not provided any low-income housing subsidies to the building.
Housing NOLA Executive Director Andreanecia Morris said she is trying to meet with ERG to see what can be done to protect the rent-adjusted apartments.
“We’re still hopeful that he intends to honor the plans he was a part of, even though the partners failed to put the proper regulatory documents in place,” Morris said.
Food hall fad
Meanwhile, the future of the Pythian Market looks increasingly uncertain, as some tenants have already relocated. Indian food vendor LUFU NOLA has found a new location in the 300 block of St. Charles Avenue and is opening its own restaurant there later this spring, owner Sarthak Samantaraya said.
South American street food vendor LaCocinita has been operating in New Orleans out of a food truck, and owner Rachel Angulo is juggling brick-and-mortar locations out of state. As for returning to the Pythian, she said, no decision has been made.
Food halls have proven to be a difficult model since making a splash in cities across the United States more than a decade ago. Though St. Roch Market remains open in New Orleans, Auction House and Dryades Market, which both opened to rave reviews in the late 2010s, have since closed.
When Pythian Market’s former operator was evicted by ERG last fall, the group owed more than $2.5 million in back rent.
In its statement, ERG suggested that the future for the market does not look hopeful.
“The Pythian Market, just like Auction House and Dryades Market, were casualties of the pandemic,” the statement said. “While we would love to see that use return, it is not clear at this time if that is a viable option.”