Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The feds should reconsider locking up the New Orleans Bounce music queen over her misuse of the city's housing-subsidy program.
Big Freedia is “the queen diva” of New Orleans’ Bounce music scene, and has raised the profile of the genre over the past few years to mainstream status. (She most recently appeared on Beyonce’s controversial song “Formation.”) Her rise has been quick: After a few hit singles , including one with RuPaul, Freedia now has her own TV show and even a video game. But her fast climb to celebrity may have contributed to some bad judgement along the way—compounded by her home city’s broken housing and criminal justice systems.
Freedia pled guilty Wednesday to a federal felony charge of stealing government funds. She was charged on March 1 by Louisiana U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite for fraudulently collecting thousands of dollars in housing vouchers, which are supposed to go to families that earn modest incomes.
Freedia said in a statement that she did once qualify for the vouchers, before she “quickly found [herself] in a new economic structure” when her career took off. The Advocate reports that Freedia, identified in legal documents by her legal name, Freddie Ross Jr., admitted during her arraignment that she unlawfully accepted roughly $35,000 in vouchers, which she has already made arrangements with the government to pay back. She could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for what she calls an “oversight” due to her poor understanding of and management of money.
This is not a case of flaunting the gaming of the public welfare system, per Ol’ Dirty Bastard back in the Wu-Tang Clan days. Freedia has expressed remorse for her misdeeds. As she explained in a statement to the press:
Housing vouchers are a vital lifeline for many people I know in New Orleans and around the country, including struggling artists. I truly believe there needs to be more programs for artists and musicians to teach basic financial literacy and planning. Coming from where I came from, I know that I could have used that kind of assistance. I’m exploring ways to be a part of the solution in this area and am looking forward to putting this matter behind me.
Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, tells CityLab that she believes Freedia’s explanation is “fair.”
“The other context is we have to understand that housing vouchers are critical assistance and a vital lifeline for low-income people in New Orleans,” says Hill. “These artists and musicians are the culture-bearers for the city of New Orleans and for people who support the service-based economy. So, rather than criminalizing mistakes, [the local housing authority] could look at ways to support people receiving this critical assistance and make sure they have the tools that they need to make the program work for them.”
It would be unfortunate in a city and state both notorious for their over-incarceration of African Americans for a judge to send Freedia to jail for this. To be clear, this is a serious violation of housing laws, one that may have deprived others in desperate need of help with housing costs in a city with no shortage of families overburdened with living expenses.
But New Orleans has suffered through a number of scandals in recent years over its housing voucher program. In 2010, Dwayne Muhammad, the then-director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ housing voucher program, was sentenced to eight months in federal prison for illegally using vouchers for his own housing. His successor, Naomi Roberts, was fired just weeks later after it was discovered that she was also personally profiting off the program. And a 2010 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also excoriated the New Orleans housing authority for a number of other abuses of its voucher program.
So while what Freedia did was wrong, it must be recognized that New Orleans has been failing its residents through its flawed execution of the voucher program and rampant discrimination against tenants that use it.
Meanwhile, the judge and prosecutor in Freedia’s case would be wise not to perpetuate a cycle of dispensing prison terms in largesse, as Louisiana is unfortunately known for. Freedia’s guilty plea is reportedly part of a plea deal, but jail time has not been ruled out, and she has a sentencing date of June 16. Hopefully the U.S. Attorney will consider his case against former New Orleans police officer Tracie Medus, who was also convicted of theft of government funds last year. Medus defrauded the state’s Small Rental Property Program, created for those who lost homes in Katrina, of more than $150,000. She was given probation.
Big Freedia, meanwhile, is arguably New Orleans biggest recent cultural export and social influencer, next to the Grammy-winning Frank Ocean. Whatever message that imprisoning her would send to potential fraudsters would get drowned out by the louder message that not even one of New Orleans’ brightest stars was able to escape the cold clenches of Louisiana’s incarceration regime.
The Big Short this was not. As one of Freedia’s fans told NOLA.com after the arraignment Thursday, "If they did not put the people in Wall Street in prison for stealing billions of dollars, she shouldn't go to prison, either.”