Angered by the blighted and abandoned buildings in their north Baton Rouge neighborhoods, more than 100 people told city officials Monday night exactly how they feel.
“I look out my front door and I can’t see nothing but trash,” said Aaron Jackson. “It looks horrible and has for years. Someone has to do something about this.”
Jackson, who has organized a group called Concerned Community Citizens in response to an abandoned and rundown house on his street, cited falling property values and illegal activity.
Metro Council member LaMont Cole hosted the meeting to discuss strategies for addressing blighted properties within his district, which covers a large swath of north Baton Rouge. He reported 1,058 current cases of blight in District 7 alone.
The East Baton Rouge Parish government has struggled for years to deal with pervasive blight issues ranging from piles of junk and overgrown vegetation to rundown buildings and filthy swimming pools. The August 2016 floods exacerbated the problem, leaving damaged buildings in their wake that in some cases remain rundown or uninhabitable.
City officials at Monday's meeting promised action. They also defended their hard work against claims to the contrary, and said the sheer volume of cases has somewhat overwhelmed their current system for dealing with blighted property.
Felix Ezejiofo, the city code enforcement manager for blight elimination, said his office often receives between 50 and 100 calls per day “and everybody wants their (problem) fixed that day.”
“We’re doing the best we can as fast as we can,” he said. “However, it would be nice if sometimes the homeowners looked around and … did a little picking up.”
Reports of blight generally elicit one of two responses from the city: either condemning the house following a Metro Council vote, or sending smaller issues such as trash and unkempt landscaping to blight court, which issues judgments on complaints and oversees the cleanup process.
If property owners fail to resolve problems themselves, city crews can complete the work for them and put a lien on their property pending reimbursement of cleanup costs. In 2015 the city reorganized its blight court, allowing steeper fines.
Some have criticized the court, which meets twice a month, for failing to promptly address the volume of complaints. Others have defended the program, saying landowners often respond to proceedings by cleaning up their properties.
In addition to existing backlogs, Ezejiofo said, tracking down property owners to notify them of blight proceedings sometimes delays the process since most of the properties in question are abandoned. Legally, the city must notify owners before starting cleanup efforts.
“I know you’re angry, very angry,” Ezejiofo told residents. “Nobody believes us, but … the Department of Public Works and the mayor (are) looking at this with utmost eagerness and giving us all the support we need. Just be patient with us. … One day you’re going to walk around Baton Rouge and not even know where you are because everything is so clean.”
Despite his optimism, many residents at Monday's meeting appeared largely unconvinced. They spoke about abandoned houses that sit for years, attracting wildlife and crime.
Doris Mott complained about two unkempt properties in her neighborhood, which she said is otherwise neat and orderly. She mentioned that vacant buildings often attract drug dealers and prostitutes, in addition to pests such as raccoons and opossums. Rehabbing those buildings could help draw families and businesses to these neighborhoods, she said.
Cole said after the meeting that he plans to use feedback gathered from the meeting to streamline the blight response process — and its “many different moving parts” — for faster results.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has also spoken repeatedly about the importance of addressing blight as a means of curbing crime. While addressing the public earlier this month over an alarming increase in city homicides, Broome told residents to expect “an initiation of cleanup … throughout our neighborhoods where we will be addressing abandoned cars and blight from our public works department.”
Her administration is also working to bolster the Redevelopment Authority and has proposed making it the lead force fighting blight, while scaling back the struggling Office of Community Development — a change from her predecessor Kip Holden, who was hesitant to provide permanent RDA support.
Editor's Note: Advocate staff reporter Andrea Gallo contributed to this report.