First the good news: A decade after the levees failed and left New Orleans with the worst blight problem in America, the number of derelict properties is back to pre-storm levels.
Now the bad: New Orleans already had one of the worst blight problems in the country when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. So it remains a major affliction, especially in neighborhoods that have been slow to bounce back.
For anyone appraising New Orleans’ health 10 years later, the extent to which abandoned properties still choke the city’s neighborhoods is probably as accurate a barometer as any, suggesting by proxy the number of families that have been able to return, the economic well-being of any given block and City Hall’s ability to overcome legal and bureaucratic obstacles in bringing the problem to heel.
And as with almost any other measure of progress, this one offers reasons for both hope and frustration.
“There’s still a lot of blight, but there’s a lot less than there used to be,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said. “When you reduce thousands by more than 30 percent, there’s still hundreds left. So that’s the challenge for us as we continue to fight the fight.”
The scourge of blight in New Orleans is not new, nor is it Katrina-created. The city has long struggled with residential abandonment and blight. According to the 2000 census, the city had 27,000 vacant structures.
A year before the levees broke, New Orleans had partnered with the National Vacant Properties Campaign, now known as the Center for Community Progress, to figure out ways to cure its problems of blight and abandonment.
The partnership was to present a report of its findings to Mayor Ray Nagin on Sept. 5, 2005, said Ellen Lee, who was then Nagin’s deputy executive assistant for neighborhood development.
“Obviously, that didn’t happen, and the problem got exponentially worse,” said Lee, now director of housing policy and community development under Mayor Mitch Landrieu. There were 130,000 to 150,000 blighted properties immediately after the flood, she said.
For a time, local officials took very little action on blight, in part because of concern that a get-tough approach would rile displaced property owners struggling to return home. City inspectors, for instance, did not enforce exterior building-upkeep rules after Katrina; instead, they simply encouraged property owners to gut their flooded buildings and cut the grass.
But under pressure from residents who had returned, the city in 2008 streamlined and toughened code enforcement laws for vacant buildings and overgrown lots. The changes allowed, among other things, for fines of up to $500 per day or foreclosure for properties that threatened safety, public health or other quality-of-life measures in a neighborhood. The law also gave the city the ability to clean up a property without an owner’s consent and to charge the owner for the service.
“Before that, the city had no teeth in coming down on these people that had blight,” said Rita Legrand, a Lakeview resident who has sat in on hundreds of code violation hearings since Katrina and routinely pushes city officials to levy stiff penalties on violators. “You could report it and nothing would happen. The fines were so light that people just paid them and didn’t do anything.”
When Landrieu took office in 2010, he announced a goal of eliminating 10,000 blighted properties in three years, and he launched an effort called BlightStat, opening the messy process of tracking blight to the public.
BlightStat meetings, held on the second Thursday of each month, rely heavily on statistics. They go by in a whirl of histograms, line charts and bar graphs, tracking everything from the number of inspections and code enforcement hearings to hearing results.
At the BlightStat meeting in July, officials said the city had about 28,000 blighted properties, down from 43,755 at the inaugural meeting in November 2010. The Landrieu administration said it met its goal of a 10,000-property reduction in early 2014. Conservative estimates show a reduction of another 5,000 properties since then, said Oliver Wise, director of the city’s Office of Performance and Accountability.
The multi-pronged approach to curing blight has included demolitions; sheriff’s sales; soft-second mortgage programs for first-time buyers; New Orleans Redevelopment Authority auctions; transferring vacant lots to next-door neighbors; and lot maintenance and grass-cutting at troubled properties.
A spillover effect
The city’s ultimate goal, however, has been to prod the private sector into doing the heavy lifting in bringing blighted sites into compliance, NORA Executive Director Jeff Hebert said.
“What we learned, particularly from Baltimore and Philadelphia, is that a spillover effect occurs,” said Hebert, who was formerly the city’s blight policy director. “If (the city) starts to fix things, then there will be spillover effect, and individual actors will start to fix things themselves.”
NORA, which took on thousands of abandoned Road Home properties, was an early partner of the many nonprofits that have since come in and built on vacant lots. Nearly all of the Make it Right properties and those controlled by organizations such as Project Home Again and Project Homecoming were formerly NORA properties.
What’s left, Hebert said, will sell when the real estate market dictates that they should. NORA has sold about 3,800 properties and has roughly 1,500 left in its inventory.
Three years ago, NORA commissioned a market-value analysis to better understand conditions in New Orleans. Among other things, the analysis showed where in the city the real estate market was strongest and weakest. NORA has used the analysis to determine which homes to offer for auction and which to use for other purposes.
“NORA had wasted money in the past on putting on these elaborate auctions that only 30 percent of properties sold at,” Hebert said.
NORA still has an overall strategy to sell properties where it can, but the agency also has held onto vacant lots in less desirable areas and, as in the case of a rain garden on Filmore Avenue, turned them into something else until the market ripens.
“Just because it’s a vacant lot doesn’t mean that it can’t be active,” Hebert said. “By activating space that no one has bought yet, we’ve been able to add value to the neighborhood without actually having to sell the property. It doesn’t just have to sit.”
Some residents say they have seen positive results from those efforts. In Lakeview, where all of the neighborhood’s roughly 7,000 properties flooded, there were just two blighted properties left as of Monday, and one of those was scheduled to be sold this week and then demolished, said Legrand, the Lakeview blight activist.
“It’s going very well,” said Legrand, who has now started volunteering to track blight and go to meetings on behalf of the nearby Pilotland Neighborhood Association.
Legrand’s optimism is not shared everywhere in the city.
Last month, residents of City Council District D told Landrieu they were frustrated that city officials haven’t responded to their concerns about blight.
Jocelyn Evans, with the Gentilly Heights Neighborhood Watch Association, said her area has spent 10 years trying to eradicate blight, to no avail.
“We’d say thank you, but there’s nothing to be thankful for,” Evans told Landrieu at a public meeting.
Earlier this month, an Upper 9th Ward community group said that “jungle-like overgrowth” was contributing to murders, robberies and thefts in the area.
Squatters are common in many empty homes.
Michael Taylor, executive director of the Louisiana Land Trust, said the nonprofit corporation created to take title to properties purchased by the Road Home program after Katrina has identified more than 1,000 properties — “some in imminent danger of collapse” — that it wants considered for demolition.
He said the trust plans to talk with the city and the state’s Office of Community Development about how to take over those properties and clear the lots.
“The Land Trust will be sunsetting soon, but I want to make sure we give every effort to tying up the loose ends before we go away,” Taylor said. “We’ve proven that we can do demolitions better and faster than anyone else.”
10,000 open cases
The city, meanwhile, is focusing its efforts on improving the code enforcement process.
There are about 10,000 open blight-related code enforcement cases, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Operations Ava Rogers said.
A case typically begins with a complaint to the city’s 311 line. Properties then are normally inspected within about 30 days, officials said. Cases found to be in violation are researched to find the names of the owners, who are sent notices saying there will be a hearing to determine what to do if the blight isn’t cured. A judgment can result in a sheriff’s sale, demolition or an abatement program, such as grass-cutting.
Some 60 percent to 70 percent of properties are recommended for sale after a guilty judgment.
Five properties were brought for sale in July. Four received bids and sold for an average of $90,000, according to BlightStat data.
Though the process has improved, significant hiccups often occur.
In the past 12 months, the City Attorney’s Office filed more than 400 foreclosure actions against blighted properties through the city’s sheriff’s sale process. Only 126 of those were accepted for sale at auction. The remainder had to be delayed because of some deficiency in the process, such as improper noticing of the hearing and judgment.
What’s more, there is a backlog of 3,000 cases in the pipeline. City officials could not provide an estimate for how long it would take to clear it.
“I feel like each part is working fairly well, but there are glitches along the way,” said City Councilwoman Stacy Head, who has long focused on problems of code enforcement. “At this point, I can’t identify why there are properties that get in the system and then never come out.”
A tricky process
Administration officials said it can be tricky and time-consuming to move a property through the code-enforcement process to sale because New Orleans residential properties, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods, have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation, often without any formal record of who owns what.
“One of the frustrations of the process is the time it takes to notify all the heirs and do it properly and legally,” Kopplin said. “The folks next door don’t care that one heir was missed. They want that blight addressed. But there are proper legal processes you must go through.”
In the past year, the research and legal staffs in the Code Enforcement Division have been doubled to eight and six, respectively. An outside contractor also helps with research.
Head said she can understand a few difficult cases getting stuck in the pipeline, but not hundreds.
“It makes sense that there should be a few here and there because you’re dealing with property rights,” she said. “But I think the fact that blight remediation efforts take too long is negatively impacting every single neighborhood.”
The city no longer has a quantitative target for blight removal after meeting Landrieu’s initial goal of 10,000 properties.
“As the administration moves on, we have been trying to look more qualitatively,” Rogers said. That means focusing on more “place-based” blight enforcement. “That could be looking at our major corridors, for example,” she said. “It could be looking at areas around schools.”
The city also plans to become more savvy in its noticing procedures, using its data analysis to identify and target properties that are most likely to come into compliance on their own, Rogers said.
NORA also is updating its market analysis, which will help with decisions about whether a property should be put up for sale or demolished.