'DISAPPOINTING'

It’s a common adjective in the Lower 9th Ward to describe Tuesday’s statewide voter rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the city to sell vacant lots in that struggling neighborhood to aspiring homeowners for as little as $100.

But disappointment has come often and in many sizes to the Lower 9, one of the neighborhoods most thoroughly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the residents and activists who have taken up the cause of repopulating the area are perhaps more capable than anyone of putting a setback at the ballot box behind them.

“For nine years, there have been many, many challenges — challenges far greater than (the failure of) this amendment,” said activist Vanessa Gueringer, who along with state Rep. Wesley Bishop came up with the idea they thought might jump-start residential development in the neighborhood. “We had to struggle to even come home. It’s not bigger than that.”

Thom Pepper, of the nonprofit group Common Ground Relief, put it a little more colorfully.

“No one is crying in their bourbon over it,” he said. The idea of $100 lots was “like one of the things to throw it on the wall and see if it sticks. It didn’t, but we’ll go on.”

The amendment, which was needed to override the constitutional prohibition against the government donating or selling public property at less than fair market value, needed a majority both in New Orleans and statewide. It was overwhelmingly supported by Lower 9 voters, but it lost 51 to 49 percent in Orleans Parish and failed badly statewide, 59 to 41 percent.

Had it been approved, a state law passed earlier this year would have taken effect. That law would have directed the city to sell vacant lots in the neighborhood for $100 each to, in order of priority: adjacent property owners; people who have leased property in the Lower 9th Ward for at least 18 months; former residents; veterans, teachers, retired teachers and emergency responders; and anyone who agreed to build on the property and live there for at least five years.

Developers, corporate entities and anyone with an active code enforcement violation or outstanding tax lien would have been barred from buying the lots, which the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority acquired through the Road Home program.

City Councilman James Gray, whose district includes the Lower 9, said that with no money to explain the potential impact of the amendment to voters statewide, he’s not shocked that many defaulted to a no vote.

“I thought it would be a useful tool that would have helped us in the Lower 9, but I can’t say I’m surprised,” he said. “I knew it would be a tough sell.”

Questions about effects

It’s not even clear how much the amendment would have helped had it passed. The head of NORA said the city, which owns about 600 vacant properties in the Lower 9th Ward, doesn’t like the idea of putting them on the market at fire-sale prices due to fears that move would reduce the value of other nearby properties. There also were concerns that the properties would end up in the hands of speculators who would sit on them, doing nothing.

Still, the idea behind the law and the failed amendment was to create another way to get property into the hands of the kinds of people the Lower 9th Ward wants to see move there: regular folks who, while not flush with cash, nevertheless want to build a home and raise a family.

Pepper said he thought voters might have been a little confused by the amendment’s wording and that it should have been more straightforward.

The tiered system of priority buyers, he said, “is all well and good, but it should have been that everyone who wants to build a house and raise a family should be able to bid on those lots.”

Laura Paul, who heads the nonprofit group LowerNine.org, which provides labor to build homes in the neighborhood for people who own property and have architectural plans, said she applauded the intention of the plan but worried it wouldn’t do enough to keep speculators away.

She also thinks former neighborhood residents, who she said contact her organization all the time, should have the first right of return.

“I think $100 lots should be sold to the people who lived there before,” she said.

Gueringer, a lifelong resident of the Lower 9, said she has a little trouble swallowing the claim that selling properties on the cheap would lower property values when many of the lots owned by the city often aren’t well maintained, which drives down everyone’s property values.

She said she will continue to work on other avenues, like trying to get the city’s discontinued Lot Next Door program reinstated in the 9th Ward and advocating for a “mow-to-own” program.

“It was a tool,” Gray said. “But it wasn’t going to save us. We needed to do other things even if it did pass.”

Seeking a tipping point

While the Redevelopment Authority did not return a call for comment, Gray said he has gotten a commitment from the city in the past two weeks to focus on putting properties in the part of the Lower 9th Ward bounded by Florida Avenue, North Galvez Street, Forstall Street and Caffin Avenue into the hands of people who want to build houses.

Gray said about a third of the lots in that area either are in the hands of the city already or are tax-adjudicated or in violation of city code provisions, which would allow the city to expropriate them in some cases.

Getting work started on those lots, he said, could reach a tipping point that could create movement on the other lots in the target area.

“If we can assemble that block of land and put some houses on it, and we think we have an opportunity to do that, we can create a decent community around that school and hope it will give that area what it needs to get some people back,” Gray said.

The catalyst, he said, is the $38 million Martin Luther King Jr. High School set to open next year on the south side of Law Street.

“We think the school will be a big, big piece of creating that environment,” he said.

Gray said other pieces are falling into place as well for the Lower 9th Ward, including the almost completed $19 million Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center and the newly opened $4.3 million fire station on North Claiborne Avenue.

The CVS drugstore chain recently completed a deal to buy land on Claiborne between Tennessee and Reynes streets for a new pharmacy.

The Lower 9th Ward also is expected to receive more than $40 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds for road repairs.

Gray said the NFL Players Association, which built three houses after the Super Bowl two years ago, has said it will honor its commitment to build 40 houses in the Lower 9 if the demand is there.

“I would say to people, ‘I think there’s going to be a boom in the Lower 9,’ and a lot of people are going to say, ‘I wish I had invested in it when the price was cheap.’ I think, if you give us a year and a half or two years, you’ll see some improvement,” Gray said.

Process will be slow

Pepper said his group, which builds homes and does other projects throughout the Lower 9th Ward, learned years ago that repopulating the neighborhood was going to be slow, organic and largely driven by federally funded projects.

As long as those projects are well-conceived and well-executed, he said, the area has the low land costs, access to the river and tight-knit community that helped attract the postwar generation that originally populated it.

While there are absentee landlords, many lots are owned by people who came back to the city but had to live elsewhere.

“Eventually, a family member will come back and build on one of those lots,” Pepper said.

Paul takes the failure of the amendment with a grain of salt, since she wasn’t sure it wouldn’t have produced unintended consequences anyway.

“There are a lot of dangers in not doing it right,” she said.

Until a better opportunity comes along, LowerNine.org will continue to help bring back those who want to return, she said. The group is putting the finishing touches on its 75th house — the first one that was a new build, not a restoration.

“All we can do,” she said, “is do what we’re doing.”

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.