Nearly 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, it is still hit-and-miss on any given block in the Lower 9th Ward: an occupied home with a neatly trimmed lawn here, an empty lot sporting chest-high grass and discarded tires there.
And right now, the same might be said for City Hall's latest attempt to help jump-start the neighborhood's prospects.
The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has lined up a group of nonprofit and for-profit developers to buy a quarter of the 600 lots it owns in the Lower 9th Ward and build affordable housing on them.
In fact, Habitat for Humanity already has begun work on some of the four dozen new homes it plans to put up.
On the other hand, more than a year after they were selected, the other developers involved have yet to break ground on any houses, stalled by trouble getting financing.
So, progress is happening, but not without a struggle.
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“There are many vacant lots down here that could be occupied,” said Brittany Jiles, a nursing student who grew up on Deslonde Street. She rents a new home nearby from Habitat and welcomes the city's efforts.
Habitat's lots and more than 100 others, all located between St. Claude Avenue and North Galvez Street and acquired by NORA through the state's Road Home project or through outright purchases, will be sold for 10 percent of their assessed value, with a minimum of $1,345.
“NORA is committed to playing its role in the rebuilding of the Lower 9th Ward, and that includes our land and whatever subsidies that we can provide,” NORA Executive Director Brenda Breaux said.
The other would-be home builders are SBP (formerly the St. Bernard Project), Neville Development and the joint venture of Perez APC and Harmony Neighborhood Development, firms that are still awaiting project financing.
A fifth, Jourdan Valley Development, was approved but pulled out after its “co-housing” concept — under which residents would own or rent traditional homes but also share communal buildings and spaces — didn’t gain community support.
A delay in the state’s distribution of federal low-income tax credits, a key financing source for affordable housing projects, is to blame for the other groups’ slow starts, said Seth Knudsen, NORA’s director of real estate and planning.
For its part, Habitat plans to build 24 single-family homes for sale and 24 duplexes for rent on lots formerly owned by NORA. When added to the nonprofit’s other Lower 9th Ward properties, they will amount to a total of 100 homes within the next five years.
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Most of the organization’s homes — with rents set at $700 a month for a two-bedroom home and mortgages at $650 a month for a three-bedroom home — are for residents who wouldn’t be able to obtain homes through other means. Its renters are encouraged to apply to Habitat’s home ownership program.
“We look at it as a way to develop a pipeline of people — who already live in the Lower 9 as a renter, and they like it, or they used to live there, and they want to get back there — and turn them into homeowners,” Habitat Executive Director Jim Pate said.
Jiles, 28, said she’s going to enroll in the organization’s homebuyers program after she gets her nursing degree.
Habitat's and NORA’s efforts haven’t received universal praise, however. Some critics, distrustful of city leaders and frustrated by the neighborhood’s stagnation, say NORA should be offering Lower 9th Ward properties at reduced rates directly to homeowners who gave up or lost their properties after the storm.
“But that simply hasn’t been the mandate or the mission of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority,” said Laura Paul of lowernine.org, a rebuilding organization that did not submit a proposal to NORA.
Paul and another critic, Common Ground Relief head Thom Pepper, said the developers also are proposing to build more rental units than for-sale homes in an area that historically had one of the highest rates of African-American home ownership in the city.
That will only further depress home ownership in the neighborhood, they said, after many former owners were forced to sell rather than rebuild their homes after Katrina because of low payouts from the Road Home program.
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NORA received many of the lots it now owns through that program, which tied its calculations of aid to a home’s value before the storm rather than the generally higher cost of rebuilding it. That meant homeowners in low-income neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward got less than owners of similarly damaged homes of the same size and quality in wealthier areas. The policy sparked a discrimination lawsuit that was later settled.
Pate, the Habitat director, pointed out that his program helps renters become homeowners. But James Neville of Neville Development, which is trying to sell four houses in the Lower 9 that are not involved in NORA’s initiative, said the demand for home ownership may be less than some people think.
“I’ve got four houses in the Lower 9th Ward that I built for first-time home buyers three years ago, and I have not filled one of them yet,” he said. His proposal with NORA is for rentals only.
Breaux, NORA's director, said the agency offers a program that lets homeowners buy vacant lots adjacent to them, often with the help of up to $10,000 in credit. It has released other RFPs specifically tailored toward developers looking to build homes for sale, and it has put other homes up for auction for interested buyers.
She welcomes input from critics, she said, but she, like Jiles, believes the nonprofit groups have played a positive role, despite the criticisms of people like Paul and Pepper.
"I think it's important," Jiles said of the help she has received from Habitat, "because it gives everyone the opportunity to have a reasonable place to live — their own space, their own home."