More than three years after the historic flood that devastated much of Livingston Parish, as well as other parts of the region, Denham Springs is implementing a blighted housing program targeting dilapidated properties never restored since the deluge.
Years-old clothing and furniture gather mold below tree-torn roofs in some homes, while other structures bear a half-hearted attempt at recuperation with drywall, insulation and carpeting left in piles inside the buildings, according to building inspector Rick Foster.
The widespread impact of the 2016 flood led city officials — who themselves lost their municipal building and are awaiting construction of a new one — to be lenient on neighborhood eyesores as many residents worked hard to recover what they could.
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But as Mayor Gerard Landry puts it, it’s now time to put aside thinking about residents still struggling more than three years later and instead focus attention on their neighbors living with potentially hazardous conditions nearby.
“We’ve kind of had a hands-off approach for the last few years out of compassion, but at some point in time I have to have more compassion for the people next door,” he said.
The new Housing Appeals Board, made up of city officials including the building inspector and fire chief, will meet monthly to address a highlighted 70 homes in the city that were flooded and have since sat vacant and deteriorating.
The city has not previously had a mechanism to specifically address blighted property. So if neighbors had a complaint about a home in their area they would bring a code violation complaint. The new board gives the homeowners a chance to plead their case and work with the city on a solution.
The city isn’t seeking to take ownership of the homes, according to Foster, but is making a push for the residents to adhere to code.
“We don’t want them," he said. "We want homeowners to step up and take care of their business. We would much rather see people taking care of their things.”
Ten homes that were deemed "low-hanging fruit" came up on the board's first agenda Monday, but the process to get started has been slow.
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In the initial efforts to find the owners of the blighted properties, Landry said, city officials have run into difficulty reaching them or tracing the ownership. Some have been elderly and in assisted living homes without family to turn to for additional help, and others have inherited property they didn’t want.
One woman who went to the meeting Monday didn’t have the money or energy to deal with her blighted property after her husband’s recent death and worried about how to address the issue, according to Landry.
“I really want (the board) to be a dialogue on what can we do. It’s not about the strong-arm of the City of Denham Springs coming down but it’s about how we can help each other,” Landry said. “These houses are just not safe and we have to do what we have to do.”
In the case of the widow, Landry said the city will solicit bids for demolition and pay for the process out of pocket, but have the homeowner pay the city back through a note or lien on the property.
Because the homes in question were damaged by a natural disaster, rather than negligence typically seen in condemnation proceedings, the process has been civil, Landry said.
“We feel like we have a path now. One of the things we had to do was have a board so people could argue their case as to why we shouldn’t tear the property down,” he said. “These folks were damaged, though, and I think people have forgotten what we went through.”
The board will meet on the second Monday of each month at 4 p.m. in the City Hall building at 116 N. Range Ave.