New Orleans has 43,000 blighted properties, more than any other American city. Fighting blight can be complex, But since Mayor Landrieu’s administration took office, there’s been an invigorated effort at easing the problem.
Linda Blunt and her husband Chester recently acquired the lot next door to their Gentilly home. Even though Blunt doesn’t have her raised garden beds yet, or her grandbaby’s jungle gym, every chance she gets she has family and neighbors over to barbeque and hang out. She’s excited about her new yard, but it was getting rid of the flood damaged house next door which made a big difference.
“You know, when this house was here, it just didn’t affect me just because it was next door to my house,” she says. “It affected all of my neighbors. Even though they gut the houses, I don’t care what they say, you can gut them all you want; there’s still a certain stench that comes from that house.”
As Linda and I talk, Chester and their neighbor Larry work on the yard. Linda says it took them a long time to get to this stage.
“We were in a three-year hold period,” she says. “You start off with one case worker and end up with another case worker. I don’t know whether it was the newness of it all, and they weren’t really sure as to move forward in the process, but right afterwards, when they started putting these properties up for sale, you got stuck in limbo.”
And then something changed.
“I don’t know what happened in the past two, three months, but all of a sudden there was a surge of work that started getting done. If you look in our community, there are several vacant lots now. But that’s just happened, that they’re starting to level them, because before there would have been at least five to six blighted homes sitting on the land.”
Will Bowling is the Blight and Acquisition Manager for the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, a nonprofit which buys blighted properties in Central City and turns them into places people want to live. Will says, thanks to a more focused city government, lots of properties are being sold or demolished, but as individuals, we don’t necessarily notice.
“Speaking as somebody who saw the way things were in 2010, it’s fantastic. The system has changed fundamentally,” Bowling says. But, “because an individual is concerned about one property on their block, or that vacant lot that’s overgrown on their block, it seems like nothing is happening.”
But it is. It’s just that New Orleans’ problem with blight is really, really big. But the good news is, in the last year and a half, we’re getting rid of blight a lot faster. The biggest reason why: the government is trying to.
Jeffrey Hebert is the new director of NORA, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. He came to the position in January, after serving as Mayor Landrieu’s director of blight policy and neighborhood revitalization. Hebert says, in terms of blight, the city got organized. A big part of it is a series of public meetings called BlightStat.
“BlightStat is a public meeting of all the departments that touch blight issues; the Office of Community Development, NORA, code enforcement and other agencies… we discuss our metrics, what we’ve done, and then our goals and if we have achieved them, and then we take comments from the public on what they see on the ground. What has changed, what hasn’t changed, and what they want us to improve.”
Will Bowling, who deals with the city in order to buy blighted properties, goes to the BlightStat meetings. He says they are amazing.
“Previously, the city had no hammer,” Bowling says. “But under this current administration… the hammer has become the lien foreclosure process.”
The lien foreclosure process, Bowling explains, is the way in which the city can take blighted properties and force them into a sheriff’s sale if owners don’t fix up the property.
But, even with this new process, it can still take a long time. The city has figured out how to improve the code enforcement system, and how to make their work more transparent and interactive, but a single house can be a quagmire of legal and tax issues.
“A lot of properties that people think there’s no work going on, there’s a lot of legal work behind the scenes,” says NORA’s Hebert. “There are thousands of cases out there that the attorneys are working on right now, and you won’t see the results on it for some time, until the process concludes.”
Hebert says that when the Landrieu administration walked through the door, there were thousands of properties people had reported that hadn’t progressed. He uses a house on North Dupre Street as an example.
“It took us a year to get it done and through the process,” he says, after following up on yet another complaint from a community member. “But it happened, after she had waited for ten, fifteen years for something to happen. So, it’s all about perspective. We’ve been able to get something done in one year that someone hadn’t done in fifteen years. Even though it’s a year and that’s a long time, it’s a better outcome than having to wait another fifteen years.”
We all want a better outcome, but when it comes to blight, we need to see it. We need to see it changing. Linda Blunt says after going through so much loss and ruin, it means a lot to be able to look around our city and see life.
“And I just pray that our officials that we put in place see that this is what we need,” Blunt says. “We need those programs active. We don’t need them on paper only. It’s good to write something and put it in black and white, but it’s another thing to make it actually work, to give it legs and arms.”
Blunt says she wants to move on, and make new memories. But that’s hard to do when, every day, you drive by a blighted building or an overgrown lot, and it drags you back, emotionally.
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