New Orleans, LA – Just travel between a few New Orleans neighborhoods and it's plain to see that the city has an extensive problem with blighted property. Yet the full magnitude of the issue can be hard to grasp from the street. The true picture is a sprawling patchwork of damaged, abandoned or simply neglected properties. In some areas, it may be a few addresses sullying rejuvenated blocks while in others broad swaths of damaged homes and businesses dominate the urban landscape.
Joyce Wilkerson, the new executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, or NORA, explains what the problem means for the city:
"There are about 68,000 abandoned properties in New Orleans, some of them are post-Katrina issues, some of them actually predate Hurricane Katrina, but the challenge is trying to put them back into commerce. As long as they're abandoned, you know, grass grows, buildings are on the verge of collapse, the property values in the area are depressed. And it's not conducive to quality of life at all. Crime tends to be worse in areas that are blighted. So there's just a multitude of issues that flow from the challenges of blight."
NORA is a state-chartered agency that works through New Orleans City Hall to help return these properties to commerce. It can use its expropriation powers to re-assemble tracts of property for redevelopment by private investors and nonprofit developers and it also can turn over abandoned properties to individual neighboring residents through its Lot Next Door program. It works not only with blighted homes, but with commercial properties too, trying to turn around business clusters that serve and often anchor neighborhoods.
For many years, NORA was an obscure, minimally-staffed government agency that made little impact on the real estate situation in New Orleans. That's beginning to change however. After Katrina, the agency has been significantly expanded, and now NORA is managing the fate of thousands of properties sold to the state through the Road Home hurricane recovery program. It's an immense job, but NORA has been gunning up with new resources.
Working with a consortium of a dozen nonprofits active in neighborhood revitalization, the group has secured federal funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which now is bringing NORA the largest influx of cash in the agency's history.
"It was a competitive process, the consortium was successful in winning about $30 million in funding," says Wilkerson. "With that money we'll be able to assist organizations to assemble parcels, to actually build new housing, to subsidize the development of new housing."
In addition to funding, the group is using technology like never before thanks to a capacity-building initiative supported by the Greater New Orleans Foundation. With new mapping and database tools, NORA can tap and share a far greater depth of information about areas targeted for redevelopment.
"You can make strategic decisions," says Wilkerson. "Before, you would go into a neighborhood almost blind. You couldn't get that bird's eye view that would help you understand what's going on in a neighborhood. Now, you can go in and you know exactly what, I know the foreclosure rate, I know the homeownership rate, I know the vacancy rate. It's just a tremendous tool when you're trying to rebuild."
"In some neighborhoods it's not going to be a quick reversal," she says. "But I think that people will begin to see an investment, a strategic investment in their neighborhoods and things getting better."