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Town Hall meeting focuses on New Orleans’ continuing blight problem

23rd September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

BlightStrategy, the initiative launched by Mayor Landrieu in 2010 with the goal of reducing the city’s blight by 10,000 properties by 2014, was the topic of discussion at a special Wednesday night town hall meeting.

On September 18, the New Orleans City Council hosted a special town-hall meeting to publicly discuss the city’s still-extraordinary blight problem. One-hundred and eighty residents from all over the city signed up to air grievances and opinions before the council and representatives from the Landrieu administration. While some of those citizens simply expressed gratitude at the opportunity to speak on a subject that in the past has not been widely addressed, most of them made it clear they felt the city is not doing enough to combat blight.

Before the public speaking portion of the meeting, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) and the Landrieu administration gave presentations about the successes in their efforts to reduce the city’s blight thus far.

NORA Executive Director Jeffery Hebert presented data showing that the organization has put 1,464 residential properties back into commerce. According to Hebert, NORA has helped to decrease 333,685 square feet of commercial blight – 119,740 square feet of which accounts for completed projects while 213,945 square feet accounts for projects currently under construction.

These projects, according to the presentation, are in turn responsible for the creation of 205 jobs – with an anticipated 439 new jobs to come – and over $90 million in commercial investment, which includes the new Wal-Mart in Gentilly at the site of the former Gentilly Woods Mall, and the Cultural Healing Center located on St. Claude Ave. in the former Universal Furniture building.

NORA’s Lot Next Door and Growing Home programs have reportedly reclaimed 909 vacant lots and are maintaining 2,772 properties biweekly as of September 18 according to an email from Mr. Hebert. Hebert admitted however that alternative land use efforts such as storm water management have so far been “woefully inadequate.”

The Landrieu administration’s deputy mayor Andy Kopplin then stepped up to say, “We are well on the way to hitting that [10,000 property] goal.” He admitted the city still suffers under the weight of 37,000 blighted properties. However, he also claimed, “We are the only heavily blighted city going in the right direction.”

Kopplin went on to describe some of the difficulties the city has fighting blight. “Telling people they were noncompliant and citing them didn’t work,” he said, detailing the tumultuous process. “First we have to send out an inspector, and then figure out through research who owns the property. We have to bring the owner to court.” Once they get them in court, Kopplin says that the city has been “too lenient,” but that they have improved the results of these hearings. “We are making sure our cases are the strongest and have increased the number of compliant properties, and the number of guilty judgments.” As a result, said Kopplin, 1,947 lots have been cleared since 2011, the city has demolished 4,000 properties since 2010, and accomplished over 8,500 abatements not including private compliance without city intervention. “We’ve filed over 1,400 writs to sell properties at the sheriff’s sale,” said Kopplin. “Four-hundred were paid, and 100 have been sold, with over $2.6 million in liens and taxes collected.”

Following the presentations, residents from the crowd had the opportunity to speak about their issues of concern regarding blight and the city’s handling of it. Code inspectors thinned out the number of speakers by taking dozens of audience members outside to document complaints about specific properties.

Several in the audience commented that blight is often the result of owners lacking the financial means to fix their problems. Instead of confiscating or bulldozing these unfortunate residents’ properties, one resident suggested instead making low interest loans available to homeowners. Other speakers complained that the city was neglecting many of these properties themselves, making their neighborhoods undesirable—while all the while increasing property taxes.

Residents clamored for more, and more consistent, inspections, viable timelines for code enforcement, longer hours for the 311 complaint line, and for the city to also address properties where renters are living in squalor at the mercy of “slumlords.”

Those interested in following the issue can attend the city’s “BlightStat” meetings on the second Thursday of each month at 8pm at City Hall.

This article originally published in the September 23, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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