By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer
New Orleans city officials have given a local housing non-profit more than 70 properties since Katrina, with the intent of seeing the donations transformed from blighted eyesores into badly needed low-income housing.
Instead, the Galilee Housing Initiative and Community Development Corporation has failed to renovate even one property, and its poorly tended properties have drawn criticism from neighbors – and more than a quarter of a million dollars in code enforcement fines.
A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday that the city plans to demolish within two weeks an eastern New Orleans condo building largely owned by Galilee, saying it was near the top of the list of blighted commercial properties to be razed.
Galilee Executive Director Carolyn Williams said the group is doing what it can in a bad situation.
“We are getting ready to revitalize them. In fact, we are doing our due diligence,” she said. “The way the economy is, it was hard to find financing. A lot of deals we had fell through.”
Most of the properties in question (pdf) fall into one of two categories: Empty overgrown lots; or lots with untouched flood-damaged buildings, open to the elements and presenting a serious danger to nearby residents.
Williams said it’s tough to fight nature.
“We cut the grass,” she said. “It grows back.”
One notable exception is a well-tended empty lot on Dale Street in eastern New Orleans. That’s because Neva Martin takes care of it.
The longtime next-door neighbor brought in sand to fill in the lot when the abandoned house was demolished, which took place before Galilee took over the property. She planted trees and flowers. She pays a lawn service $40 a month to maintain the lot.
“The way I keep it, a lot of people think it is my property,” Martin said.
But that’s not for lack of trying.
Martin said she tried several times to buy the property from the city, but she was turned down. Then the city gave it to Galilee.
“I feel like the city did me wrong as a voter and citizen of New Orleans,” she said.
Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni did not make available the city officials who likely would have been involved in the decision on how to handle this property, nor did Berni address questions about this property.
This wasn’t what officials had in mind in 2006 when then-Mayor Ray Nagin proudly announced a new program to get abandoned properties back into commerce.
The city acquired thousands of properties through various means, but largely because owners didn’t pay property taxes. It transferred about 2,400 to non-profits, businesses and individuals through an existing program called Sale of Adjudicated Properties, though many were giveaways, not sales.
The program, frequently referred to as SOAP, was designed to eradicate blight and increase the number of sorely needed housing units in the aftermath of the storm.
But the program proved to be cumbersome because many recipients didn’t realize that the property didn’t come with a clear title. And without that, the new owners couldn’t do any work.
Williams said that’s what hampered Galilee’s development: “Developers, once they saw we didn’t have the total acquisition of the parcels, we couldn’t get title insurance.”
Such bureaucratic wrangling in the hall of records matters little to the people living in the real world near some of Galilee’s properties.
Fred Johnson and his family have dubbed the Galilee-owned Dale Street vacant lot across the street “The Zoo.”
“They got rats, roaches, raccoons, possums and everything else,” declared Johnson, noting that the property was abandoned before Katrina.
Lifting branches and brush, Johnson revealed the detached roof that blew onto the property during Katrina.
“It’s still the same,” he said.
A property involving Galilee is about to change radically, if the city keeps its word.
The largest concentration of Galilee-held SOAP properties is the Parc Brittany condominium complex. One of two buildings remain, the other destroyed by fire in the early 1990’s. The other is still standing, if barely. The roof is slowly caving in, the doors and windows broken, blown out or missing. The property is unsecured.
That’s the one the city vows to demolish within two weeks.
Each building once had 24 units. But of the 48 on the city assessor’s rolls, 31 are listed under the name of Galilee; the other 17 appear to be in the names of the original owners with no recent transfer dates.
“That’s been a nightmare,” Williams said. “How can you develop something if you only have a portion?”
When asked about her plans for the complex she said, “They’re on the drawing board to do revitalization, mixed-income housing.”
No one from her organization attended the code enforcement hearings held in July of 2009, which resulted in more than $225,000 dollars in fines on the Parc Brittany property alone. Galilee has not paid any of the fines.
Galilee was also given vacant property in the Chimney Wood gated community in eastern New Orleans. The property had never been developed, and now the weed-choked lot has generated more than $28,000 in code enforcement fines, which remain unpaid.
Galilee was also the focus of a joint report by The Lens and Fox8 News in March. The building in that report remains untouched still, even though Galilee has applied for $100,000 in city money to demolish it. However, city records show Galilee has not responded to city requests for necessary documentation regarding the property, so the grant request has not moved forward.
That property is in the district of City Councilwoman Stacy Head. She declined to discuss specific recipients of these properties, but she said the city needs to take action whenever non-profits don’t comply with the contract that granted them the property.
Foremost, she said, these contracts require that the recipient take action on the property within 270 days, or the city can take it back.
“We should sell or otherwise transfer these properties to people, next door neighbors, entities that can show they have the wherewithal and will” to honor the agreement, she said.
But Head said no one is keeping track of such things, a situation she hopes will change.
“It’s all about monitoring that we have not had at all for four years, and now we really have to do a significantly better job.”
Landrieu’s top aide, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, said the administration is familiar with the failures of the SOAP program and plans to take a different approach.
“We are aware of and have been evaluating the issues surrounding the previous administration’s SOAP program, which is one of the reasons our blight strategy focuses so much more on sheriff’s sales as a method for property disposition,” Kopplin said in a written statement. “We will also take these lessons to heart when the City begins to sell tax adjudicated properties again early next year, so that our efforts help solve the blight problem, rather than contribute to it.”