Land Use
 

Director struggles to recover seed money owed her for blight-to-gardens program

Story updated, One week after this story ran, the city cut the vendor a check.

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

With her worn straw hat and tiny home office, 33-year-old landscape architect Abby Feldman is an unlikely benefactor for the city of New Orleans. Yet she has become essentially that over the past six months, running a program for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority without getting paid.

Feldman and her staff of two run NORA’s Growing Home program, a $250,000-a-year initiative that helps New Orleans homeowners buy vacant lots from the agency and transform them into gardens. Since moving to New Orleans two years ago to launch Growing Home, Feldman has enrolled more than 600 people in the program.

But while the initiative has attracted both local and national attention with its green, forward-looking approach to fighting blight, its director is paying a steep price for its success. Feldman, a graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Design, said she is verging on bankruptcy as she waits to be paid for work going back six months.

Abby Feldman talks with a Growing Home client at a one of the sites the program hopes will become a garden. photo courtesy of Growing Home

After floating program costs including salaries,for six months, she estimates the agency owes her $70,000.  The program has three staffers, including Feldman.

“I am the target of exactly what you want to attract to New Orleans. It’s been six months, and I really won’t last much longer,” she told a boardroom of city officials gathered last week at Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s biweekly BlightStat meeting. “I love the program and I think it’s successful, but I can’t fund it myself.”

Twelve days after appearing at BlightStat and a week after this article first appeared, Feldman received the long-overdue payment. She was paid the entire $70,000 owed.

Feldman said that she enrolled 98 new participants in the NORA program in the past six months, driving between far-flung neighborhoods in eastern New Orleans, Lakeview and Gentilly to advise homeowners with no salary to even cover the cost of gas.

The unpaid contractor’s plight illustrates the structural challenge facing government agencies that run recovery programs without any up-front money. Though it’s charged with redeveloping blighted properties in the city, NORA does not get money from the city budget. Instead, it feeds primarily on federal grant money that comes in only after work has been done – and after myriad approvals are granted at the federal, state and local levels sometimes.

This means that before a check can be cut for Feldman, her invoice must be rubber stamped in Washington, Baton Rouge and at City Hall.

“It’s a huge problem,” NORA Executive Director Joyce Wilkerson said. “The invoices go back and forth, to us, to the city, to the state, to the state program people, back to the city.”

Wilkerson acknowledged that Feldman was not the only NORA contractor waiting on long-overdue payment, and in fact, there could be hundreds. As of Wednesday, the city owed NORA a total of  $1.2 million  for work invoiced by the agency or contractors like the landscape architect, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni wrote in an email.

“Both the City and NORA are working to address processing issues, including NORA’s invoice submissions,” Berni added.

The tortuous trip taken by each invoice means that projects often stop and start several times, costing NORA in wasted work hours and delays that can drive up construction costs. Wilkerson said her agency’s board is trying to establish a line of credit at a bank that would let the agency pay contracts without waiting for reimbursements.

“We need to have direct funds available if we are to work efficiently,” Wilkerson said.

One of the factors in the payment delay is the fact that the city  and NORA have not signed off on Cooperative Endeavor Agreements for millions of dollars in program costs. The agreements must be signed before the city can release funds to NORA to pay for work. The Landrieu administration and the city are now in the “final process” of executing the agreements, city spokesman Berni wrote in an email.

Without the agreements, the Landrieu administration has been able to pay NORA only $713, 848 since coming to office in May, Berni said.  Prior to Landrieu’s entry  into City Hall, NORA received another $15.9 million in reimbursements for post-Katrina blight clearance work done under Cooperative Endeavor  Agreements with then-mayor Ray Nagin.

Budget documents show that for 2011, the city  set aside a total of $4.5 million to NORA for housing programs. That money comes on top of $1.5 million in administrative fees paid out to the agency since 2008 to appraise and sell Road Home Properties that owners sold back to the state.

NORA has relied on lines of credit in the past, but without more secure funding to use as a guarantee, banks have been reluctant to provide the kind of cash reserve the agency truly needs to operate smoothly, former NORA Chairman Herschel Abbott said in an interview Tuesday.

Abbott resigned from the board in 2009 after presiding over the agency in its critical growth period after Katrina. When he stepped down, the city owed NORA $4 million and in order to keep projects moving, NORA used $500,000 it had on hand to secure a $2 million line of credit.

The money was gone in a month as the agency paid bills going back six or nine months, Abbott recalled. The board briefly thought the agency would have to close because the city was taking so long to process its invoices and no bank would extend a line of credit because the agency had nothing to guarantee the loan.

“Getting a line of credit depends on what you have to pledge or mortgage against,” he said. “Since NORA has no guaranteed source of funds, it is extraordinarily difficult to get credit.”.

The State Legislature established NORA in 1968 to eliminate blight and help with slum clearance. But while the agency was given the legal power to acquire and dispose of properties, borrow money and issue bonds, NORA did not receive funding to use these powers until 1994. Even then, the city granted the agency a relatively small sum of $250,000 in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Block Development Grants to assist with expropriating blighted properties. Until Hurricane Katrina forced the city to rethink its approach to redevelopment, NORA’s annual budget never exceeded $5 million, a fraction of the agency’s 2010 budget of $70 million, much of which comes from federal neighborhood stabilization grants.

Along with the increased budget and responsibilities, comes more red tape. An August audit of NORA done by the HUD inspector general found spotty state oversight, “a lack of controls” over the authority and a “strained” relationship between the city and NORA. The agency satisfied the deadline by signing a new agreement with the city and committing to follow new state monitoring procedures for all disaster grants passed through Baton Rouge.

The monitoring is partially to blame for Feldman’s overdue pay, New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said at Thursday’s BlightStat meeting.

“We’ve attempted to bring some integrity and transparency to the process, so we are not  spending money the wrong way,” he said.  “Several hundred contracts piled up and now we are trying to catch up.”

Kopplin said that the administration would “try to prioritize” Feldman’s problem, as well as work on “a system that will make sure no one has gone through what you have gone through.”

Feldman is betting Kopplin will succeed in improving the system.

“I’m rebidding on the project,” she said.  “I want to keep Growing Home alive, but I can’t do it alone.”

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  • Alan

    you guys need share buttons like whoa

  • jeffrey

    Given the high instance of lead contamination in the soil in New Orleans, is urban gardening really such a good idea in the first place?

  • “she estimates the agency owes her $70,000.” LORD.

    Also I agree with the first commenter–you do need share buttons!

  • Ariella Cohen

    Sarah and Alan: We agree about the share button, and as far as I know, our web designer is on the job.

    Jeffrey – Lead in the soil is a big problem in many American cities. Anyone who gardens here is recommended to get their soil tested before planting and if high levels of lead are found, experts, such as the folks with Growing Home, advise covering the leaded soil with sod. To grow flowers or edible crops, experts suggest either replacing the contaminated soil or alkalinizing it by adding lime or organic matter such as compost. Soil with a pH level above 7 binds with lead, making it less likely to be absorbed by plants and the human body if the dirt is inadvertently inhaled or ingested. You can also leave the soil but plant in a container using imported soil.

  • Constance

    “But while the initiative has attracted both local and national attention with its green, forward-looking approach to fighting blight…”

    “Greening Home” is anything but “green” and “forward-looking.” It is a program that funds decreasing density in neighborhoods, making them look more like sprawl America. Further, the program funds the removal of properties from the tax rolls. The funding for the “Greening Home” program was first designated for a program called “Clean and Lein,” which was a challenging but progressive approach to dealing with blighted properties. But NORA repurposed the funding with little to no input from those that advocated for the Clean and Lein program.

  • Abigail Feldman

    The program simply offers people a reduced purchase price on Lot Next Door properties in return for doing basic landscape improvements. Once the lot is purchased, it is put back on the tax rolls! If owners want to build new homes on these lots, they are welcome to do so. These properties are predominantly in suburban parts of New Orleans, where we have not found lead contamination is not a huge problem. Lead is mostly found in denser more historic parts of the city where paint from adjacent homes contaminates the ground.

  • Constance

    Why are property owners being a reduced price for doing landscape improvements when the same incentive is not given to property owners that intend to renovate houses? Further, if a property owner next door wants to acquire a house and renovate it but can not afford the “improved value” of the property, then they can not participate in the LND program — that is unless they wait for LLT to demolish the house — then they can buy the vacant lot.

    This was a poor policy decision that is in direct conflict with policy that encourages retaining housing stock.

  • Nola_rolla

    Another misleading title, look up the definition of “seed money”.

  • Cardell Ross

    Maintaining housing stock isn’t always the best policy and shouldn’t be applied across every neighborhood. Keeping a double shotgun Uptown because of its history or certain details not found in other areas makes sense. Other neighborhoods have homes built for function and in those cases the best use of the property is what is good for the neighborhood. My wife and I purchased the lot next door and the empty lot is of better use to us and the neighborhood. Lofty goals of people moving in at some point doesn’t acccount for the reality that certain neighborhoods don’t have mass appeal. The lot next door allows for neighborhoods to be what they are. In my case in Voscoville, the best use is large lots rather that densely populated neighborhoods. That wouldn’t work or honestly look right in Uptown. Preservation has to be mixed with reality in order for the city to move forward.

  • mg

    For an October radio interview with Abigail Feldman on WTUL News & Views, a public affairs program on 91.5 FM Mon, Wed & Fri from 8am-10am please visit: http://neworleans.indymedia.org/news/2010/10/15416.php

  • Allsion

    I dont understand….NORA is paying people to plant gardens in blighted vacant lots owned by NORA…..WHY? Why doesnt NORA use that money to keep the lots cleaned and put it on the market for sale! Thanks to the Lady but this seems asinine unless I am missing some point!

  • Leonard Cohen

    Ariella,
    ph over 7, add lime? Can I ask you all my serious garden question?

  • Cross

    Allison,
    The lot next door program allows the neighbor to purchase the lot from NORA. For example, a vacant lot costs 10K. NORA will take either the 10K or 20%, 2K. The remaining 8K is reserved for improvements to the lot. For example, the credit for planting a 15 gallon oak tree is $275. A 20×12 deck will give you a credit of $6000. If the improvements haven’t been made in 270 days, the lot is taken back by NORA. So the idea is rather than giving away empty lots that end up dragging down an area like a blighted or unrepaired house, the lots help improve overall neighborhood aesthetics.

  • Ariella Cohen

    Story updated Feb. 8: Twelve days after appearing at BlightStat and a week after this article first appeared, Feldman received the long-overdue payment. She was paid the entire $70,000 owed.