Photo by Karen Gadbois

A highly touted $30 million federal grant to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority arrived with some confusion about how it will be used. A headline announced that NORA got the money “to fight blight.” Meanwhile language on the Web site of the granting agency, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, says first that the money can’t be used to prevent or eliminate blight – then goes on to say that eligible uses for the grant includes using it to “demolish blighted structures.”

So which is it? To blunt blight, or not to blunt blight?

Ommeed Sathe, NORA’s director of  real estate, strategy, redevelopment and (yes) blight, told The Lens that “a lot of people wrote me asking the same things.” The real point of the program, says Sathe, is to help neighborhoods that have suffered from an inordinate amount of foreclosed properties. The grant comes from the federal agency’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Renovation, rehabilitation and new construction are the main components of their program, which targets eight neighborhoods around New Orleans, all of which are already identified as Target Recovery and Housing Opportunity Zones under the New Orleans recovery plan. Removing blighted properties owned by NORA and its partners to help make way for new  construction and investments is a small part of this plan.

In other words, blight remediation is a means to an end, but it’s not the end itself, and that’s how they qualified for the grant. Just to be sure, NORA consulted with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Sathe says Landrieu scored a clarification that said “storm-damaged properties can be treated as vacant and abandoned structures for the purpose of this grant.”

According to the federal agency’s Web site, at least 25 percent of the grant must be used to buy and redevelop homes that will house low-income people and families. All activities funded by grant must benefit those with low and moderate incomes.

The NORA proposal does mention blight, but in terms of demolishing structures that hurt the surrounding neighborhood: “Because private investment is currently at a standstill in many of these neighborhoods, and those who have returned live next to hazardous, abandoned buildings, we will demolish 100% of non-historic blighted properties immediately and clear the way for our construction efforts.” NORA also will use the grant  to rehabilitate salvagable properties.

The funds will also go some way toward helping fund affordable-housing developments that have been stalled due to the financial market collapse, a problem that has blocked the efforts of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency in fulfilling its responsibility to have affordable units built. The agency applied for the same grant but was denied.

“We applaud NORA for receiving their award, as we are very aware of the issues that the New Orleans communities continue to face, and any additional tools to combat those issues are helpful.  We stand by ready to assist in any way needed, as we all work together to get New Orleans, and the rest of the state through these difficult times,” Finance Agency President Milton Bailey told the Lens.