Don't bulldoze blight. Use it as bait to lure newcomers

By Brad Vogel, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

Even if New Orleans wanted to destroy so rich an architectural heritage, it could not bulldoze all the blighted buildings within city limits.  We simply dont have the money, as Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center made clear at a recent BlightStat meeting.

A city whose population has shrunk from 627,525 in 1960 to today’s  343,829 has a staggering surplus of properties, and roughly one in four residential addresses is blighted or vacant. Some characterize this as a problem of excessive supply. But any hope for a solution requires recasting it as a problem of insufficient demand for the estimated 43,800 blighted addresses that pepper the landscape.

Pure and simple, New Orleans needs more people. That’s the only way to solve the blight problem over the long run – and avoid destroying huge swaths of our unique, incomparably intact historic architecture, the city’s famed tout ensemble. The problem is not the result of Katrina alone, but of a long-running trend of population decline.

Neither City Hall nor the multitude of non-profit housing partners on the ground today can fully address the blight problem without a major influx of initiative and capacity. Absent these additional residents, efforts to mothball or restore homes with historic or architectural character may be futile.

More than five years after Hurricane Katrina, it’s no longer realistic to count on still scattered former residents to repopulate areas ravaged by flooding. Those who haven’t returned by now are increasingly unlikely to do so. We need to tap new pools of potential residents across the country as we devise an aggressive and creative plan to market the city, not for tourism but as a place to live.

How do we make this happen? Other cities are showing the way. Cleveland has a non-profit Live Cleveland campaign that actively markets the city to new residents.  Baltimore has mounted a similar Live Baltimore effort that incentivizes resettlement of neighborhoods that have seen severe population loss. Buffalo’s urban homesteading program lets pre-qualified buyers pay a minimal amount for a vacant house that might otherwise get demolished. To secure title, they must rehabilitate the structure up to certain specifications within 18 months and agree to live there for at least 36 months.

Who should be targeted? Quite frankly, we need intrepid souls who can deal with problems not likely to disappear overnight, no matter how vigorous the city’s revival becomes:  crime, risk of flooding, inadequate city services, a school system that remains a work in progress.  In the short term, young, adventurous people with or without dependents, may be the best cohort to resettle blighted areas – especially workers and young professionals whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the economic downturn. We need people who can see opportunity in a vacant, cat’s claw-covered shotgun.

Admittedly, selecting the populations to target could be as controversial as the green dots marking written-off areas on the consultant’s map prepared for Mayor Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission in 2005.  But tough, strategic decisions are necessary if the city is ever going to attract newcomers with the resourcefulness and drive to put down roots, invest in vacant housing stock, and keep neighborhoods – and our tax base – from rotting away.

How can we make this work?  For starters, New Orleans already has a number of lures that similarly depleted cities farther north do not: a warm climate, a vibrant and storied cultural scene  and a post-Katrina reputation as abrain magnethotspot. Now, to oversimplify, it’s time to attract the next wave – entrepreneurs, not just social entrepreneurs.  As is argued by an affiliate of The Idea Village, a nonprofit business incubator, it’s time that more of the ingenuity washing over the city was dedicated to making money, not just altruism.  Creating jobs is inextricably part of any successful repopulation campaign.

In the end, either the city or an overarching non-profit needs to serve as the umbrella entity in a concerted marketing effort, one that attracts new residents and links their influx directly to the rehabilitation of vacant or blighted homes.  The economic activity generated by hundreds of fallow properties being brought back online would be tremendous.

We need to get bold, to think outside the box, and come up with high-profile, even quirky strategies. We need to break through the static to attract residents from around that nation and beyond. Detroit, to cite one tactic worth pondering, is basically giving away houses to attract residents.  Lately, the Louisiana Land Trust is sending rafts of hundreds of blighted New Orleans houses  through the demolition approval process – although these properties could instead be sold off very inexpensively to prospective residents looking for a true fixer upper.  While there are daunting legal logistics to overcome, it’s time to start brainstorming about things as unorthodox as a vacant house lottery on a national television program – how about The Colbert Report — in which a well-known New Orleanian – Wendell Pierce? — who invites people to come on down not just to grab beignets at Cafe du Monde, but to fix up a camelback in St. Roch and live here, even if the living is a bit spartan at first.

As Lafcadio Hearn once wrote, providing some food for thought: “it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”  Now we need to let people know that.

Brad Vogel, a resident of New Orleans and a graduate of Tulane Law School, works as a fellow with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The opinions expressed here are his own.

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  • You’re going to run into serious problems even giving homes away to people in this city.

    Property taxes are assessed without any realism, insurance for property is astronomical, utilities are incredibly expensive, and the permitting process at City Hall is designed to dissuade people from improving their homes. You run into those devils-in-the-details if you can convince folks to move to blighted homes despite the crime, failing schools and flood risk.

    People aren’t going to fall for some quirky marketing scheme if they have to deal with all that reality once they sign on the dotted line.

    As much fun as it is to think that this city’s culture and revival will be enough to attract the critical mass of population needed to rebuild our way out of the blight situation, you can’t ignore the very real obstacles that this city’s government places on individuals who want to live here.

    Try this for a change: start getting rid of the most blighted properties (which will take years) and then start addressing the very real obstacles that keep people from moving here. As it gets easier to own a home and fix up a home in New Orleans, more people will do it.

    Then you won’t need a quirky marketing scheme, because you’ll have a robust reality to sell.

  • Alan


    Excellent op-ed. I think you are spot on. I think creative ways to execute are not only necessary, but should be part of the entire ethos of the project. For repopulation to occur on the scale necessary, this needs to be a truly common civic priority. All of the problems that Pat from Georgia identifies should be brought into the fold. Recommendations for how a program could circumvent them need to be developed. Partners as municipal agencies to help demarcate these problems and allude to potential solutions need to be brought into the fold. Maybe we could develop a quorum on this issue and start working on an agenda.

  • mikenola

    your editorial is a major over simplification of the problem and totally impractical under LA and NOLA law.

    yes it would be great to put attention and money into attracting new residents, but most Americans are NOT interested in buying a tear down shack for its “historical quaintness”.

    You also completely avoid the tangential costs of these blighted properties. Crime, vermin, squatters, property values just name the top 5 things these blighted properties affect or attract.

    We have thousands of LA residents who can run a bulldozer and backhoe. What we don’t have is a state (or city) government that cares about the quality of life for its residents. Instead they care about lining their pockets, and their rich donors pockets, with government money at the expense of the middle and lower income brackets.

    You ignore the fact the state government voted 3 years after to Katrina to make it even more difficult for the government to take actions against property owners who own slums or vacant property.

    You ignore the already high bar to purchasing foreclosed property.

    You ignore the nation economy and mortgage crisis.

    You ignore the reality of “buying” these homes, which are mainly in areas that make us one of the perennial U.S. Murder Capitals.

    you ignore the under-educated labor base in this state.

    You ignore the over-abundance of laborers with felony records.

    Basically you put forth a pipe dream.

    What we need to do, is tear down all these decrepit buildings and clear the land, and do so ASAP!

    We need to reduce the footprint of the city to match the number of residents.

    We need to put out a curfew on teens and increase the effectiveness of our Ankle Bracelet Monitoring program so that the COPS can pick up the offenders instead of having to wait until monday to get a order from the JUDGE who ordered the bracelet.

    We need to demand that parents are involved with their kids education, and make those resources available to educate our kids.

    We need to do a lot of things, holding on to the hope that some nitwit can be tricked into coming here just to get a free home (shack!) in a death zone or drive-by-haven is patently absurd!

    How about working on getting the laws governing Succession removed from the books?

    How about removing the obstacles to tearing down empty homes?

    How about finding the owners of these shacks who have not rebuilt, not paid taxes, not repaired and NOT in residence here in NOLA and apply laws that make it crime to endanger your neighbors?

    It would be really nice to save all the so called historic culture, but considering that most are termite damaged, water destroyed, infested hovels it is a waste of time and money!

  • Great piece, Brad. You have opened a nice can of voodoo dolls.
    I agree with what everyone above said, particularly Cousin Pat, even mikenola to some extent.
    I was drawn to invest in a 130 yr old duplex (foreclosure) in the bywater –just off Fort Apache St Claude– just this past week, by some of the very notions put forth in Brad’s piece here.
    Buuuut…I am a Nolafugee, and 51 yrs old to boot!
    So don’t you dare leave Us out of any of this plan. That would be as insane as rebuilding the floodwalls with the same mistakes the Corps made…wait a minute…never mind, water under the levees.

    Long-time renter and survivor of The Flood of 8.29.05, I know what I’m getting myself into with the City of New Orleans in all her deadly metaphor reality. These youngsters you would “target” have no idea –and, well, let’s just say that is a bad word to use.

    Thank you for bringing this up.

  • Brad V

    There are certainly many, many hurdles to overcome.

    But we can either sit back and crab about them – essentially caving to them, as mikenola does in his repetitive screed – or we can try to find a way forward.

    Bringing more people into the fold, as tricky as it may be given the reality on the ground, is one of the few ways that will finally help to bring change to the laundry list of problems.

    And I genuinely do believe there are enough good things about life in NOLA as it is that we can find populations to target with a message that, even if quirky, is not in any way misleading. I’m basically here on that premise.

    And as for all this talk about tearing down “shacks” – just remember that many parts of the city have been declared beyond hope or worthless at points in the city’s history: the French Quarter, the Lower Garden District, the Warehouse District, Freret Street, etc.

    Whether we’re talking returning New Orleanians or first time New Orleanians, we need more people here to help address blight, to prevent further representation losses at the state and federal level, to start small businesses, to pay taxes, to run for office, to demand better city services, and to come up with creative solutions for the real problems around them.

  • Tess

    A “Live New Orleans” campaign is a great idea – we cannot grow without increasing our population. But we also need to continue to target displaced residents who still want to come back but haven’t found the resources to do so. They likely have a stronger investment in their flooded neighborhoods than newcomers will.

    Many houses should be marketed to someone who could restore them to their former glory, but this strategy can’t be applied across the board. Many houses were so badly flooded that the cost of renovating them would be higher than the cost of tearing them down and building a new home. There are many homes with architectural significance, but just as many that are mid-century slab-on-grade ranch houses that sit below sea level.

    The key is to come up with a strategic plan for which properties to demolish vs. preserve – and then to start clearing title to these properties so that they can be transferred to whoever might want to buy them.

  • Here’s a far out idea

    How about giving undocumented immigrants a legal path to citizenship so they can revive the homes and own them. They’re already here, they’re already skilled in construction, they’re already restoring homes for others.

    What a boon to the economy that would be!