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 don’t 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 a “brain magnet” hotspot. 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 non–profit 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.