War on Blight more courteous but seems to lack coordination

By Karen Gadbois, The Lens opinion writer |

The thing that will not die.

A friend of mine – Ed — called and invited me to attend his code enforcement hearing on Wednesday. For him, it’s an event that’s beginning to feel like Groundhog Day all over again.

The house in question is one he bought back in March 2009 to renovate and rent, a task that would restore his Irish Channel block to 100 percent occupancy.

I had some past experience in these code enforcement hearings: back in the Nagin days, a hearing officer opened up and began bellowing at me as I observed the proceedings. Nothing special about yours truly; I was one of several citizens who suffered abuse at the hands of hearing officers in what could best be described as civic wilding.

Under the ancien regime, the tape recorders, which are supposed to run throughout the sessions, were regularly turned off so the hearing officer could provide his or her “off the record” – and invariably scathing — opinion of the property owner’s negligence. Despite pleas from one homeowner to go back on the record, the ranting continued and the recorders stayed off.

Ed’s hearing this week was the latest skirmish in a two-year Battle (with the battlers) against Blight. He had owned the house only a few months when he was slapped with his first citation.

In March 2010 he received an “all clear” letter from the city and successfully rented out the place, which was featured in The Times-Picayune’s “Street Walker” column.

That made it a little startling to get hauled back for Wednesday’s hearing. Ed came prepared with every sheet of paper the city had generated in connection with his house and its code-enforcement saga. But while he was unhappy to be there he was pleasantly surprised by the treatment he received: courteous, concerned and pleasant at all times. Indeed, city officials professed to be as bewildered as he was by the summons.

Lest you believe that Ed was suffering a ghost-in-the-machine experience, most every hearing I witnessed Wednesday morning involved some level of right-hand, left-hand disconnect.

One cited citizen showed up to testify that not only were renovations under way at the house in question, but he no longer even owned it, having sold the place 10 months ago. Fearing he’d be fined anyway, he brought along photographs documenting the new owner’s rehab work.

Another property owner came in wondering why his $400,000, fully-tenanted house had been cited. Was it because his renters were messy? The case manager scratched her head as she looked at photos snapped by the city’s inspector. Wasn’t that a television in one of them – a television in a house that was supposed to be empty? And the code violation? Good question.

While the process has become more civilized under the new administration, you are left to wonder if it is still “garbage in garbage out”. Could it be that city inspectors are ginning up their numbers to make it look like they’re winning the War on Blight? Stay tuned.

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