Prior owner of 1 demolished "Treme" house says city seized double he was trying to fix

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By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Standing in front of a row of abandoned, soon-to-be-razed double shotguns, , gesturing sympathetically to the neighborhood leaders gathered with him, Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Thursday implored New Orleans property owners to end the pattern of neglect that has left tens of thousands blighted buildings across the city.

“To all the people out there who own properties in the city of New Orleans, take care of them, honor your responsibilities, get your property back up to code, the city will be enforcing and this is a consequence of that enforcement,” the mayor said, the anger in his voice palpable.

Within hours of that fiery condemnation, the five severely dilapidated double shotguns fell and the finger-pointing began. The houses, featured in the promotional material for the HBO series “Treme,” and located across from Taylor Park on the 2700 block of S. Derbigny St., had caught the public imagination. Not least of all because of a plea to “renovate and not destroy” the houses sent, at the behest of preservationists, to Landrieu from “Treme” executive producers David Simon, Eric Overmyer and Nina Noble.

The mayor ridiculed the preservationists and the “Treme” producers for neglecting to put forward resources to save the houses. Simon released a letter saying that the “Treme” team would have been happy to donate money to restore the houses, had someone written him back. The preservationists said that Simon never informed them he had sent the letter.

But for one observer, the Rev. Kaseem Short, executive director of the Gert Town Community Development Center, the blame fell squarely elsewhere, onto the city’s own redevelopment arm, New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

Short owned one of the doubles until 2009, when NORA expropriated it using its power to take blighted properties. The agency seized the house even though Short was awarded an $84,000 grant from Louisiana Recovery Authority’s Small Rental Assistance program to put the property back into commerce. Short acknowledges that the house, 2708-2710 S. Derbigny St., was vacant and neglected when NORA took it from him. But, he says, the condition of the only deteriorated under NORA’s watch.

“They owned the property for two years,” Short said. “If they were really concerned about abandoned property and nuisance property and safety, they would have forged ahead and torn it down years ago, before it got even more dilapidated.”

Short says he did not use the grant before NORA took the property because of the program’s structure, which required him to secure a bank loan to compete the repairs before being reimbursed by the state.

“I couldn’t get the bank financing,” he said. “That’s why I needed the grant.”

Not long before NORA took the house from Short, the program was changed to allow landlords to get the money up front.

NORA did not return calls for comment.

Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said that NORA and the city would be working together from here on out to ensure that development moves forward at a reasonable pace. He said there are no plans for the Derbigny Street site, and that demolition costs would be attached through a lien to the property before an act of sale.

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