Land Use

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

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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  • Carmen Urquidi

    As a homeowner in New Orleans, who has blighted property in a middle class neighborhood, I agree with the city action on the property. It is imperative that we move forward, 6 years after the storm, and protect the values of homeowners who have rebuilt their homes.
    In response to the HBO series willingness to fix the homes, they should have been more pro-active, in securing the properties for rehabilitation. To come forward in the eleventh hour, only serves to divide the community. We are a city that needs to move from a reactionary method of re-building to a pro-active methodology towards recovery.
    It is unfair to force neighboring homeowners live with blight, while awaiting irresponsible neighbors, to commence construction while awaiting funding, to live in neglectful conditions. The inablility to secure funding for rehabilitation, six years post levee break, only insinuates that the potential rehabilition of the blighted property in a timely manner, is an unachievable vision.
    Nagins’ disservice to the city when he halted demolition of the properties by FEMA, in attempt to protect irresponsible homeowners, only has burdened the cityand taxpayers with the cost for removal of the properties in 2011.

  • I moved back to New Orleans in December 2010 after 5 years living in Europe. I stayed for the storm and left 4 days later. I’m buying a house in bad shape to renovate, but Im buying it cheap. I want to buy more houses for rentals. Katrina was the biggest disaster we’ve had in New Orleans and it will take many years to heal. Blighted property are open wounds, but a razed lot is a permanent scar. The city’s blight czar’s first obligation should have been to connect and facilitate the communication between State and Federal programs for rehabilitation, the owners of blighted property, people like me that are returning and the providers of rehab services such as construction, architectural and lending institutions that are geared towards this particular market. It should grab the opportunity of the channelling of millions of dollars of rehab into the city which would promote jobs in the area and spiral up the redevelopment of the area. Many people like me are returning to buy and renovate. The city needs more time to allow people to return. Each razed house is a lost opportunity. We have an unique character and we need to fight to preserve it. It is the basis for our strength.
    My heart hurts.