Kudos to city for new blight strategy in historic areas

By Brad Vogel, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

    I didn’t expect to, but I actually broke into applause last Thursday at the city’s BlightStat meeting.

    Toward the end of the meeting, Jeff Hebert, the city’s Director of Blight Policy and Neighborhood Revitalization, casually mentioned that the city would no longer be pushing blighted properties in local historic districts directly toward demolition.

    Instead, properties deemed a public nuisance by the city first will be offered for auction at a sheriff’s sale.  Only those properties that don’t sell at auction will then be sent to Historic Districts Landmark Commission for demolition approval.  Hebert’s announcement solved a small mystery: why the city had removed all of its properties from the HDLC agenda ahead of the most recent meeting.

    Perhaps I’m a bit too excited.  But I’ll say it anyway: this is really good news.

    The city’s modification of its policy shows that it understands the argument that’s been made for some time by vocal preservationists, city council members, and members and staff of the demolition-approval committees themselves: demolition should not be the first means of addressing many of the blighted properties in New Orleans.

    Especially in the context of the city’s local historic districts, demolition is a short-sighted solution to the blight problem.  It removes historic properties from streetscapes, leaves narrow vacant lots that are often difficult to sell, and ignores incentives for investment that are just around the corner.

    It also costs a lot of money – roughly $10,000 for demolition of a typical double shotgun.  In local historic districts like Bywater and the Irish Channel, where revitalization of historic housing stock is well underway, avoiding the demolition of large numbers of historic properties also stands to play a major role in maintaining property values.

    Making this policy change stick will require additional effort.  The city needs to see that forgoing demolition can pay off.  For that to happen, the city and its partners will need to market the upcoming sheriff’s sales aggressively.  The auction set for June 14 will feature as many as 41 properties.   Council Member Stacy Head and the Preservation Resource Center have been pushing hard to get the word out.

    While the auctions aren’t a panacea because they don’t guarantee that renovation will occur, they do afford one last chance to leverage private investment for rehabilitation before the city spends tens of thousands on demolition.  This policy shift represents an experiment of sorts.  But it’s worth it – the city rightly earned praise yesterday from a coalition of 10 preservation and neighborhood organizations for trying this alternative.

    Moving forward, the city should also consider expanding this auction-first approach into a larger geographic area. While many neighborhoods fall within local historic districts, a good number, such as Mid-City and parts of the 7th Ward and St. Roch, are part of national historic districts.  Properties in these additional areas should also be subject to the policy change at some point – especially if the initial city experiment with properties in local historic districts proves successful. As additional neighborhood real estate markets strengthen over time, it may make sense to expand the policy shift to all properties within the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee’s jurisdiction – most of the area below I-610.

    And, finally, what about properties that don’t sell at sheriff’s sales?  While the city would be in a far stronger position to seek demolition approval, it would behoove policymakers to create an alternative that reinforces the strengths of our local historic districts.  Urban homesteading incentives are option; another might be a lot-next-door program.

    For now, though, the city has earned itself some applause.  If the new policy on properties in local historic districts is followed, it will mark a much smarter, better targeted phase in the city’s fight against blight – one that tangibly demonstrates a respect for the city’s valuable historic architecture.

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

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