By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |
Taking action against the owner of blighted property is at best a ticklish business – only more so, residents of the Lower Garden District learned, when the owner claims a homestead exemption on the building.
The informal citizen’s group learned something else: Persistence pays off.
The homestead exemption was cited by city blight czar Jeff Hebert as the reason he hadn’t been able to make much progress against the owner of a masonry structure in the 1000 block of Melpomene Street that had become a focus of neighborhood complaints.
A homestead? The building had been vacant for more than 15 years, according to neighbor Tom Gault.
Gault was not the only neighbor who had complained about the building. This past February, Michael DeGeorge also got into the act. In a flurry of emails with Hebert, DeGeorge said fellow residents ranked 1026 Melpomene one of the neighborhood’s “10 worst properties”.
Hebert responded that he was sending the case to the City Attorney “to be reviewed for code enforcement liens.”
In March, with no evidence of progress at City Hall, DeGeorge wrote Hebert to ask what was going on and to reiterate that the “property is viewed by the neighbors as a very unsafe situation”
It was at this point that Hebert mentioned the homestead exemption, saying it was the reason he had been unable to move forward on a code enforcement lien.
The owner of the property, as it happened, was a 5th District cop named Dennis Laurie who had inherited it from his parents’ estate in 2008. While claiming the homestead exemption, he was seeking permission from the Historic District Landmarks Commission to demolish the property and then rebuild it as a three-unit apartment building, according to the contractor from Slidell’s Savoie Construction who spoke on Laurie’s behalf before the HDLC. The contractor told the HDLC that construction would be financed with a $300,000 grant from the state Road Home Rental program.
Alas, for Laurie and Savoie, the grant was not to be.
The HDLC denied the demolition request and, according to Road Home, no money was ever released to Laurie under the Small Rental Program.
Laurie’s problems were about to get worse. On his application for demolition he had listed his legal address as Valentine Court. A quick check with the assessor’s office by neighbors of the Melpomene property revealed that Laurie claimed a second homestead exemption on Valentine Court, despite the fact that a New Orleans homeowner is allowed only a single exemption.
At a March 26 code-enforcement hearing, Laurie was hit with fines and fees totaling $17,000 for the blight, plus $10,000 in back taxes on the Melpomene Street property, which had soared from an assessment of $50,000 to $405,000 when Laurie took title from his parents’ estate. The Valentine Court property, assessed at $193,000, is up to date on taxes, according to city records.
Marina Kahn, the chief deputy at the Orleans Assessor’s Office said the Melpomene Street homestead exemption has been revoked and back taxes have been applied for the years 2009, 2010, and 2011.
According to city spokesman Ryan Berni, the Melpomene Street property is moving to sheriff’s sale.
Laurie did not return repeated phone calls.