Land Use

Crackdown on Lower Garden District blight outs cop with dual homestead exemptions

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 property at 1026 Melpomene will now be auctioned.

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.

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About Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led to guilty pleas in federal court. Her work attracted some of journalism's highest honors, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.

  • Michael DeGeorge

    Lens Nola Thanks so much for bringing attention to this matter. I hate to be a pecemist but I will hold my excitement until the property actually sells at auction and is in the hands of a new buyer. We have gotten our hopes up before only to see the auction stopped with no explanation and the property still sitting blighted. 1336 Magazine is a perfect example

  • Diane Wheeler

    Very happy to see this in print. Thank you for covering the story! Shining a light on the issues certainly helps bring awareness. This LGD neighborhood has seen real improvement in the last few years – with blighted buildings being bought and restored and lived in again. The hold out properties like this one are an eyesore as well as a real and persistent danger. Until the owner/officer has straightened out the false claims for the exemption and recovery monies, and the house sells at auction it remains an active problem. Karen – please check in with this story again in a month and see what has progressed.

  • Derek

    Wasnt this building some sort of bakery a long time ago that was used to fund the building of many of the city’s orphanages?