Land Use

Homeowner or homeless? St. Louis Street resident fights to hang on to what he has

Lane Hughes at home on St. Louis Street.

By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |

The stretch of St. Louis Street near Claiborne Avenue more closely resembles an industrial brown field than a residential neighborhood. And even in that context, the ramshackle house in the 1900 block has eccentricities of its own: the plastic flowers and ribbons that hang from the front fence, for example. And the giant Sponge Bob that stood beside the house a few years back — what was that about?

The house, targeted for demolition, made it onto the docket of this week’s Neighborhood Conservation District Committee meeting. After all, it hasn’t had a working water meter since 1987 and taxes were last paid when Adam was a pup.

Given the quirky yard art, resistance to bulldozing the place might have been expected from an aficionado or two of local folk culture — and swiftly overridden. So members of the NCDC panel looked more than a little unnerved when the man at the microphone identified himself, not as a freelance culture buff, but as the current resident of the targeted house  – water or no water.

The implicit question: Was an attack on one urban problem — residential blight — merely adding to the equally vexing problem of homelessness?

Remember “The House of Sand and Fog,” the book/movie that came out a few seasons back? The premise of the tale was that a woman was so undone by life and addiction that she allowed her house to be sold out from under her at a tax auction. (Ben Kingsley moves in as patriarch of an Iranian immigrant family, and the plot thickens.)

The story, though fictional, sparked discussion in preservationist circles about whether you could actually “lose” your house in this way. The consensus view: probably not.

Then along came the housing crash and the error-ridden foreclosure pandemic, in which some folks who have already paid off their mortgage are fighting the repo man from Bank of America.

Lane Hughes’ story is a little different:

Arriving in New Orleans after Katrina to help salvage the family property, he bought a partial interest in the St. Louis Street house from his Uncle Pike, a housebound Vietnam vet who inherited the place from his mother and then died. So why is the property still in the name of Hughes’ grandmother, Octavia Gresham? Because assessor Claude Mauberret required full payment of back taxes before he would do the transfer, said Hughes, 44, who ekes out a living collecting soda and beer cans and carting them to Southern Scrap, conveniently located across the Orleans Canal from his house.

Yes, indeed, the taxes are a bit backed up, none having been paid since 1996. Meanwhile, code enforcement liens date back to 2000, well before the current post-Katrina blitz on substandard properties.

In a photograph of the house taken by this reporter in 2007, a giant Sponge Bob fills the jungly front yard along with broken down trucks and spare parts.

The Sponge Bob has been relocated to a field outside  Shreveport, said Hughes, whose philosophical view that life is art has also prompted him to paint flowers on toilet bowls and set them out as planters along streets in the neighborhood. A self-taught artist who also raises chickens and shelters sick and injured dogs, he claims to have drawn a deep draught of inspiration from the late Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Code Enforcement’s Hillary Carrere reached for the stars and called Hughes’ home “the biggest blight eyesore in the City of New Orleans.”

Hughes’ countered by noting that he has “a brand new roof.” And it’s emblazoned with the Who Dat slogan.

Carrere was willing to concede that there has been some work on the property, but then moved to bring the issue to a vote before Hughes could finish answering the committee’s questions.

Lucinda Flowers from City Planning asked for legal input: Can the city demolish a house that has someone living in it?

The council split 6-4 and the motion to demolish failed. But perhaps not for long. A second motion was introduced to revisit the issue in 30 days, after the City Attorney rules on the issue of demolishing an occupied residence. That motion  passed unanimously.

Hughes is convinced that the gathering momentum against him stems from backers of the  Lafitte Greenway, the linear park planned along the abandoned railroad tracks that parallel the canal across from his home. Bart Everson, president of the Friends of Lafitte Corridor, said that while there have been conversations with Hughes about his use of park space for storing building materials and raising chickens, his house is not targeted by the project.

At one point during his interrogation by board members, Hughes had raised a question of his own: “Where am I gonna live?”

Mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni offered reassurances: “We will be looking to work with the occupant to find a suitable housing option,” he said in answer to an inquiry after the meeting.

Within a day Hughes had indeed been contacted – by an envoy from one of the local non-profits that deal with the homeless.

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