New construction on Hamburg Street replaces a formerly blighted home in Gentilly.

By Tess Monaghan, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

Nearly six years after Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of residential properties in New Orleans sit vacant. Some have been blighted for decades. But many remain in disrepair simply because their owners lack the funds to repair damage from Hurricane Katrina.

City Hall has set a goal of eliminating 10,000 blighted structures over three years, but a crucial – and largely unasked – question lingers: what about pre-storm homeowners who want to rebuild or otherwise remediate their blighted properties?

A Greater New Orleans Community Data Center report published late last year suggests that more than ten thousand properties whose owners received Road Home Option 1 funds remain unreconstructed, likely representing the largest single source of blight in the city. Creating a nuanced strategy to help pre-storm homeowners return and repair these houses is key to solving New Orleans’ blight problem.

People often assume that families who have not yet rebuilt their homes have given up on New Orleans and launched new lives in Houston or Atlanta. At Build Now, a non-profit that builds new homes on families’ pre-Katrina lots, we have found that this is not always the case. Every week, we speak to dozens of families who want to rebuild their pre-Katrina home, but face myriad challenges: title issues, gaps between available funds and rebuilding costs, contractor fraud, obstacles to obtaining Road Home, hazard mitigation or increased cost of compliance grants.  We help our clients overcome logistical challenges such as collecting government and insurance funds and securing a conventional or reverse mortgage.

Angelena Jackson, whose home on Hamburg Street in Gentilly is pictured above, owned a 90% share in her property – but the remaining 10% was held jointly by nine other relatives. Build Now worked with a title attorney to clear ownership of the lot before we could start building. Without assistance, our clients – many of them elderly – would not have the capacity to secure funding, locate a contractor, negotiate a contract, choose a set of plans, and supervise the construction of a new home.

Like many non-profits in New Orleans, Build Now seeks to assist the thousands of families who want to rebuild on their pre-storm property and who, with some assistance, become able to do so. By rebuilding storm-damaged housing and returning displaced residents to their neighborhoods, non-profit organizations are supporting the blight eradication goals – but to date, the city’s strategy has not focused on repair or reconstruction of properties whose owners want to come back home.

Assisting property owners who want to cure their own blight would serve a dual purpose. Not only would it reduce blight, it would boost the city’s population, increasing tax revenues, property values, and local business revenue. Pre-storm property owners who want to return have an incentive to rebuild quickly once they receive needed  assistance. They are committed to the neighborhoods that have been their homes for decades, providing stability even in areas that may be less attractive to new purchasers.

The city could support efforts to empower pre-storm homeowners to rebuild on their property in several ways:

Access to information. Better coordination with government agencies would enable non-profits to connect with homeowners and make them aware of available assistance; non-profit organizations cannot access confidential property owner contact information collected by Road Home. The Road Home program and Code Enforcement both have a wealth of contact information for owners of flooded and blighted property, but neither has so far agreed to send a mailer to their contacts with information on non-profits that could help them rebuild.

Access to financing. Nearly six years after Hurricane Katrina, funds to subsidize construction by non-profits are limited. A government-supported alternative mortgage product could spur rebuilding by filling the gap for homeowners who did not get enough recovery funds and who are not able to access subsidized non-profit construction assistance.

Information on owners’ intentions. Some pre-storm homeowners selected Road Home Option 1 but have since decided not to return and rebuild. If the city tracked these properties in a database, they could be combined with properties currently under government control. Packaging those lots would make them more attractive to developers.

Blight in New Orleans is intricately linked to recovery from Katrina. If we want our neighborhoods to regain their pre-storm vitality, we must work together to find pre-storm property owners and enable them to return home (or help them make arrangements to sell their property in a responsible fashion). Non-profits are doing their part in returning pre-storm homeowners to their neighborhoods. With more coordination between blight reduction efforts and recovery efforts, we could collectively eliminate more blighted structures than with demolition and tax or lien sales alone – while at the same time empowering residents to return to New Orleans.

Tess Monaghan is executive director of Build Now, a non-profit that assists owners who want to replace damaged homes with new construction.