By Brad Vogel, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
Over the weekend, David Simon, creator of HBO’s Treme, publicly critiqued the city’s ongoing blight fight. Addressing the sixth annual Rising Tide conference, he noted how odd it was to see politicians standing in front of demolitions crowing about progress. Referring to a spat with the Mayor Mitch Landrieu over demolitions on Derbigny Street, Simon observed, “[He] demonstrated that there wasn’t a great deal of novelty to his approach.”
I have to agree. Unfortunately, for all the talk of innovation, the City of New Orleans continues to push for yet another round of mass demolitions, seemingly hell-bent to display as little creativity as possible in its blight eradication effort. The city seems be willing to milk FEMA for more demolition money – no matter how ill-considered the destruction of cherished housing stock might be.
As FEMA-funded demolition of approximately 919 houses resumed recently, The Times-Picayune noted offhandedly that “several” properties had come into compliance and been removed from the demolition list. In reality, at least 122 properties on the list were already in compliance, either because they’ve already been demolished or because their renovation is complete, according to statistics from the city’s latest BlightStat handout. An additional 238 properties on FEMA’s list have some other funding pool attached to them. For example, 52 are Road Home properties that have been passed to the Louisiana Land Trust, 139 are involved in state-funded programs such as the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and 47 are scheduled for sheriff’s sale.
The fact that nearly 40 percent of the properties on the list have different remediation funding sources or are already in compliance demonstrates how circumstances have changed since the FEMA list was compiled. Numerous owners of properties on the list contested the proposed demolition, which shows a welcome level of energy directed at reviving, not destroying, housing stock.
So how did this come to be? Why are the City’s FEMA-funded demolition contractors complaining at BlightStat meetings that the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee is turning down so many of their requests for demolition? Well, for one, the city is using an outdated list that is approximately five years old, one that does not fully account for changes in neighborhoods and individual blocks that make blighted properties more viable for renovation or sale today. The list also includes properties in places like Faubourg Marigny and Algiers, where it seems unlikely that Katrina or the flooding that followed was even a factor in whatever blight has been identified. Officials seem willing to demolish most anything they can get funded, just to add numbers to the casualty list in their “war on blight.”
While Landrieu, at yet another demolition press conference, stated that “the market value of the entire block will go up” after the bulldozer rolls, vacant lots, especially those turned into jungles, typically prove more difficult to sell than lots with structures already in place, however blighted. Particularly in historic districts, we’ve seen that buyers are much more inclined to purchase and renovate a blighted historic structure than buy a narrow urban parcel and build from scratch. The goal in many instances should be bringing buildings back into compliance and back into commerce rather than wasting federal assistance dollars destroying tax-generating housing stock throughout the city.
The mayor should work with FEMA to fund a truly innovative program. Mitigation consultation is required when federal dollars fund demolitions. FEMA should use some of the demolition dollars set aside for historic properties to start those properties on a path to sale or auction. I suggested this directly to FEMA via official channels back in April, but nothing has come of it.
The auction process really is one of the few things the city can crow about when it comes to the fight against blight, and it should be employed with greater frequency. With approximately 100 properties heading to auction on Oct. 18 and the prospect of several hundred more on the block before Thanksgiving, the sheriff sale alternative may finally be getting its proper place in the blight toolbox. Coupled with another auction of approximately 100 Road Home/Louisiana Land Trust properties on Sept. 10, city officials should begin to see that the blight fight doesn’t have to rely so heavily on the thoughtless, blunderbuss approach of mass demolition. Supporting alternatives — like auctions, securing houses, and urban homesteading — to address blight will preserve New Orleans’ unique architectural heritage and accelerate neighborhood revival.
New Orleans is not everywhere else – and its efforts to address blight should reflect that distinctiveness. There’s more to it than simply running up the score the quick and easy way.
Brad Vogel, a resident of New Orleans and a graduate of Tulane Law School, is an advocate for historic preservation of the city’s neighborhoods and housing stock.