In a part of the Lower 9th Ward largely unrevived since flood waters filled the neighborhood, a lone two-story house stands on a block punctuated by overgown lots, piles of tiles and old concrete slabs.
Windows are broken. Graffiti covers the garage door. A kicked-in front door leads to a debris-filled interior. But what sets this property apart from other post-Katrina wrecks is both its high-profile owner and the substantial chunk of taxpayer dollars allocated to renovate it.
City Councilman Jon Johnson owns the property on Deslonde Street, in District E, the area of the city he represents. According to conveyance records, Johnson has been awarded $166,000 under the state’s Small Rental Program. The money is called a loan but carries no interest and, according to the Small Rental Program website, the loan is forgiven “once the units are repaired and income-eligible tenants are indentified.”
Johnson signed the loan documents on July 26, 2011. The program allows an applicant nine months to complete the work, meaning that Johnson stood to forfeit the money as of three weeks ago.
The program uses federal Community Development Block Grant money administered by the state to create more affordable housing while mitigating blight and abandonment.
Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for the state Office of Community Development, said that if construction is not complete within nine months “we send a team member to meet with the applicant to determine the progress and to determine what happens next. An applicant found to be working toward completion will be granted an additional three months. If the property remains unimproved, the state can foreclose on it.”
Although the state does not release information about the details of specific property transactions, Stephens said that typically at closing on a loan under the Small Rental Program, the applicant will get half of the amount. Another 30 percent is made available during the renovation, and the remaining 20 percent after completion.
In a phone interview with our reporting partners at FOX8-TV, Johnson said he’s done some work at the property, such as putting on a new roof, but that he’s been delayed by personal issues. Johnson’s wife died of cancer in September.
The roof does appear to be new, but according to the city permitting database, the last building permit issued for that address was in 2007.
Johnson insisted the property is not blighted. The windows are not broken; they are left open during the day and then closed at night, he said. He said he makes a point of keeping the grass cut.
Though he’s used the Deslonde address for various business ventures he’s been involved with, Johnson does not live at that address. His home is in the gated Eastover subdivision, a property valued by the assessor at $686,000.
Lower 9th Ward resident and community activist Vanessa Gueringer contends that Johnson is the beneficiary of special treatment by city officials responsible for housing-code enforcement.
“Why are tax-paying citizens of this community – who are struggling with quality-of-life issues every day – being cited by code enforcement, in some cases $500 a day, and our councilperson is getting a free pass?”
The house sends a message, Gueringer said.
“It says our councilman has perks. …It says that the city looks the other way when our elected officials own blighted properties in our neighborhood.”
Other houses near the Johnson’s property have been cited and brought to adjudication in the past several month. But until The Lens asked, 2221-23 Deslonde St. had not been inspected since 2010, city spokesman Ryan Berni said.
Update: The city has responded.
On Monday, four days after we asked about the property, it was inspected and found wanting. “The property will be cited and moved towards administrative hearing,” Berni wrote Thursday night by email.
City records examined briefly by The Lens show that, in fact, the property was inspected on May 14, four days after The Lens first asked about the property. We couldn’t determine the results of that inspection, however, and Berni didn’t immediately respond to clarify the inspection dates.
It’s not the first time Johnson has been associated with still-struggling property. In January 2011, The Lens reported on various derelict properties owned by a local non-profit connected to the council member, including one directly across Deslonde Street from the one now in question.