The Lens first published this story Jan. 19, 2011. For breaking news on federal charges against Johnson, visit the site of our reporting partners at Fox8 News. For a Lens story on how Johnson received $166,000 in taxpayer loans but hasn’t fixed up another Lower 9th Ward property, click here.
By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
The gutted shell of a house molders next door to Our School at Blair Grocery, a non-profit learning program in the Lower 9th Ward. Here, students who left the city’s public school system acquire skills and earn wages growing organic herbs and produce that are sold to local restaurants and at farmer markets. Volunteers at the farm say they would like to find a way to put the decaying brick building next door to use.
Nearby, an imposing historic brick building stands open to the elements, virtually untouched since Hurricane Katrina. It’s an off-putting first glimpse of the area for drivers crossing into the Lower 9th on the St. Claude Avenue Bridge.
A few blocks away, another door-less and windowless house sits empty. Elementary students from the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School regularly pass by the house on their way home.
“You see the kids walking by, looking in,” a neighbor said last week. “When people go inside though, that’s when you call the police.”
Such scenes of neglect are ubiquitous in the flood-scarred neighborhood. Yet these buildings, and six others, have sparked much chatter in the Lower 9TH Ward since the fall.
That’s when a well-known politician tangentially connected to the structures, Jon Johnson, was elected to represent the district on the City Council.
As a council member representing sections of the city hardest hit by Katrina, Johnson has made fighting blight a focus, participating in widely advertised community cleanups and working with Mayor Mitch Landrieu to identify targets for code enforcement efforts. But even as he publicly attacks neglected properties, Johnson continues to turn an apparently blind eye to the nine derelict properties owned by a nonprofit he presided over in varying capacities for a decade.
For many battling abandonment and blight in the slowly recovering neighborhood, the ramshackle properties have become painful symbols of a disconnect between showy public efforts to fight blight and the persistent reality along streets rarely traveled by outsiders.
The buildings are owned by the Ninth Ward Housing Development Corp., a non-profit social service agency. Johnson was president of the organization’s board in the 1980s and early 1990s, then known as the Lower Ninth Ward Housing Development Corp. He remains connected to the agency through personal relations, including his brother and former business partner, James Johnson, who serves as the group’s secretary; the council member’s longtime professional colleague Terri Guerin is listed on Secretary of State documents as the nonprofit board’s president. In his capacity as council member, Jon Johnson recently appointed Guerin to the board of the New Orleans Regional Business Park, and he has worked with her on neighborhood issues in Eastover, the gated eastern New Orleans community where they both live.
Johnson said in an interview last week that he no longer has a relationship with the group, and that he is “not in a position to speak” about blighted properties it owns.
“I’ve worked with a lot of nonprofits,” he said. The Ninth Ward Housing Development Corporation “is one of those I have worked with.”
When asked if he planned to approach his brother about remedying the blight the group owns or working with other groups to put the houses back in use, Jon Johnson said it would be “patently unfair” to target one or two properties that he may be connected to when there are thousands that require attention.
“I am going to be working with all the groups,” he said. “Every piece of blighted property in that community needs to be addressed.”
For a clickable map, with photos of each property in question, please click here.
BLIGHT BURDENS OTHERS
Like churches and schools, nonprofits such as the Ninth Ward Housing Development Corp. do not pay real-estate taxes to the city, meaning other property owners pay incrementally more to cover the shortfall. The benefit lets groups hold onto property for years or even decades without making improvements, or even completing routine maintenance.
Take a walk around eastern New Orleans, Central City or any part of the 9th Ward and you can see swaths of neglected property owned by defunct, dormant or broke nonprofits that were given land after the storm, but have not rebuilt.
In the case of the Ninth Ward Housing Development Corp., the bulk of its holdings date back to the early 1980s, and were in the group’s control when Jon Johnson was president of the board. Neighbors say the houses were kept up until Hurricane Katrina damaged them. The group, however, never rebounded after the storm and as a result, the structures deteriorated.
But while the nonprofit’s board president, Guerin, is legally liable for the organization’s property under state law, she said in an interview that she recently resigned from the board, and that the group’s paperwork had not been updated.
“I don’t know who the new president is,” she said.
Guerin said the organization had not rehired staff since Katrina, and she referred all questions about the group to James Johnson and Roy Lewis, who met earlier this month to discuss how to move forward on renovations of the nonprofit’s properties, she said.
Both men were signatories on documents filed with the Secretary of State on Sept. 15 to reinstate the nonprofit. The state filings list Lewis as a director of the nonprofit.
When reached by phone recently, both denied involvement with the group.
“I am not on the board and I have not been affiliated for over a year,” Lewis said Wednesday.
James Johnson hung up on a reporter when asked why he signed the state filings in September if he has nothing to do with the group.
When Guerin was told in a follow-up interview that Lewis and Johnson refused to speak for the group, she said she would find out who could provide information and pass on the information. Guerin never called back.
WHOM DO YOU CITE?
Uncertainty as to who is accountable for the group’s properties reflects a major challenge to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his administration as they move forward with a plan to sharply reduce the city’s inventory of 53,000 blighted properties, one of the highest of any city in the nation.
“If you don’t have anyone answerable or responsible to code enforcement, how can the system work,” asked Kathy Muse, a Holy Cross homeowner and a program coordinator for the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development, a nonprofit based a few blocks from the old T.J. Semmes Elementary School. That’s the historic Holy Cross school that the 9th Ward Community Development Corp. used as a headquarters until Katrina and has not repaired or reopened since.
The question will become more critical as the city works to wrest control of thousands of such properties through more aggressive citing and adjudicating of blight. The city does not know exactly how much of the city’s blight is owned by nonprofits, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni wrote in an email.
“Blighted property owned by nonprofits is held to the same standards as blighted property owned by residents and businesses,” he wrote.
Ironically, perhaps, the new blight-fighting strategy unveiled by Landrieu earlier this year could send thousands more blighted properties to nonprofits. Presumably, the city will vet the recipients to ensure they’re viable. And indeed, many strong non-profits are already working in the area.
For instance, the Rev. Willie Calhoun is a minister in the Lower 9th Ward and the vice president of the New Life Intracoastal Community Development Corp. After Katrina, he returned to rebuild his own home and church, and help others do the same.
“My group has gotten properties but we get volunteers out there and rebuild them,” he said.
Calhoun hesitates to lay blame, but the pastor echoes a common refrain in saying that the city needs to change how it handles blight so that all properties are accounted for and made safe.
“We should have a full accounting for who owns everything down here,” he said. “If the (Ninth Ward) housing corporation owns these properties, they should be doing something because they’ve been like this for years.”
The connection between the city councilman and the nonprofit-owned blight “doesn’t so much bother me,” he said, adding that Johnson has been active in the struggle against abandonment.
“He has identified his concern about blight,” Calhoun said. “He came out when WBOK came out (for a neighborhood cleanup day). He has put some time and effort into trying to clean up the area.”
40-YEAR TRACK RECORD
Neighborhood civic activists, including Andrew Sanchez, a former property manager for the city, and one of the first black residents to lead a department at City Hall, established the 9th Ward Housing Development Corporation in 1971. The group’s mission is to “carry out programs and projects for improvements in housing and related facilities for low-income families, particularly blacks.”
It has accomplished this mission carrying out government-financed childcare, education and homebuyer assistance programs. In the decade before failure of the Industrial Canal levee put the Lower 9th Ward underwater, the group developed at least eight homes in the neighborhood using $200,000 in federal grant money provided by the mayoral administrations of former mayors Marc Morial and Ray Nagin, grant agreements with the city show. The group’s last housing contract with the Nagin administration, a $300,000 contract to build nine three-bedroom homes, expired several months after the storm with none of the houses built or grant money expended, city records show.
Jon Johnson was on the nonprofit’s 15-member board when the group bought the old T.J. Semmes Elementary School at an auction of Orleans Parish School Board property. The historic brick school at 1008 Jourdan Ave. in Holy Cross quickly became the group’s most visible incarnation as well as its most valuable property, appraised in 2011 at $545,900.
Before Katrina, the group ran social-service and after-school programs there, including a daycare center, Guerin said. The building also served as the headquarters of the housing corporation, and the New Orleans Health Corp., a nonprofit that provides health care to low-income people. The group currently employs Jon Johnson’s wife, Dr. Angela Barthe, though she was not employed by the group before the storm.
Since Katrina, however, neither the housing corporation nor the health corporation has returned, and the building sits open to the elements along a damaged sidewall. Weather, squatters, or some combination of both have ripped off boards that covered the imposing building’s large windows. Graffiti covers its red brick façade.
Though all these code violations are visible from the St. Claude Avenue Bridge that runs next to the school, there are no outstanding code enforcement liens or penalties on the building, city records show. The deteriorating condition of the former community anchor is a cause for concern for neighbors, especially after the October rape of a 16-year-old girl in an abandoned home a block from the school.
“Our concern is a chronic lack of action,” said Muse, who is also a Holy Cross homeowner. “The nonprofit that owns that building has not reached out to us, code enforcement does not seem to be having any affect and, meanwhile, the structure is falling apart and could attract criminals.”
NEIGHBORS BLAME JOHNSON HIMSELF
In 1992, the Semmes School, and Jon Johnson, then president of the Ninth Ward Housing Development Corp. board and a state senator representing New Orleans, made headlines. That’s when the state stopped payments to the group because of a failure to submit the required accounting reports for $495,000 in state contracts, a large portion of which was supposed to pay for renovation of the historic building as a housing facility for the elderly. The renovation never happened. Soon after the issue became public, Jon Johnson resigned from the nonprofit’s board.
In an interview this week, Guerin said she wasn’t sure of the relationship between Jon Johnson and the nonprofit, though “he does have a relationship.”
Those Lower 9th Ward residents who look at the dereliction on a daily basis have a different – if imprecise – view of the connection between the damaged buildings and the councilman who represents them in City Hall. On Lamanche Street, neighbor William Johnson considers the councilman responsible for the blight.
“He’s been owning that house and a bunch of others of them for years,” neighbor William Johnson said, pointing to 1801 Lamanche St., the gutted, open shell on the corner of North Roman Street. Johnson said he used to mow the property’s grass for the Jon Johnson family, but stopped doing it a year or two ago because he stopped getting paid.
“(Jon) Johnson had family there,” William Johnson said. “He had a sister there, and his sister’s daughter living there .”
The only signs of life in the house on a recent visit were fast-food wrappers and broken glass around a dirt-caked toilet. While the structures are in clear and blatant violation of city housing code, their owners have not been fined and there are no enforceable liens, according to the city’s tax database. A code enforcement inspection on Jan. 9 found violations that are currently pending in a case whose hearing date has not yet been set, Berni wrote in an e-mail last week.
The lack of action so far upsets William Johnson who is now battling city code enforcement officials who have threatened to demolish his mother’s storm-damaged house across the street unless he does repairs.
“If they’re going to knock my mama’s house down because I don’t have the money to fix it,” he said, “I want to see them come here and say they’re going to knock his house down too.”