As he awaits sentencing in federal court, disgraced former City Councilman Jon Johnson finally is working to rehabilitate a Lower 9th Ward rental property for which he was awarded a taxpayer-financed loan.

The Lens and our partners at FOX8-TV reported on the property in May, highlighting the lack of work despite a $166,000 loan from the state. Johnson got the loan in July 2011, and the deadline to complete work was April. If borrowers don’t use the money, the state can ask for it to be returned.

It was only after The Lens story ran that Johnson secured a building permit for the renovation.  On Thursday, workers were busy at the building, now stripped to its studs and undergoing serious work.

But is it too late?

The property as it stood two months ago. Photo by Karen Gadbois

“As far as we are concerned, we’re still considering our options when it comes to recouping grant funds,” said Christina Stephens of the state Office of Community Development, which oversees the program that issued the loan.

It’s not likely that Johnson ever received the full amount of the loan. Stephens said previously that she couldn’t address his particular case, but generally borrowers are given half the loan amount at closing, then more as work progresses. If that held true for Johnson, he would have received $83,000 more than a year ago.

The money is called a loan but carries no interest and, according to the program’s website, the loan is forgiven “once the units are repaired and income-eligible tenants are indentified.”

The program was designed to create affordable housing and bring some properties damaged by Katrina back in to commerce.

Johnson resigned earlier this month, the same day he pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of theft of federal funds, money allocated to repair and renovate a former school building in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower 9th Ward.

That FEMA money had been given to the Lower Ninth Ward Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit that Johnson denied being affiliated with when The Lens reported on his connections to that group in January 2011. In entering his plea, however, he admitted to controlling the finances of the nonprofit and shifting the money to his failed state senate campaign and personal use.

Back on Deslonde Street, contractor Charles Brimmer said Thursday that he is “very confident” he will be paid for the repairs to the two-family home, estimating the final cost may be as much as $200,000.

Brimmer said he spoke with Johnson Saturday and Johnson reassured him that this project was going to continue because it had nothing to do with the federal case.

Johnson did not return calls seeking comment.

Lens staff writer Danielle Bell contributed to this report.

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...