Land Use

Convicted councilman is set to ask former colleagues for a 9th Ward zoning favor

Jon Johnson's property on Deslonde Street in the Lower 9th Ward has been repaired, though a pile of tires mars the property next door.

Karen Gadbois

Jon Johnson's property on Deslonde Street in the Lower 9th Ward has been repaired, though a pile of tires mars the property next door.

Update: The request for a zoning variance has been delayed until March.

Disgraced former City Councilman Jon Johnson plans a return to the Council Chambers Thursday, though from the other side of the dais, out with the cheap seats, as he begs for special after-the-fact permission from his former colleagues to build a three-plex in the Lower 9th Ward.

I reported on the property on Deslonde Street in May 2012 because Johnson, then on the council, had not met a deadline to spend a $166,000 grant from the state to repair the blighted property in the council district he represented. Oops.

It seems he’s now spent the money to put three apartments in the building, even though the area is only zoned for two units per building.

Oops again.

And it isn’t as if the Lower 9th Ward needs to have exceptionally dense zoning, given that most of the neighborhood’s parcels are covered in weeds, not homes.

At least he had building permits, but they were vague and certainly didn’t allow for a third unit.

He’s completed this work after a six-month stint in federal prison after pleading guilty that he used FEMA money allocated to a housing nonprofit he controlled to bankroll his run failed run for the Louisiana Senate in 2007. The Lens reported on a number of those properties and the lack of improvement well before Johnson cut his surprise deal with the feds.

It’s been nearly three years since the property was awarded the grant — which called for the work to be done in nine months.

But Johnson probably isn’t alone in failing at the task of due diligence.

The grant came through the state’s Small Rental Property program, part of Road Home. Without checking the zoning for the property, the state sent Johnson the money after he said he wanted to build three units there.

Can you imagine if you asked your bank for a loan to build a hamburger stand at your house in the middle of a residential neighborhood? Something tells me today’s tighter lending restrictions would have the bank checking out a lot of things, including that lack of necessary zoning.

I asked the state for comment, but I haven’t gotten a response.

A sign indicating an application for a zoning change is in front of Johnson's propert.

Karen Gadbois

A sign indicating an application for a zoning change is in front of Johnson's propert.

The rental-remediation program uses federal Community Development Block Grant money administered by the state to create more affordable housing while mitigating blight and abandonment, and it offers a pretty sweet deal. The no-interest loan is forgiven “once the units are repaired and income-eligible tenants are identified.”

The fact that Johnson told the state he wanted three apartments had an effect on how much of a grant he received. If he was restoring only two units at the property, he likely would have received less.

Johnson’s request for a zoning variance was rejected in January by the City Planning Commission, based on the recommendation of its staff.

The “Assessor and Safety and Permits records recognize two legal dwelling units,” and the structure “appears to have been originally built for two units,” reads the staff report.

However, in a letter to the neighborhood, Carmelita Ratna, representing Jon Johnson, said the property “is and has always been a triplex residential dwelling.”

The Planning Commission staff report said “rezoning of the site would be a spot zone, which cannot be justified under the Commission’s Historic Non-Conforming Use Policy,” and that the request is inconsistent with the city’s Master Plan.

Johnson’s appeal of the City Planning Commission decision will be heard at this week’s City Council meeting.

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About 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 to guilty pleas in federal court. Her work attracted some of journalism's highest honors, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.

  • TimGNO

    The chutzpah!

  • HStreetLandlord

    How exactly will having 3 apartments in the home harm anyone else? Ridiculous. Let him have it.

  • nickelndime

    If (fill in the blank) requested a loan from (say, Liberty Bank) to build a hamburger stand at her house in the middle of a residential neighborhood, she (blankety blank) would get it. In fact, I am sure that Mitch would endorse it. Today’s tighter lending restrictions are not equally applied, nor is grant money administered BLINDLY (as in JUSTICE is BLIND) through “the state.” The SYSTEM and the STATE are broken (Government & Politics, Education/Schools, Justice/Legal, Land Use…). And, I wouldn’t count on a response anytime soon from the State either. It’s like living in Belize or a Third World country. Don’t go out of the tourist/resort area. The corruption is so thick, you can cut it with a knife. The more money you have, the more one’s $upport i$ expected, the bottom line of which is to keep corrupt, powerful individuals in place and support the cronyi$m that is dealt out in backroom deals. It was easy for the State to send out that money to Jon. The money was flowing like it would never stop, and Jon was “in favor” at the time. So, why check anything out!