The city of New Orleans has cited 13 properties flagged by The Lens this summer for potential blight, including a publicly-funded community center, a house listed as having been demolished, and two houses that have remained standing for months after the city had approval to tear them down.
The community center near Washington Avenue and Broad Street, which has languished for more than two years, was cited for blight violations in mid-July, about a week after The Lens described how it had become an eyesore.
In late June, The Lens published another story that described what we found when we checked on 300 properties targeted by the city for blight and marked as remediated. We found trash-covered lots, houses that were still standing after they had been listed as demolished, and several buildings open to the elements.
About 75 of the 300 properties were likely in violation of city code; 52 were obviously blighted.
As of last week, at least 12 of the 300 properties had been cited for blight again. The citations started in early July.
The Landrieu administration didn’t respond to The Lens’ question about whether our stories spurred the city to act.
So far, six properties have been found guilty and fined, including two properties ruled to have been fixed up before their administrative hearings. Seven have yet to go before a hearing officer.
Most of the 13 properties look pretty much the same as before.
When we first saw 5741 Wildair Dr. months ago, we found a dirt lot somewhat overgrown with weeds. It was far from the worst of the bunch. Last week, weeds were five feet tall and had overtaken the sidewalk.
A hearing officer fined the property owner $1,000, plus $500 a day until it’s fixed up. So far, according to city records, the fine hasn’t been paid. The Lens couldn’t locate the owner.
City cites community center
The community center near Washington and Broad has been in the works since 2002, when a nonprofit called the Family Center of Hope bought it with a $350,000 city grant. The group has since received more than $2 million in federal grants passed through the city and the state.
Cost overruns, allegedly due to incomplete designs, shut the project down in early 2012. Finishing the work will cost another $1.3 million at least, according to a 2013 estimate, and possibly more. The project’s initial budget was just $1.5 million.
On July 7, The Lens reported that the building appeared to have fallen into a state of disrepair:
Last week, the grass around the building was two to three feet high in places. Behind the building, construction debris had fallen into gaping holes in the ground, which were haphazardly marked off with orange safety fencing. A shattered window faced Washington Avenue.
About a week later, a city Code Enforcement inspector cited the property for tall grass and weeds and for lacking a visible address marker. It was the first time since 2009 that the property had been cited for code violations.
On August 5, an administrative hearing officer ruled that the property was blighted, but called it “abated,” which Landrieu administration spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said means that the problems were fixed before the hearing.
When The Lens went by again last week, the tallest weeds had been cut, but the rest of the property — the construction debris, the hole in the ground — appeared unchanged. Someone had put a piece of paper in the window with “4137 Washington Ave.” written in pen.
The Family Center of Hope was fined just $75 for the cost of the hearing.
The city is withholding about $100,000 in promised funding for the project until the nonprofit gets more than $400,000 pledged by FEMA and allows the city to oversee construction on the building. It’s unclear where the money would come from to finish the project.
The Family Center of Hope is run by the Rev. Pat Watson, wife of the Rev. Tom Watson, who ran for mayor in 2006 and was an ally of disgraced former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson. Pat Watson did not return a request for comment on this story.
City cites 12 properties featured in Lens story about blight
Of the 12 properties flagged by The Lens and later cited, the city has dropped just one case, for 6350 Fairfax Place in Algiers.
That was one of two properties that looked better when we checked on them last week. In March, the property was severely overgrown, with the damaged slab remaining from a former house. Now the slab is gone and the vegetation has been trimmed.
In June, the property owner was issued a permit to build a new single-family home there.
3100 Cleveland Ave., one of the properties ruled “guilty: abated,” looked better than our last visit. A fence still lay on the ground, but someone had worked on the house and installed new siding and windows.
The rest of the properties appeared as bad or worse than they did earlier.
At 1138 Brooklyn Ave., only the season has changed. The dead weeds and grass in March have since flourished, reaching four feet tall and blocking a storm drain and a fire hydrant.
3210 River Oaks Dr., one of the six properties ruled blighted this summer, was also little changed but for the summer green. The city levied a $1,500 fine against the owner after an August hearing. According to city records, the fine has not yet been paid.
The Lens was unable to reach the owners of either property.
One lot cited again this summer shows how hard it is to check up on the city’s blight eradication. The house at 219 Maumus Ave. was supposedly torn down in February 2012, according to BlightStat records, because it was in danger of falling down. It’s still standing.
In August, a hearing officer fined the owner, U.S. Bank, $250 for overgrowth and rodents.
There’s no demolition permit for that property in city files. But there is a permit to tear down the house directly across the street at 218 Maumus Ave. — also issued in February 2012. That house is gone, but the address isn’t included in the city’s list of demolished properties.
The city didn’t respond to The Lens’ question about whether there was a recordkeeping error.
Two dilapidated houses in Hollygrove, cited in July, are set to be torn down. The Neighborhood Conservation District Committee approved the demolitions in August — again. It had done so in April at the city’s request, but the city never obtained demolition permits.
Those two houses are on the 2900 block of Eagle Street, although their legal address is 8814 Fig Street. Last week they looked abandoned, just like they did when we visited several times earlier this year. The paint was peeling off. Windows and siding were missing.
The one difference was that last week, the front door of 2940 Eagle was open. Sunlight streamed down through holes in the roof and the second story, illuminating a water-damaged first floor.
The owner of the buildings is Jos. Macaluso Realty. It has several other properties in the neighborhood that have been cited for blight. According to Kevin Macaluso, the houses were damaged after Hurricane Katrina, and they got worse a couple of years ago after their slate roofs were stolen.
“It’s a constant battle with people stealing copper, with people stealing the doors,” he said. “Once you lose the roofs, deterioration accelerates.”
Macaluso, who said Wednesday that he plans to get the permits to demolish the houses this week, wouldn’t say what work had been done on the houses between Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the demolition approval last month.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re tearing them down.”