(Joshua Rosenberg/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council unanimously agreed on Thursday to allocate $35 million to pay for the relocation costs of the residents of the Gordon Plaza subdivision, whose homes the city and the Housing Authority of New Orleans built in the 1970s and 1980s on a highly contaminated site atop a former landfill. 

The measure, sponsored by all seven council members, reallocates municipal bonds in this year’s capital budget assigned to other projects, many of which the city hasn’t yet initiated, according to Council President Helena Moreno’s chief of staff, Andrew Tuozzolo. The city will be able to replenish funding for those projects – which include capital projects unrelated to roadwork – during a bond sale later this year, Tuozzolo told The Lens. 

Although the city isn’t yet in a position to distribute the funds, the council’s vote was a long time coming for the residents of Gordon Plaza, some of whom have lived in the neighborhood for decades. 

“This is one of the greatest days of my life,” Jesse Perkins, a resident of Gordon Plaza, told The Lens after the council voted. “It’s been a long, long journey up to this point. I’m very ecstatic.” 

Moreno started the process to allocate the money through the capital budget early this year, a measure initially opposed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, which was hoping to secure federal funding for the relocations. But that would involve a lengthy evaluation of the site, and even then, federal dollars would not be guaranteed.

Cantrell now backs the city budget allocation plan. But the administration is intent on conducting its own analysis of the costs associated with relocation. 

“Today’s vote on Gordon Plaza aligns with Mayor Cantrell’s plan to reimagine this toxic landfill into a thriving alternative energy hub,” Cantrell spokesperson Gregory Joseph told The Lens Thursday via email.

“Revitalizing underserved and overburden[ed] communities with green infrastructure projects like solar farms and electric vehicle recharging stations stands at the cornerstone of this administration,” he said, referring to the city’s plan to convert part of the site into a 5-megawatt solar energy farm. 

Using federal funding available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and HANO began constructing townhouses at Press Park and single-family homes at Gordon Plaza – housing developments designed for low-income and elderly residents –   on top of the then-closed Agriculture Street Landfill. (Press Park has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.) The homes in the Gordon Plaza subdivision were promoted to Black residents as inexpensive, high-quality housing.

Families began living in the Gordon Plaza complex in the early 1980s and the Orleans Parish School Board later built Moton Elementary School on the site as well.

Opened in 1909, the landfill comprised 95 acres of former swampland. Workers sprayed pesticides on the site like DDT, which is a “probable” human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The city closed the site in 1957, only to reopen it again for a year in 1965 to both burn and dispose of waste and debris caused by Hurricane Betsy. 

The soil upon which the city built Gordon Plaza is contaminated with lead, arsenic along with some 140 other toxic agents, 49 of which have been linked to cancer, according to a lawsuit a group of residents filed against the city in 2018. The EPA classified the area as a Superfund site in 1994, at which point the Orleans Parish School Board shuttered Moton.

‘Allocation without distribution is further delay’

Residents of Gordon Plaza have been advocating for a fully-funded relocation for decades.

“Allocation without distribution is further delay,” Marilyn Amar said Tuesday during a Gordon Plaza Task Force meeting held by the council. “And we will not tolerate an antagonistic attempt to make us beg or fight over crumbs for our properties when you already have been provided an expert replacement cost analysis for $35 million,” she said, referring to a study authored, in part, by two professors at Tulane University in December. 

That report concluded that the total cost of relocating the 67 Gordon Plaza households would be $34.2 million. But the city can’t simply accept those figures without performing its own due diligence, ​​City Attorney Donesia Turner said Tuesday during the task force meeting. 

“We can’t just accept someone else’s appraisal when we’re spending city money,” Turner said. “We must confirm the fair market value of the properties as well as other considerations, considering where the houses are located,” Turner said, adding that the city has solicited the services of a firm, through a request for proposals, that is versed in matters of the environment, land use, expropriation and relocation. 

But using a fair market value approach isn’t appropriate for the residents’ situation, Christopher Oliver, professor of practice in sociology and environmental studies and one of the authors of the Tulane study, said Tuesday. 

“The issue is that the land value and the residents as they are right on a polluted site for so long, clearly isn’t gonna get a fair market appraisal,” Oliver said. “There’s also these issues of racial equity around appraisals,” he said, referring to the body of research demonstrating that operators in the appraisal market have discriminated against homeowners of color by lowballing their homes’ values, a problem that came up locally during the post-Katrina Road Home grant process

The sole respondent to the administration’s RFP  was law firm Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, L.L.C. The contract has not yet been finalized, according to Turner. 

A City Hall rally in support of relocation funding prior to the vote on Thursday, June 23, 2022. (Joshua Rosenberg/The Lens)

In a council committee meeting earlier this month, Councilman-at-large JP Morrell criticized the prospective contract, noting that the Cantrell administration recently hired the firm to sue the council, an attempt to block a subpoena issued as part of the ongoing investigation into the city’s defunct “smart cities” project. 

Morrell said the firm has a conflict because it would work for the entire city government — the administration and the council — as part of the Gordon Plaza contract. 

“For the city to ignore the obvious conflict in awarding the legal work to a law firm that has an inherent conflict is beyond troubling,” Morrell said. “The legal standard is, in fact, that if you want to represent someone who you’ve sued, you have to get a waiver from them to get rid of the conflict.”

Sher Garner did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Amar, the Gordon Plaza resident, said Tuesday that the bid process should be scrapped and reopened. 

“We were against the Sher Garner firm handling this because of the conflict of interest with the city of New Orleans,” Amar said. “We felt as though they wouldn’t give us a fair value of our properties,” she said, that would deliver on a fully-funded relocation.

The residents and the council members present at Tuesday’s meeting agreed to review the RFP and to reconvene on Monday in order to decide how they’d like to proceed and whether it’s necessary to issue a revised RFP – one that perhaps excludes mention of legal services and focuses solely on real estate matters. The city will benefit from the residents’ input, Perkins told The Lens. 

“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to make a smooth transition going forward with the input that we need to give to the administration,” he said. “The administration’s going to need our input – if they don’t get our input, it’s going to be a headache.”

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Nicole Sheppard awarded 5,000 former and current Gordon Plaza residents named in a class action some $75 million in March. But that sum, when divided among the 5,000 class members, wouldn’t come close to fully funding the relocation for the few dozen remaining residents, Amar said during a press conference in March. 

And even that’s assuming the city government pays out the money in full. A provision of the Louisiana State Constitution prohibits state courts from seizing funds from the state government or local governmental bodies, allowing officials to delay paying judgments or refuse to pay them altogether. The city of New Orleans has over the past few years dedicated some funding to pay outstanding state court judgments, but it often offers only a fraction of what courts have awarded. 

The ordinance the city council passed Thursday, however, may finally end the toxic nightmare that’s haunted the residents of Gordon Plaza over the past 40 years, Amar said. 

“We aim for the residents of Gordon Plaza to close out this calendar year in healthy homes of our choice,” Amar said Tuesday. “But this entire process must start in ways that honor our humanity and human rights.”

Perkins is optimistic about that kind of timeline. 

“This is going to happen sooner [rather] than later,” he told The Lens. “I’m going to say by year’s end, [it’s a] done deal.”

This story has been updated with a comment from the Mayor’s Office and additional details from during and after Thursday’s vote .

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...