(Joshua Rosenberg/The Lens)

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration and members of the City Council have been in agreement for months that the city will buy out the remaining homes in Gordon Plaza — a government-backed development built on a toxic former landfill — to fund their owners’ relocation.

But it remains unclear how much the city will offer for the remaining 67 homes, and whether it will be enough to allow those residents to relocate.

At a tense Tuesday City Council meeting, Gordon Plaza residents and advocates said it will all come down to what appraisal methods the city uses to generate offers. And some said they feared the city would use a methodology to minimize their home values and offer as little as possible.

City Attorney Donesia Turner said on Tuesday that her office and the private law firm the city hired for this effort — Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, L.L.C — had determined that the city couldn’t legally offer residents more than “fair market value.”

“We’re not doing replacement costs,” she said. “What we are doing is offering fair market values to the residents of Gordon Plaza.”

This was bad news for Gordon Plaza residents, who have long argued that their homes are practically worthless on the market given their location on an EPA-designated superfund site. They’ve argued that the price should be determined based on what it will cost to buy a new home in the city and move there. Single-family home prices in the New Orleans area are averaging well above $300,000, with prices in much of the city significantly higher than the metro area average. 

But later in the meeting, Turner said that while the city was obligated to offer fair market value, the offers would be more than what houses in the neighborhood would get on the open market. 

“When we are looking at the property, we are going to look at them as unimpaired, as if they were never built on a landfill,” she said. 

Jim Thorn, the appraiser hired by the city, didn’t have the chance during the meeting to fully explain exactly how that would work. He declined to expand on his methods after the meeting as well. After demands from residents, he vowed to release his exact methodology by Tuesday night.

Turner sent a memo to the council on Tuesday that included a brief, one page explanation of Thorn’s methodology.

Gordon Plaza residents at the meeting argued that ultimately, there are appraisal methods that can maximize the value of their homes and give them enough to relocate, and there are others that will minimize their worth. And they warned that mass, government-led appraisals have previously resulted in lower valuations for Black homeowners. 

“The problem is that the appraisals have been used in discriminatory ways against the Black community,” Gordon Plaza resident Jesse Perkins said. “People will make this not about race, but race is woven all throughout this process. … If we were white, we wouldn’t even be here talking about this.”

Cantrell’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

‘The administration is dragging its feet’

Residents of Gordon Plaza have been pushing for a government-funded relocation for decades, since it became clear that the land was full of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals from its former use as an agricultural landfill. 

But those efforts saw renewed vigor last year. Gordon Plaza residents and their supporters became a constant presence in City Council meetings, demanding immediate action, whether or not the issue was on the agenda.

The persistence paid off. Both the City Council and the Cantrell administration took action. The council moved to allocate $35 million in city funds to the relocation. That sum was based on a 2021 study authored by two Tulane professors and a local real estate broker, which found the relocation would cost roughly $34 million.

The Cantrell administration initially opposed the council’s plan to use city funds and began working on a different plan. Instead of tapping the city’s coffers, the administration began trying to attract federal funding to convert the site into a renewable energy farm. 

But Gordon Plaza residents argued against Cantrell’s plan, saying it would take a long time to convince the federal government to fund the project and that even then, nothing was guaranteed. They said using available city funds was the fastest way to bring an end to a decades-long injustice. 

Once again, the advocates’ persistence paid off. The Cantrell administration changed its tune, backing the council’s plan to use municipal capital funds, while still holding on to the ambition of converting the site into a solar farm down the line. 

In June, the council successfully allocated $35 million in bond proceeds to fund for the relocations with the blessing of the Cantrell administration. But there were still some hurdles to actually dispersing those funds.

“Now that it’s time to distribute the funds, the administration is dragging its feet,” Perkins said. 

The central remaining obstacle is determining how much the city will pay to purchase the homes. The Tulane study was not an appraisal of the homes’ values. Rather, it applied a per-square-foot “replacement cost” for a 1,500 square-foot home in the area, added land value and a relocation stipend and multiplied that by 67. Turner noted on Tuesday that state law requires the city to do its own appraisal before buying immovable property. 

The administration issued a public bid for an evaluation earlier this year, and signed a contract with the only respondent — the Sher Garner law firm. Some council members, including council members JP Morrell and Leslie Harris, questioned why the city needed to hire a law firm instead of just an appraiser. Some also questioned whether Sher Garner had a conflict of interest, given the Cantrell administration hired the firm to sue the council over a subpoena related to its ongoing investigation into the controversial “smart cities” project. 

On Tuesday, Turner said the city had finally hired an appraiser, Jim Thorn, through the contract with Sher Garner. Morrell said he was “beyond frustrated” that the city only now hired an appraiser.

“I want you to hearken back to June,” Morrell said. “We said to hire real estate appraisers, we don’t need more lawyers. … We’ve spent three months running around in circles to come back to where Councilwoman Harris and I were three months ago.”

Morrell, like many Gordon Plaza residents, said this process is simply taking too long given that the money was allocated by the City Council months ago. 

Nonetheless, it appears that the city is now moving forward with the appraisal process. On Sept. 1, Sher Garner sent letters out to the Gordon Plaza residents informing them that “the city would like to purchase your property… to build a solar wind farm.”

The letter said that Thorn would be reaching out shortly to set up an appraisal appointment. 

Residents said that the same day those letters went out, they were called to a meeting with Cantrell. 

Marlyn Amar was at the meeting and said that the number Cantrell mentioned was $245,000 for each home, although she didn’t explain how she arrived at that figure.

“It was a number thrown at us, not an offer,” said Marlyn Amar, who was at the Friday meeting. “There wasn’t a piece of paper. …  It was just something they threw out there to see if we’d take it.”

But during the meeting, other residents said that Cantrell told them that they would get their checks “next week” if they took the offer. 

“I know what I heard on Friday: the Mayor said that if we take what she’s offering to us, we can get paid next week,” one Gordon Plaza resident said. 

Amar said the resounding response from residents was that $245,000 simply would not be enough to buy a new home in New Orleans and pay to move there. The Tulane study found that it would take roughly $500,000 per residence to pay for a new home and all the associated moving costs.

“I thought the purpose of all of this was to be able to move to another house,” resident Olga Johnson said. “You can’t buy a house today for no $200,000.”

This story has been updated with a link to Thorn’s methodology memo.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...