(Joshua Rosenberg/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council on Thursday unanimously passed a motion intended to force the city to use an appraisal method favored by the residents of Gordon Plaza in the ongoing process of relocating the 67 remaining households in the neighborhood, which was constructed on top of a former dump containing toxic and cancerous chemicals. 

The residents of Gordon Plaza have been fighting for decades to get the city, which helped develop and market the housing development, to pay for their relocations. That fight made major strides over the past year, with the City Council allocating $35 million for the relocation and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration dedicated to redeveloping the land as a solar farm.

But now, the success of the relocation comes down to how much the city will offer to buy the properties. Specifically, it hinges on what appraisal methods the city will employ. 

Before the city can actually make offers on the homes, it’s legally required to get certified appraisals. That process started earlier this month after the city obtained the services of appraiser Jim Thorn.  

At a meeting last week, City Attorney Donesia Turner said that the city couldn’t legally offer more than the homes’ fair market value — a position supported by past legal opinions from the Attorney General’s office  —  and would not use the “replacement cost” appraisal method favored by residents. 

The replacement cost method would take into account how much it would actually cost the residents to acquire and relocate to a new home. Gordon Plaza residents have long warned that other appraisal methods could undervalue their homes, since their location on top of an EPA-designated superfund site makes them virtually worthless on the open market. 

And the largely Black group of residents has also expressed how mass property appraisals by the government, including the post-Katrina Road Home program, have discriminated against Black people. 

“Traditional appraisal has been found to be inherently discriminatory, particularly for Black community members,” resident Lydwina Hurst said on Thursday. “We demand that the appraiser, Jim Thorn, hired by the city, honor the fact that there is more than one form of an appraisal.”

The goal for residents is to get enough money to buy new, safe homes in New Orleans that they can choose themselves. And they say that there are appraisal methods that can get them there if the city truly wants to.

They point to a study released in late 2021 by two Tulane professors and a local real estate agent that found that the city should provide on average $510,000. The authors employed a “replacement cost” method to get to that number. 

The Cantrell administration has argued that it can’t use that Tulane study since it wasn’t done by a certified appraiser, which is why they hired Jim Thorn.

The council Thursday motion orders the City Attorney’s Office to instruct Thorn to work with the three authors of the 2021 study and to use the replacement cost methodology they employed to reach the $510,000 figure. The motion further directs the City Attorney to publicly release the agreed upon appraisal method by Sept. 29. 

The motion notes that if the group fails to agree on a methodology, the Council could release a public bid to hire new real estate appraisers at its Oct. 6 meeting. 

“We’re hoping it doesn’t get to that point,” Moreno said.

It’s unclear what kind of appraisal method the Cantrell administration had in mind. At the meeting last week, Thorn agreed to resident demands that he release his methodology for the appraisals. But in a letter, residents argued the document he released was a “bare bones, skeleton methodology” that didn’t give enough information.

Residents also got an idea of what the administration had in mind during a meeting with Cantrell earlier this month, when she mentioned a price of $245,000 per home. According to residents who were present, Cantrell said they would be able to get “checks next week” if they agreed to the city’s offer.

But as urgent as the residents are to leave Gordon Plaza, they also know that $245,000 doesn’t afford a lot of options in New Orleans’ steeply-rising housing market. 

“We do not want unnecessary delays in this process, we cannot be haphazard with our lives either, eagerly accepting a payout less than what we know it will take to ensure that we can safely move into healthy homes of our choice, making our lives worse than they are right now,” Hurst said. 

Residents said that Cantrell’s claim that they would get a check next week showed that the city could move quickly if it wanted to. 

“We remind you that after this meeting today, we return to the landfill,” Hurst said. 

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...