Credit: Betsy Shepherd / The Lens

The New Orleans City Council is trying to force the city to take action on dozens of blighted or vacant city-owned properties with a new ordinance presented at a Tuesday committee meeting.

The ordinance would require the city’s Office of Property Management to create an annual public list of all those unused properties, their current conditions and the estimated cost to bring dilapidated properties into fair condition. The ordinance was advanced through a committee vote on Tuesday and is slated to go on the consent agenda at the council’s next full meeting on Oct. 6, meaning it is very likely to gain final approval. 

The ordinance would only deal with “inactive” properties owned directly by the city, which the city estimates to be around 50 to 60 properties, according to Councilwoman Helena Moreno. The ordinance would not affect vacant or blighted properties owned by other government bodies, like the Housing Authority of New Orleans or the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

“I think that for many of us on the council, we all get complaints about blighted properties throughout the city,” Moreno, who sponsored the ordinance, said on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, we also get complaints about vacant and blighted properties that are owned by the city of New Orleans.”

She said that the unkempt state of some of these properties violates the city’s own property management laws.

“We as the city of New Orleans should not be breaking the law and having these buildings in this type of disrepair,” Moreno said. “This does create adverse quality of life issues for neighbors. It contributes to crime, it impacts nearby real estate values, it increases rodent activity and also important to mention, it continues the deterioration of city owned property which in the future could lessen its value.”

As Moreno pointed out, local law already requires the Office of Property Management to manage those properties. It also requires the office to maintain an annual list of the city’s immovable property. But she said that list isn’t being updated on time and hasn’t been a reliable source of useful information. 

“It appears that that master list is very much lacking in detail and isn’t being updated,” she said.

Moreno’s ordinance would add new requirements to that annual list. It would force Property Management to inspect city-owned properties annually and determine whether they are “in a safe and suitable condition and to identify any needed capital improvements or repairs.” 

Property management would also have to create an online, public dashboard that listed all of the inactive properties, along with useful information such as their zoning and past uses. The database would also score each property with one of seven designations: new, excellent, very good, good, fair, poor or dilapidated.   

For any property ranked “poor” or “dilapidated,” the new database would also have to include an estimated cost for bringing the property up to at least “fair” condition. 

Moreno said that as things currently stand, it’s not that easy to find all that information. She said the database will not only make it easier for the city to manage its properties, but make it easier for potential developers to consider investing in them. 

“This is a very worthy ordinance and cause,” the director of the Office of Property Management, Natesh Mohan, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

He requested one amendment to the ordinance. He said that instead of requiring annual inspections of all city-owned properties, that the ordinance should be limited to just the unused ones. He said that inspections can be a costly and timely process, and that it wasn’t necessary to do on the buildings the city uses on an everyday basis, such as fire stations and City Hall. 

Moreno said she was happy to make that amendment.

Mohan also said that while he supported the measure, his office may need more resources to actually comply.

“We do need resources,” he said. “We don’t have inspectors in our department. We are stretched thin as it is just managing the buildings we have. But given that this is a worthy cause, I’d like to make the case for resources, which means inspectors.”

As council members pointed out, the database will not on its own secure dilapidated buildings or put them back into commerce. Councilman Oliver Thomas asked what the city’s process is for putting these properties back into productive use. Mohan said there was a working group that involved multiple city offices that’s tasked with utilizing, selling or redeveloping those lots. 

Thomas said that the city needs to move fast on these properties to avoid spending large sums of money cutting grass, boarding up windows and fencing off blighted properties, money that could have been spent trying to incentive redevelopment.

“How do we target that property?” he said. “How do we attach some incentives or some value to it so that it’s marketable? So that we don’t keep it on our rolls and don’t continue to put public dollars into fencing and boarding and cutting.”

Councilman Eugene Green said that for some of these properties, the chances of the current buildings being put back into use are so remote that the city should look into demolishing them, instead of continuing to board them up. 

“I hope that we will look at demolition,” Green said. “Redevelopment is fine, but redevelopment isn’t always going to be reasonable.”

Councilwoman Leslie Harris said that as the city looks to redevelop the properties, it needs to work with the local communities to see what they need, or what community groups may already have a desire to take the properties over. 

Green also said that along the practical reasons to create the database and deal with the city’s dilapidated buildings, there was also a broader issue of fairness.

“Every week we collect money from people we fine because they haven’t taken care of their grass, they haven’t taken care of their buildings,” Green said. “But if we have the same thing going on with multiple buildings we own, we need to reconcile ourselves with the fact that’s not fair and people use that as a criticism of government.”

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...