Gordon Plaza resident Lydwina Hurst (left) and activist Angela Kinlaw (right) at an October Gordon Plaza Task Force meeting. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

As part of its ongoing effort to relocate the residents of Gordon Plaza — a government-backed development built on a toxic EPA-designated Superfund site — the city of New Orleans has released the first appraisal and offer it’s made on one of the 67 remaining homes. 

The offer’s price per square foot is roughly half of what was proposed in a 2021 study favored by residents, raising questions about whether the city is going to make offers that residents will actually accept so they can afford to relocate.

The offer was presented at a meeting last week of the Gordon Plaza Task Force, which is made up of city officials, council members and Gordon Plaza residents. Sheena Dedmond, the owner of the appraised property, told The Lens she wouldn’t accept that offer. Other residents also said the offer was unacceptable.

“I’m not satisfied with it,” resident Lydwina Hurst told The Lens. “There were a lot of things in that appraisal that appeared discriminatory. It’s not fair at all.”

Dedmond and other residents also took issue with the cover letter that accompanied the city’s offer, which said she only had 30 days to decide whether she would accept the offer or not. 

“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who is also a real estate agent, said at the meeting.

Residents of Gordon Plaza have been fighting for a government-funded relocation for decades, arguing that the city was responsible for developing the homes on toxic land and then marketing them to Black residents as a way to establish a middle class family. The move is necessary, they say, not only to protect the lives of those who still live there, but also to preserve the generational wealth that homeownership is supposed to produce and provide some degree of restorative justice.

Residents and activists have made major progress over the last year. They became a constant presence at City Council meetings, forcing city officials to confront an issue that has long been swept under the rug. The pressure was effective, getting both the council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to concede that it was well past time for the city to take action.

The Cantrell administration said that it would be able to achieve the relocation by buying all the Gordon Plaza property and converting it into a solar farm. That would allow the city to attract federal dollars and offer residents much more than they would be able to receive on the open market due to their infamously toxic location.

However, residents and some council members objected to the idea of waiting for federal funds, a process that could take years. They said the city should move as fast as possible by using funds it already has access to. 

The Cantrell administration was initially opposed to the idea of funding the relocations using the city’s more limited coffers. But eventually, the administration changed its tune and became supportive of the plan to use municipal funds. 

In June, the council allocated $35 million to fund the relocation. That funding level was based on a study done by two Tulane University professors and a local real estate agent. The study recommended buying the homes at $293 per square foot. For a typical home in Gordon Plaza — roughly 1,500 square feet — that would come out to roughly $440,000 per home. The study also recommended additional money for the land the homes are on (roughly $40,000 per home) as well as moving costs ($25,000 per home). 

But the city said that before it could make offers to residents, it was legally required to get certified appraisals to determine the homes’ fair market values. Since then, the success of the relocation has hinged on how much the city will offer residents, and whether they would accept it.

Residents have sparred with the city and its contracted appraiser, Jim Thorn, over how the homes should be appraised. They argued that it was impossible to determine a fair market value for the homes since they were virtually worthless on the market. Many have also said they’re weary of the appraisal process in general, arguing that it has historically been used to the detriment of Black communities and homeowners.

Residents and council members have pointed to Louisiana’s Road Home Program following Hurricane Katrina, which was notorious for offering homeowners in Black communities far less money to rebuild by relying on their appraised value before the storm, rather than the cost to rebuild.

At the request of the residents, Thorn agreed to do a first home appraisal as a sample and release the results to the public so residents could get a clear picture of his methodology. That appraisal was presented at last week’s Gordon Plaza Task Force meeting.

The appraisal was done on one of the largest homes in Gordon Plaza at 2,248 square feet. The total value was set at $348,000, or $152 per square foot — significantly lower than the $292 per square foot that was suggested in the Tulane study.

As Thorn has previously told The Council, he is trying to assess the fair market values of the homes by comparing the prices of nearby properties that are “unimpaired” by the toxic land and stigma of Gordon Plaza. For Dedmon’s assessment, Thorn looked at three new-build homes in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood roughly two miles north of Gordon Plaza. 

Councilwoman Helena Moreno and residents questioned why Thorn only used homes in Pontchartrain Park rather than other nearby neighborhoods that generally have higher home values.

“Why not Gentilly Terrace, because in Gentilly Terrace you have much higher property values there,” Moreno said. “I know we want to take the subjectivity out of it, but picking and choosing certain neighborhoods seems very subjective.”

Thorn said it wouldn’t have made a significant difference to include homes in Gentilly Terrace.

It’s unclear whether all homeowners will get a similar price per square foot. Thorn told the task force that he couldn’t simply set one price per square foot and use it for every home. He said the number could change from home to home depending on a number of conditions including home quality and amenities. He also mentioned that larger homes often have a smaller price per square foot than smaller ones.

Dedmon told The Lens that she was disappointed and that it feels like the city has, to some extent, lost sight of why they’re going through this process — not to buy homes at the cheapest possible price, but to help residents move to safe homes and correct a long-endured injustice.

“What I notice sitting here each time we have a meeting is I feel like I’m selling my home,” Dedmond said. “But that’s not why we’re here. I’m not here to sell my home. I’m here for justice. I’m here for my mother passing. I’m here for the miscarriages, everything we’ve endured and that the city of New Orleans put us on. That’s why we’re here.”

Part of the issue is that although the effort is aimed at relocating residents, the legal process the city is going through is purchasing land for a government project. That comes with requirements, such as getting a fair market property appraisal, aimed at ensuring taxpayer dollars are used prudently. 

Residents say they understand these legal requirements exist, but argue the city can still, if it wants to, offer them enough to buy and move to new homes in New Orleans while staying in line with those requirements.

“You’re trying to penny pinch us because we’re Black,” Hurst said during last week’s meeting. “I would like to live the rest of my life comfortable and peaceful.”

Hurst said there are other methods the city could be employing to get higher appraisals. And, she said, the appraisals should be used as a starting point to negotiate with the residents, not as the city’s only and final offer.

“The city needs to negotiate with us,” Hurst told The Lens.

The next meeting of the task force was set for Oct. 31. 

“That’s trick or treat day, and we’re not coming for tricks,” activist Angela Kinlaw said at last week’s meeting.

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...