NEW ORLEANS—New Orleans’s abandoned houses, their entrances sealed with graffiti-covered plywood, are common. They pepper the landscape becoming more and more frequent as you drive from ritzier neighborhoods to poorer ones. The most ominous look as if they’re being reclaimed by the land, with tall grass and unpruned shrubs shrouding them, weeds and vines growing through every crack.
It’s easy to believe that this is Katrina’s fault. But this particular problem existed long before the storm, and the raging waters that followed, swept through the city. And the storm certainly made things worse—leaving behind water that submerged entire homes in some places, and covering hundreds of thousands of structures with rot and mold—making them uninhabitable.
The city’s blight problem is man- (and policy-) made. For decades, New Orleans has faced the same challenges as many Midwestern and southern cities: a lackluster local economy, limited opportunities, and population decline. In fact by 2004—before the storm—population had dipped to around 445,000, a decrease of nearly 30 percent from the peak of about 627,000 residents in 1960.
As the number of people dwindled, the number of vacant properties falling into disrepair grew, reaching more than 26,000 well before the catastrophic hurricane. At the crux of the problem are legacy or succession issues. “We have a lot of properties that have been passed down through generations from family member to family member without opening proper succession or legal proceedings to pass title,” says Nicole Heyman, the director of Louisiana initiatives at the Center for Community Progress. “A lot of those properties are languishing because there is no real mechanism by which we can transfer ownership to be able to rehab them.”
Katrina, of course, exacerbated these issues. Some homeowners with property that was destroyed decided to cut their losses and disappear, others were unable to get the amount of money they needed to repair the damage. And the city’s issues with succession and titles can make buying and financing such rehabilitations difficult. Most rental housing in New Orleans is made up of single-family homes, not large multi-family complexes. That means developers must sort out title and ownership issues of lots of individual properties one by one, Heyman says. “You're not talking about being able to buy in bulk. Each of these homes are individually-owned, and you have to track down the owner in order to be able to purchase them, and then you're not able to go and secure a loan product for redeveloping 10, 15 of these at a time.”
So the houses have sat. By 2010, the number of blighted properties had risen to more than 43,000—more than one-quarter of New Orleans’s housing stock. And that was five years after the storm.
New Orleans isn’t a city that’s exactly known for its speedy or efficient processes. And blight remediation is a slow slog, one that some say was just starting to get attention before Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, many residents and communities felt that they couldn’t wait for the city to figure out how to approach the tens of thousands of vacant homes, both new and old, that would need to be rehabbed so residents could move back, or be sold and redeveloped so that new owners could take over. “Many organizations extended their efforts as a response to their dissatisfaction with municipal, state, and federal responses—particularly municipal—in the immediate post-Katrina period,” says Scarlett Andrews Martin, a community organizer who researched municipal and nonprofit efforts to reduce blight at Tulane University’s City, Culture, and Community Ph.D. program. “At that time, the city struggled to come up with a recovery plan, and different neighborhoods really felt that they didn't get it right. These organizations decided to take neighborhood rebuilding on themselves,” she says.
One such neighborhood was Broadmoor, a fairly middle-class neighborhood where the average household income is $58,000 (in 2012), and the population is about 60 percent black, 30 percent white, and 7 percent Hispanic. “The city took a long time to figure out what to do, how to garner resources, and how to organize them in a way that would be equitable. Many people would argue that it really didn't accomplish that,” says Emily Wolff, the executive director of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. The community, which is made up of about 2,500 households, largely took rebuilding efforts, which included tackling issues of vacancy, into its own hands in the post-Katrina period. In 2006, they formed the Broadmoor Development Corporation, helping residents rehab their damaged houses, and rebuilding the local school and library.
But around 2012 the group started to notice that they were hitting a plateau. “People were either back in their homes and rebuilding or properties were still sitting there vacant and blighted,” says Wolff.
After taking office, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made reducing such vacancies and clearing abandoned properties one of his hallmark initiatives. To that end, since 2010 the city has beefed up staff and data-collection processes around vacancies, making identification of blighted properties easier and faster. The city has also made information about blighted housing available publicly—allowing anyone to see where blighted properties in New Orleans exist, what their violations are, and where they are in the remediation process. The end game for many properties is an online auction with a clean title, or destruction.
The Landrieu administration’s goal was to reduce the number of blighted properties by 10,000 by the start of 2014—a goal that was met and exceeded, according to the Mayor’s office. Housing and blight experts say that it’s a good start, but many also say that when it comes to successfully rehabilitating properties for the greater good, local community groups are doing a lot of the heavy lifting. According to a 2014 report, the city’s anti-blight efforts resulted in the demolition of 4,000 housing units between 2010 and 2014. The report also says that between 2010 and 2014 partnerships with community organizations have resulted in the rehabbing of about 520 units owned by low-income residents.
In a statement at the start of 2014, Mayor Landrieu said,“When I took office in 2010, New Orleans had the worst blight problem in America and no strategy to deal with it. We got to work on this community-wide effort and we’re now fighting blight faster here than anywhere else in the country.”
The city defines blight more clinically than some community organizations: as a violation, usually a series of violations, of municipal property code. By definition, eliminating the problem isn’t necessarily about redeveloping or finding the best use for the home or property, it’s about using the Department of Code Enforcement to cite properties and ensure that they are in compliance.
“Once the owner brings that property back up to code, then the blight under Code Enforcement's definition has been eliminated,” says Andrews Martin. “You don't really have that responsibility to see what happens later on—the long-term trajectory of that property.”
By contrast, Community Development Corporations (CDCs) often acquire properties, redevelop them, and then put them back on the market, either for sale or as subsidized units for more vulnerable populations. “They have more of an active role, from my perspective, in transforming land use in the long-term. The Department of Code Enforcement doesn't have to have a grand vision for each neighborhood. It just doesn't work that way," she says.
Of the people I spoke with, no one was especially critical of the administration’s efforts to reduce blight—they just think that the approach of aggressive code enforcement will yield different results than more community-centric solutions that consider the social, economic, and cultural landscape over the long-term. They’re also hesitant to equate progress with success.
That’s because there’s still much work to be done. Current estimates put the number of blighted properties between 20,000 and 30,000—around the same levels as before the storm, but after years of population decline. New Orleans ranks as one of the worst cities in the country for neighborhood blight, along with Detroit and Philadelphia.
And much of that blight is concentrated in poorer, black sections of the city, where collections of dilapidated abandoned homes can stretch for entire blocks. Blight here is more than an eyesore—it creates a dangerous and unhealthy environment, and encourages poverty, crime, and stagnant home values. The issues of vacancy and blight are especially troubling as the city faces a continuing housing crisis, with a dearth of affordable rentals, leaving more than one-third of residents using 50 percent or more of their pay for rent. It’s a difficult proposition to wrap your mind around: Tens of thousands of vacant homes languishing as thousands of residents struggle to put a roof over their heads.
“The whole city is still facing this bizarre predicament,” Wolff says. “I think we really still have a long way to go.”