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.”