New Orleans is on a mission to raze thousands of properties
abandoned after hurricane Katrina. Many are in neighborhoods, such
as the Lower Ninth Ward, where poor and minority residents were
What hurricane Katrina started nearly seven years ago, the city
of New Orleans itself is now in the unenviable position of
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made razing and cleaning up 40,000
abandoned homes and properties - the biggest such inventory in the
nation, besting Detroit - a cornerstone of his administration. His
aim: to piece back together the racial and social mosaic that for
centuries defined the gritty, buoyant city along the Mississippi
River's crescent bend.
The 2010 Census, conducted five years after Katrina, found that
25 percent of New Orleans residential addresses were vacant, and Mr.
Landrieu's administration is now moving aggressively to tear down
homes that are abandoned or deemed uninhabitable. Last year the city
razed 1,589 decrepit buildings, up from 154 two years earlier, in an
attempt to clear the way for redevelopment in neighborhoods
previously filled (and still partially filled) with poor and
So far, Landrieu, who took office in May 2010, is getting an 'A'
for effort. Aside from demolitions, the city subsidized construction
of 1,038 new homes and 168 renovations in 2011. New Orleans, on the
whole, saw home prices rise 11 percent last year.
But the mayor's goal of redeveloping 10,000 blighted properties
by the end of 2013 won't be easy to achieve. Financial and political
hurdles are substantial, never mind Louisiana's unique adherence to
the property rules of the Napoleonic Code, where the concept of
"forced heirship," or guaranteed property rights of descendants, can
create a Gordian knot of paperwork for lawyers to untangle.
After clearing so many lots, what does the city hope to do with
them? In short, officials intend to sell the cleared lots to
developers through auctions, or use federal grants to give private
and nonprofit developers incentive to build homes and apartments for
low- and moderate-income residents.
"They're trying to find whatever means possible, including
incentives, to maximize [available land] to create viable
communities," says Rob Olshansky, a University of Illinois planning
professor who has studied post-Katrina re-building. "But there are
still two questions that remain: What happens to all those people
who thought they wanted to rebuild but didn't because their
neighbors weren't coming back? And, two, if the city ends up
obtaining the most undesirable properties in the city, are they
going to end up just holding a bunch of stuff that's going to cost
money to maintain?"
Five years ago, residents helped create a blueprint for
rebuilding New Orleans known as the Unified Plan. It backed
resettlement of hard-hit areas in poor, low-lying districts, partly
in a bid to retain a diverse populace. But New Orleans is today in
danger of becoming what residents expressly said they didn't want: a
smaller, whiter, more upscale city. Beyond the edges of the French
Quarter and the tony Garden District, weedy wastelands dominate
fabled neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward, Pontilly, and
Lakeview, and in some spots packs of pitbulls roam, squatters
languish, and the odd boat lies overturned. …