Lower Ninth Ward: The Other Housing Market

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Also can be read, here, in the Louisiana Data News Weekly 

While New Orleans is in the midst of surging real estate prices and a lack of affordable housing, the Lower Ninth Ward is struggling to repopulate what was once the largest concentration of African-American homeownership in the US.

The neighborhood landscape is filled with empty lots, once homes of those unable to return after Hurricane Katrina, which are now under state control. Often filled with wild animals and trash, these abandoned lots of land have become a lingering problem that has continued to suppress the value of neighboring properties. Since the storm, New Orleans has combatted blight like many US cities have- shifting ownership away from the static control of state government and towards those who are incentivized to care for the land the most: next door neighbors.

There has been a collage of programs to help homeowners claim the abandoned lots that they share a fence with, dozens of who live in the Lower 9th. However, the majority of residents of the Lower 9th (median income $31,582) and other economically depressed areas have largely been unable to capitalize on these investment opportunities. Despite provisions to help low-income homeowners participate in this blight reduction strategy, the process in purchasing these lots is complex and costly. As a result, the Lower 9th streets most affected by blighted land are the least likely to see them developed on, further embedding these areas in a cycle of poverty.

The lack of upward mobility can be enormously frustrating for people who see minimal improvements in the city’s historically black community. Lower 9th homeowner Dianne Polk is an example of someone who has begun to loss faith in the city’s plan, “No one cares about this place. The Mayor, the city, the President come when they need to but no reason to think things will change”. In that moment, surrounding neighbors also could not help notice that the long-awaited repaving of their streets coincided perfectly with President Obama’s Katrina anniversary visit.

Even for those more optimistic, it is near impossible to navigate between the several different blight reduction programs and funding sources without some legal expertise. People like Polk are shocked that at how hard it is for neighbors to fix these lots that are clearly a public safety hazard.

The Costs In Owning A Vacant Lot 

The ‘Lot Next Door’ (LND) is the original initiative in providing homeowners the chance to own adjacent vacant lots and is credited for elevating the city’s housing market. When the program began in 2007, provisions were included to ensure that lower-income homeowners could still participate, but a degree of financial stability was still required.

The largest obstacle people in the Lower 9th faced when partaking in LND were the rates adjacent properties were priced at. Due to a Louisiana law that prohibits the sale of any state-owned property for under ‘fair-market value’, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) has little flexibility on pricing. The ‘fair market value’ requirement prevents the city from making the most dangerous and blighted properties cheap enough to buy- as a result, many Lower 9th residents are given $10 thousand price tags for the privilege to own dilapidated structures that they have taken care of for years.

With the amount of capital required to participate in LND, it is not surprisingly that the majority of lots purchased come from areas like Lakeview (median income $80,972) that were devastated by storm but with a comparatively more affluent demographic. Conversely, low-income residents of the Lower 9th were unable to take advantage of programs like LND before the program expired in 2014. In fact, a collection of 7 residents who participated in this story admitted to not knowing anyone who actually acquired vacant property through the Lot Next Door program. The program was known just not seen.

Ten years of watching the Lower Ninth Ward get left behind has spurred lawmakers to get creative in tackling the lack of economic opportunity in their neighborhoods. State Rep. Wesley Bishop decided to address the issue head-on by proposing a bill that would allow abandoned lots in the Lower Ninth Ward to be available for $100. But because of the Louisiana law, which restricted LND, that mandates the sale of state assets at ‘fair-market value’, the $100 a lot proposal had to be voted on as a ballot initiative in the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, the Louisiana electorate was unable to see the benefit of jolting the neighborhood’s real estate market and rejected the proposal.

It is impossible to know exactly why Louisiana shot the idea down, but it would be shame if it stemmed from the belief that the proposal was a ‘government handout’ since that is not the case. If passed, the bill would have mandated participants of the program to not only maintain the property, but then build a house that must be inhabited for at least 5 years. The idea was to get people moving into the neighborhood quickly.

While Rep. Bishop is disappointed that the measure failed, he sees the bill as a symbol for the city’s appetite in aggressively meeting the social inequality that plagues the Lower 9th. With the emergence of Lot Next Door 3.0 there may very well be a renewed sense of urgency. The question is if the future policies are accessible by the homeowners who need the services the most.

Complexity Of The System

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Shannon Dupree look over the remains of his neighbor’s home.

The several iterations of Lot Next Door, along with the $100 a lot proposal and other blight reduction objectives may all come together for the lawmakers who designed them. But for those on the ground it is web of red tape making it hard to distinguish between an individual’s ineligibility for the program or a bureaucratic hold-up.

Brenda Dupre, life-long Lower 9th resident, is an example of those who have heard about programs like LND but has yet to see it in action. Whether it is LND, or another program, her main priority is to get rid of the abandoned building next door to her home. The deteriorated structure is still filled with the personal effects of her pre-Katrina neighbor as well as that of drifters yet there is no movement from the city on tearing down the hazardous site.

While Dupre is happy to have survived the years of repairs and multiple robberies, the crumbling structure two-feet from her childhood home remains the “bane of her existence”. In terms of public policy, it is a perplexing that vacant lots are dealt with before condemned buildings that are havens for illicit activities. With the building being in clear violation of coding enforcement, and not available on LND property lists, she has no idea which direction to take with the city.

Her son, Shannon Dupre, does not see the logic used in pricing vacant properties. “We’re not asking for $100 alot. But the price for properties should account how badly it affects others and how long neighbors have been fixing it up. There needs to be a better formula that makes it fairer.”

Unfortunately for residents suffering from blight, there is no one agency to direct all questions towards. Convoluted property laws in Louisiana coupled with a more conservative state legislature make it hard for New Orleans to streamline revitalization efforts, especially in areas like the Lower 9th that require subsidies. But despite little progress made, local lawmakers and community leaders are optimistic that increasing homeownership is the best way to provide the economic opportunities that residents have been deprived of for so long.

Preventing Prices Out

The rapid gentrification of the city has caused concern that native New Orleans may not be able to keep up with rising rental costs in the very neighborhoods that they help reestablish after Hurricane Katrina. Historically black communities like the Seventh Ward or Central City are undergoing demographic shifts that could potentially reach the Lower 9th if the real estate market continues to spike. But if native Lower 9th folks are able to own their homes, or expand the footprint of their property, then they can avoid being priced out of their homes even if the housing market reaches New York City levels.

But for many lawmakers, concerns over gentrification seem misplaced as the Lower 9th currently sports a dismal real estate market, prompting calls for $100 land sales. Lower 9th advocate Rep. Bishop even admits that the main objective is “to provide the community with goods and services”. That said, many residents who stood by their homes when neighbors left, plan on dying on their properties and not being price out. Brenda Dupre points to a sign on her fence with the word ‘Dupree’ along with a well-designed logo. “I had to fight for this sign. Along with everything else.”

‘Pay Or Stay’ Sentencing In New Orleans

Debtors Prison alive and well in Louisiana and around the country with people facing jail time if unable to pay court fines.

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Can also be read, here, at NOLA Data News Weekly, a publication that provides coverage on issues that affect black community of New Orleans…

Debtors’ Prison is an illegal practice in the US yet people are routinely imprisoned in Louisiana because they cannot afford otherwise. The recent class action lawsuit against the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court has brought national attention to how New Orleans uses fees and fines accrued in court to pay for judicial services. What is less known, is that the Orleans Municipal Court, which handles minor offenses such as marijuana possession or disturbing the peace, doles out fines at a much greater rate resulting in an ultimatum commonly referred to as ‘pay or stay’.

People facing minor charges are given the opportunity to plead guilty and pay a fine in order to go home that day. While this is an attractive option for anyone, low income defendants who make up the majority of municipal court, much of whom are homeless, often cannot to come up with the money. As a result, hundreds of individuals charged with minor, non-violent offenses end up in the notorious Orleans Parish Prison with debt still in their name.

Attorneys with Orleans Public Defenders are quick to point out that people should not fear going to jail if they are unable to pay their municipal court fine. In fact, Danny Engelberg of OPD says that fear of court fines can lead to the biggest mistake a defendant can make: missing their initial assigned court date. “It’s rare that somebody who shows up [in court] will get in trouble for not paying.” However, one missed court date can snowball into a massive amount of debt or a lengthy stint in jail.

“What really gets people in trouble is not showing back up for that hearing 30 days later. At that point, a warrant goes out for them, and the [court] will cite that person for contempt for missing court”. Once a defendant is in contempt, ‘pay or stay’ situations are more likely to arise. Contempt of Court citations come with the option of either a fine of $200 or 20 days in jail, emblematic of pressure ‘pay or stay’ sentencing places on low-income defendants.

Lauren Anderson, a public defender for municipal cases, says that once somebody has been arrested for contempt or another attachment, it is permissible for money to be accepted as a substitution for days in jail. “The court may take $300 instead of 30 days or $600 instead of 60 days. But these are people who didn’t have the money to pay the bond in the first place, they’re definitely not going to have the $300 to get out of jail… they may lose their house, they lose everything. And then they definitely can’t pay what they owed in the first place”.

If the concept of imprisonment over debt sounds like something that should be illegal, that is because it is. ‘Pay or stay’ was not only categorically rejected in a 1972 US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision but was also ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court a decade later. The Bearden vs. Georgia ruling in 1983 stated that it is in violation of Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to imprison an individual “who has made sufficient bona fide efforts to pay [a] fine”.

Even though imprisonment over debt is clearly outlawed, a recently released report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana details that the practice continues in the state. Within the 45-day span that the study took place, the ACLU found 12 people jailed for unpaid fines. These 12 imprisoned for their debts were hardly an aberration. An unnamed source in the report said imprisoning people who cannot pay their debts was “so common you stop noticing it.” A case that received attention from the New Orleans community was that of Dianne Jones charged with marijuana possession in 2014. Jones was order to pay $834 in court fines in a six-month period or risk arrest. She tried her best to keep up with the payment plan but still had a warrant put out for her arrest when she was late with her final payment.

After reading the stories of imprisonment over a court fine, it is perplexing how often those with the least amount of money are given large penalties in their sentence. No formal procedure is required to determine if a defendant is indigent and therefore would be unable to pay a fine. As it stands now, a judge has complete discretion in how much to fine which explains the inconsistent sentences from case to case. For example, Dianne Jones was sentenced to pay $834, while Gregory Nogess, also charged with marijuana possession in 2013, was only ordered to pay $400. Public Defender Anderson, sees no science in how a court fine is determined. “They try to get it to a round number, but every judge is different”.

The seemingly arbitrary nature of court fines becomes more disturbing with the growing allegations that judicial officials benefit from collections. Every district court in Louisiana has a ‘Judicial Expense Fund’ that comes mainly from court fines. These funds can be used for court operation costs and even renovations of the courthouse. There is clearly potential for corrupt behavior in this system. This potential became reality in 2011, when it was discovered that some criminal district judges illegally used money from collected fines to pay for their own supplemental health and dental insurance. This specific incident, while not involving municipal judges, proves that Judicial Expense Funds open the possibility of judges benefitting from their own decisions.

Despite of the controversy circling “pay or stay” it is unlikely that the practice will change anytime soon. Too much funding for the parish’s judicial system comes from the court fines administered in municipal court.   The irony is that, while court costs and fees disproportionately harm the poorest defendants, their collection is critical to ensuring that these same defendants are able to have representation in court.

The state of Louisiana provides 85% of funding for the district attorney but less than half of the public defenders budget. Beyond these contributions parishes have to finance their own legal system . It is very likely that defendants like Dianne Jones, who struggle to pay their court finds, are paying the salaries of their court appointed lawyer.

The irony becomes even crueler once Orleans Public Defenders revealed that it is deep in debt , despite the massive number of fines imposed . Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton announced that his office is facing massive furloughs and reduction in services as the 2016 budget is already projected to have a $300,000 deficit. Many at OPD see the office’s financial troubles as a result of depending on the ‘user-fee’ system as a major source of funding.   Because defendants often go to jail because of their inability to pay, it is impossible to predict how much court fines will yield in any period of time.

With the state government in fiscal trouble of its own, it is difficult to know how OPD will rebound. Major structural reform in how public defense is funded is probably needed to assure that the constitutional right of attorney is preserved. Some in the Louisiana statehouse may not want to change course, but they may not have a choice as national awareness continues to grow on the use of court fines and their disproportionate effects on people of color. Lawsuits filed against cities like Ferguson, Mo. and Montgomery, Al. have shown that the practice of using court fines to fund government programs, and incarcerate those who fail to pay, is not something unique to New Orleans. ‘Pay or stay’ arrangements have been implemented throughout US history and the defendants with the least financial and social resources, the vast majority of whom are African-American, have always been the foremost victims. It may be complicated to fund a court system. But the perverse incentives that this system creates, not to mention the illegality of ‘pay or stay’, are all reasons why financial penalties should not be relied upon to fund basic legal services.