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
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.”