Blight flight faces growing challenges

New Orleans architecture may be admired around the world as a unique cultural asset but much of the local housing stock remains in a state of decay and open neglect, a situation that predates Hurricane Katrina but was massively exacerbated by the disaster.
City officials say new efforts conceived since Katrina are just beginning to make a difference, however, and standard housing code policies that have long been weakly enforced are now getting more attention.
The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, the city agency tasked with returning to commerce properties that have been seized for neglect or back taxes, says it has been bundling large numbers of properties and preparing to offer them to new owners.
“One or two houses coming back isn’t going to make anyone comfortable with putting their money back into an area, that’s why we cluster these,” says NORA director Joseph Williams. “We have one opportunity to do this right in this city. We’ve seen the results of just auctioning them out to investors who aren’t around to care for a property.”
 While Williams says hundreds of recently expropriated properties should be available by November, New Orleans faces a daunting challenge to reconcile the number of empty homes with the reduced population of the city and its more severely damaged neighborhoods. Using data from the U.S. Postal Service compiled last spring, the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Community Data Center reports that more than one in three residential addresses in the city are now vacant – whether abandoned, boarded-up, demolished or, in the case of up to 3,000 properties, under heavy construction. It is by far the highest vacant rate for any American city analyzed for comparison.  
The city’s response has been to concentrate infrastructure improvements and redevelopment incentives in 16 so-called “target zones” that have a mix of residential and business uses. The intent, says city recovery chief Ed Blakely, is to raise property values and encourage others to buy and renovate properties in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We’re not trying to demolish houses but to move properties back into commerce. We know we can’t do this uniformly across the city, so that’s why we go after targeted areas as a first line of action,” says Blakely.
He says more help is needed from legislative measures aimed at speeding up the process of seizing an abandoned property and selling it to a new owner. In the meantime, he says, the city’s 16 code enforcement officers have been conducting sweeps of thousands of homes in the target zones to document code violations.

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