Juliet Hainkel calls herself “a lifelong New Orleanian” with strong Uptown ties. She lived near Audubon Park, and she and a partner, Desiree Petitbon, operated Basics Underneath, a chic lingerie shop on Magazine St. Right after Hurricane Katrina, the pair were in a quandary: the city was shut down, they had lots of inventory and the future was uncertain.
So Hainkel and Petitbon went north, opening another Basics Underneath in Mandeville, in a small, upscale shopping center. Hainkel’s family made the move as well.
The decision to move has proved to be a good one. Business remains strong at the Magazine St. shop, but the Northshore site is building a clientele, too, as a stream of flood-chased people chooses to cross the Causeway. “More people are learning we are here and getting educated about our merchandise,” Hainkel says.
And her own move has been positive as well. “I love where we live,” she says. There are plenty of activities for her children, and her Mandeville subdivision is just as friendly as Uptown.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, the West St. Tammany Parish housing market was hot, as people crossed the lake to find better public schools, more house for the money and what many considered a safer, more family-oriented lifestyle. Post-Katrina, the market is sizzling. Thousands of people who lost their homes in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes are scrambling to replace them, and the pickings are slim on the south shore. Those washed out by Katrina’s blows are especially attracted to homes on higher ground, but even people who didn’t flood are taking part in what real estate agents call “defensive moving.”
Housing sales in St. Tammany in the first quarter of 2006 were up 39 percent from those in first-quarter 2005, reports the St. Tammany Parish Economic Development Foundation. And prices are climbing, too. Statistics gathered by the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors show that in May 2006, the average price of a house sold in West St. Tammany was $313,857, compared with an average of $253,205 in May 2005. Houses are selling more quickly, as well; homes remained on the market an average of 39 days in May 2006, as opposed to 67 days in May 2005.
Housing hot spots
Covington, just a few minutes from the Causeway, is one of the brightest stars in the Tammany market. Known for lush, green subdivisions such as Beau Chene and The Sanctuary, Covington offers more than just houses, says Marsha Brown, a real estate agent with Prudential Gardner Realtors in Mandeville.
“Covington is one of the few actual communities on the Northshore that has a thriving downtown area, lots of art galleries, shops and community activities,” Brown says. “It’s wonderful for people who want to feel like they are in a small town. On Saturdays, Covington’s Downtown market draws antique-hunters as well as those in search of fresh produce, baked goods and art.
Brown says she saw her share of tears right after the hurricane as people from St. Bernard and Lakeview came to find houses. Her clients were still mourning all that they had left behind; most told her they were coming to the Northshore to escape the worry of evacuating for future hurricanes. Some families were combining several generations, pushing the demand for homes with mother-in-law suites.
People seeking older homes can find them near downtown Covington, but prices are high, Brown says. About $275,000 will get you something small; larger homes and those that have been renovated are much pricier. Those looking to spend less than $150,000 are limited to homes of about 1,200 square feet, she says.
Shelia Luedke, an agent with Linda Jones Realty Team, says prices for most homes in new subdivisions in Covington range from $200,000 to $400,000. But those with deeper pockets can find what they want, too. In the Maple Ridge area just south of Covington, homes run from half a million dollars up.
Luedke says most of her clients are interested in one thing: A house that doesn’t flood. For that, they’re willing to trade off some of the ambience that comes with living in New Orleans.
Mandeville, Madisonville also moving
Mandeville is subdivision heaven, home to hundreds of houses built in what real estate agent June Foley calls “the trifecta” – stucco, brick and siding. Foley got her real estate license one month before Katrina hit, and she’s already a multi-million dollar producer, thanks to the kick-start the hurricane gave to her career. Mandeville is popular because of its proximity to the Causeway, Foley says.
Foley is used to her clients experiencing sticker shock when they start house-hunting, especially if they haven’t bought a house in a decade or so. “We pay high taxes, but we have really good schools,” she says. In three popular subdivisions where Foley specializes – Quail Creek, Forest Brook and The Woodlands – homes range from about $270,000 to $400,000. A few cottage-type houses near Soult Road are available in the $150,000 to $178,000 range, but they are small and don’t come with the amenities subdivisions have, such as swimming pools or community playgrounds.
Empty lots are few and far between in Mandeville, says Wayne Waddell, who owns a real estate agency in Madisonville. People who want to build large homes on large lots are choosing Madisonville for that reason, he says. Madisonville also offers quite a bit of waterfront property that didn’t flood, adds Waddell; most of these homes are $300,000 and up.
Madisonville residents enjoy being able to wake up and look outside and see lots of trees rather than so many subdivisions, Waddell says. A number of small businesses hit by Katrina have chosen to relocate there as well. “They just don’t want to have to deal with going back and rebuilding,” he says. “Office space is tight now.”
Abita Springs experiencing growth
Even the small town of Abita Springs has blossomed post-Katrina. “Upper-end housing [in Abita] after the storm became very hot because we didn’t have a lot of inventory,” says Lynne Congemi with Latter & Blum’s Mandeville office. Congemi, a native of New Orleans, has lived in Abita for about eight years. She says house sales in Abita leaped from 105 from January-August 2005, to 220 during the same period in 2006.
A lot of those houses sold in 2006 went to St. Bernard residents whose grown children had already moved to the Northshore. The hurricane “forced the older ones to come over,” Congemi says. She also says that prices were forced up about 30 percent.
As a result, new subdivisions are under way. Two townhouse developments will offer smaller options, and another five developments will add about 700 home sites over the next year, Congemi says. Some of these will have houses starting at about $150,000 for about 1,100 square feet.
Abita attracted so many newcomers in the first eight months after the storm because it had affordable availability, Congemi adds. “Mandeville went up so much it priced most people out. People who were coming were looking for $175,000 to $250,000, and Mandeville was already over that.”
Abita Springs, home to the Abita Brew Pub and the Abita Springs Opry, has its own charms, especially in the historic district, Congemi says. She’s sold at least five houses in historic Abita that were each over 100 years old. Abita still offers a small-town way of life, but many residents fear that might disappear as new subdivisions are opened.
Folsom and further
Folsom is about 23 miles from the Causeway, which makes for a longer commute, but real estate agent Bridget Jenkins of Smith & Core says she’s selling to people willing to drive from Folsom to either New Orleans or Baton Rouge. Some buyers are flood victims, but a newer clientele includes people in the oil or medical sectors who have been transferred to the Northshore.
Jenkins says that right after the storm, her company opened using generators, trying to find people some type of housing. “Not many people want fixer-uppers because getting someone to do the work is almost impossible right now,” she says. New construction is booming, especially homes with one- or two-acre parcels. Prices run from $260,000 for a 2,500-square-foot house on a couple of acres, but availability is getting scarce, she says.
Hammond, home to Southeastern Louisiana University, is “growing like crazy,” says Debi Sunseri with Keller Williams Realty in Mandeville. Rarely does anything below $200,000 come on the market, she says. The town boasts some great restaurants, and the newly restored Columbia Theatre, which dates back to 1928, hosts plays and musical acts.
People locked out by high prices nearer to the Causeway are also eyeing Pontchatoula, Denim Springs and Franklington, Sunseri says. Some will be making long commutes, while others are finding jobs in Tangipahoa and Washington parishes.
Basics Underneath is far from the only business following its clientele north. In October, a Café du Monde will open in Mandeville. Vice President Burt Benrud says the company had planned to move to St. Tammany even before the hurricane. The storm, and the resulting flood of people moving across the Causeway, just increases the coffee shop’s chance of success in its new location, he says. The company wanted to have the coffee stand open sooner but labor shortages after the hurricane have slowed progress. Benrud expects that come fall, lots of former New Orleanians will be happy to be able to drive through and pick up their familiar café au lait and beignets every morning before hitting the Causeway commute.
Hurricane Katrina also encouraged the owners of H2O Hair Salon and Spa in Old Metairie to open a Northshore location. Patrons moving to St. Tammany urged the salon to follow soon, says Michael Gaspard, chief executive officer, and the owners are more than pleased with the decision. “We can’t accommodate all the business we have over there,” Gaspard says. “We’re glad we made the move.”
Martin Wine Cellar opened a Northshore store in December, and a popular Northshore topic of conversation is checking out rumors about other New Orleans landmarks that are heading to St. Tammany.
Will all this growth continue? Some longtime Northshore residents hope not; a bumper sticker spotted recently says, “Seen Mandeville? Good, now go home.” But most agents expect the housing market to remain strong, although they look for prices to climb more slowly as more new homes become available. A lot of variables remain, including the pace at which the city of New Orleans will rebound and whether people who are still undecided about which path to choose will rebuild or relocate. Northshore communities are improving their infrastructure and building new schools, bracing for the influx to continue as more New Orleans area residents decide the time is right to join the thousands who are opting to call St. Tammany home.