Is opportunity knocking in the suburbs?
It has been nearly 20 years since I bought my first house — the first of five houses, the first of five renovation projects. That first place, in Mid-City, lacked central A/C and was a little rough around the edges. Looking back on it, the $125,000 price was a bargain for a three-bedroom, two-bath, 1930s-era house of more than 2,000 square feet, near City Park.
Back in the late 1990s, it was easy to find an inexpensive house in New Orleans. You could buy an Uptown double for $200,000. I remember a house on Esplanade Avenue asking $115,000. Bywater was sometimes still just called the Ninth Ward, and it was cheap.
I thank my stars that I bought into this market as a young man. Looking around at the prices now, I often ask myself, “What if I were starting all over today? Where would I begin a renovation odyssey?”
To bring this query to life, I recently conducted a search for single-family homes. First I had to think about how to make a good comparison.
When adjusted for inflation, the $125,000 I paid in 1999 would be about $183,000 today. This is nearly in step with median sale prices today. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median sale price of a single family home in the U.S. in 2016 was $236,000; in the South alone it was $209,000; and in the New Orleans metropolitan area it was $188,000. A 30-year mortgage on $200,000 at roughly four percent interest would require a monthly payment of about $1,000 — not bad compared to the cost of renting an apartment.
Based on all of these factors, the following criteria seemed reasonable: a maximum of $200,000 for two or more bedrooms and bathrooms and at least 2,000 square feet of living space.
I looked up properties with these criteria on a real estate website and found plenty of spacious and well-maintained properties. When I placed them into map view on the website, a striking pattern emerged.
It was as though a force-field had settled upon almost all of historic New Orleans. From Carrollton to Bywater, almost nothing was available. There was one $150,000 property in Central City. There was a $134,000 property in Hollygrove, at the Jefferson Parish line. On the opposite side of town, in Holy Cross, there was one property asking $189,000. Nothing was available anywhere near my first home.
Similarly, there were only about 10 properties scattered across the entirety of East Jefferson, and not a single property available anywhere between Clearview Parkway and Orleans Parish.
By contrast, almost every neighborhood in eastern New Orleans had available properties. Gentilly alone had about a dozen properties. Ditto Algiers — except for Algiers Point, the historic section. In west Jefferson, there were plenty of properties available, running from Terrytown, west along Lapalco. Chalmette had its share of properties too.
On the Northshore, heavy concentrations of homes clustered in and around Slidell. On the western side of the parish, I found only a smattering of properties running from Mandeville to Folsom.
So if I were starting over today, I could not start in the core city. I’d have to start in Chalmette, Gentilly, New Orleans East, Slidell or the West Bank. And with 20 years now past, I might be looking to renovate a house from the 1950s, rather than the 1930s.
There’s good news and bad news here. The good news first: there are still plenty of perfectly fine homes available for first-time home buyers.
The bad news: in some circles there is a stigma attached to the suburbs. For nearly a generation, popular culture has romanticized urban living and made the suburbs out to be everything from lame and boring all the way to environment-destroying factories of soulless conformity.
A few older suburbs face a double-whammy. They get none of the glamour recently associated with the cosmopolitan core but some of the same social pathologies — crime and poverty — long associated with the urban core.
Still, there was a time when living in a beat-up old house in Mid-City was not the coolest thing you could do. Regeneration has to start somewhere.