Blight Strategy Should Balance Toughness with Compassion

With New Orleans’ stock of blighted structures still among the nation’s largest nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina, residents on Monday implored advisers to Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu to take tough action against delinquent property owners.

In offering suggestions to Landrieu’s task forces on housing and blight, participants also urged the new administration, which takes office May 3, to show compassion to the poor and homeless who take refuge in abandoned buildings and to prioritize salvaging historic structures.

With the latest estimate of blighted residential addresses in the city topping 50,000, about 100 residents showed up at Southern University at New Orleans to discuss a top quality-of-life concern.

“Our biggest problem is private owners. It’s been five years. I cannot develop homes in my area and try to get people to come in to buy them if they have to live next to houses that have not been gutted,” said Madaline Trepagnier, president of the neighborhood organization in Pines Village in eastern New Orleans.

Trepagnier suggested that city officials give owners of blighted properties 90 days to clean up their lots before forcibly clearing the ruin. “It’s not fair to those of us who have invested thousands and thousands of dollars in our community,” she said.

Another eastern New Orleans community leader, Barbara Hornsby, asked the new administration to target commercial structures she called “eyesores” and “fire hazards.”

“I need to know when the apartment complexes are coming down on the I-10 corridor,” she said. “I need to know: When are businesses going to be held accountable for tearing their properties down?”

Several property owners complained that some city-owned buildings are among the worst blight offenders, while one objected to languishing FEMA trailers.

“You must give priority to those New Orleanians who live here, not to those who own property here but live elsewhere,” resident Stanley Cohn said.

Amid calls for aggressive action came appeals for new strategies. Several speakers said the policy of piling fines on owners of blighted lots doesn’t work. Some offenders simply won’t pay, they said, while others’ obstacles to rebuilding are worsened by growing liens.

Meanwhile, several advocates for homeless residents encouraged task force members to generate policy suggestions that expand the availability of affordable housing.

“While it is so important for us to rebeautify our city and get rid of these abandoned buildings, … just have a very spelled-out plan for the people who are currently living in those spaces and emphasize the importance of affordable housing for those people,” said Megan Massett, who estimated that 12,000 New Orleanians are homeless.

Landrieu did not attend Monday’s session because he was in Boston to meet today with current and former U.S. mayors and to participate in a Harvard University conference on inspiring public service, a transition team spokesman said.

Michelle Krupa can be reached at mkrupa@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3312

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