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New Orleans' razing craze aims to clear way for post-Katrina recovery

New Orleans is on a mission to raze thousands of properties abandoned after hurricane Katrina. Many are in neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, where poor and minority residents were concentrated.

By Staff writer / February 24, 2012

Workers cleared the remains of a former apartment complex in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans on Nov. 14. Many homes remain abandoned.

Ann Hermes/Staff


New Orleans

What hurricane Katrina started nearly seven years ago, the city of New Orleans itself is now in the unenviable position of finishing.

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Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made razing and cleaning up 40,000 abandoned homes and properties – the biggest such inventory in the nation, besting Detroit – a cornerstone of his administration. His aim: to piece back together the racial and social mosaic that for centuries defined the gritty, buoyant city along the Mississippi River's crescent bend.

The 2010 Census, conducted five years after Katrina, found that 25 percent of New Orleans residential addresses were vacant, and Mr. Landrieu's administration is now moving aggressively to tear down homes that are abandoned or deemed uninhabitable. Last year the city razed 1,589 decrepit buildings, up from 154 two years earlier, in an attempt to clear the way for redevelopment in neighborhoods previously filled (and still partially filled) with poor and minority residents.

So far, Landrieu, who took office in May 2010, is getting an 'A' for effort. Aside from demolitions, the city subsidized construction of 1,038 new homes and 168 renovations in 2011. New Orleans, on the whole, saw home prices rise 11 percent last year.

But the mayor's goal of redeveloping 10,000 blighted properties by the end of 2013 won't be easy to achieve. Financial and political hurdles are substantial, never mind Louisiana's unique adherence to the property rules of the Napoleonic Code, where the concept of "forced heirship," or guaranteed property rights of descendants, can create a Gordian knot of paperwork for lawyers to untangle.

After clearing so many lots, what does the city hope to do with them? In short, officials intend to sell the cleared lots to developers through auctions, or use federal grants to give private and nonprofit developers incentive to build homes and apartments for low- and moderate-income residents.

"They're trying to find whatever means possible, including incentives, to maximize [available land] to create viable communities," says Rob Olshansky, a University of Illinois planning professor who has studied post-Katrina re-building. "But there are still two questions that remain: What happens to all those people who thought they wanted to rebuild but didn't because their neighbors weren't coming back? And, two, if the city ends up obtaining the most undesirable properties in the city, are they going to end up just holding a bunch of stuff that's going to cost money to maintain?"

Five years ago, residents helped create a blueprint for rebuilding New Orleans known as the Unified Plan. It backed resettlement of hard-hit areas in poor, low-lying districts, partly in a bid to retain a diverse populace. But New Orleans is today in danger of becoming what residents expressly said they didn't want: a smaller, whiter, more upscale city. Beyond the edges of the French Quarter and the tony Garden District, weedy wastelands dominate fabled neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward, Pontilly, and Lakeview, and in some spots packs of pitbulls roam, squatters languish, and the odd boat lies overturned.


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