In The News › Agency Criticizes Handling of Blight

Apr 21, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Agency Criticizes Handling of Blight

Agency criticizes handling of blight
BGR calls N.O. code enforcement ‘lax’
Monday, April 21, 2008
By Bruce Eggler
Staff writer

A recent revamp of New Orleans’ procedures for dealing with blighted housing has not corrected some of the major problems with the way the city tries to get such buildings repaired and put back into use, a new report by a governmental watchdog group concludes.

The report, released last week, is the third critical analysis that the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research has issued in five months about the city’s policies for fighting blight.

Its release followed City Council approval last month of an ordinance intended to put blighted properties back into commerce more efficiently and provide stricter building code enforcement.

The sweeping revision of the city’s policies was backed by Mayor Ray Nagin’s Office of Recovery and Development Administration. It was designed to beef up the code enforcement process and create a case management structure that will let officials turn over unkempt, unoccupied properties to those who will maintain and redevelop them.

The revision also consolidates health and code enforcement procedures; gives the city more authority to go onto private property, perform maintenance and charge the owner; establishes a fund to put fines into future blight reduction work; applies blight standards to commercial and government-owned properties; and puts more of a burden on owners to disprove city inspectors’ judgments that their properties represent a public nuisance.

The BGR’s new report, “Mending the Urban Fabric: Blight in New Orleans, Part II — Procedures for Successful Redevelopment,” says the overhaul of the city’s procedures “contains many positive improvements, but it also poses risks of inconsistent enforcement and continued leniency.”

The city’s efforts “need refinement in some cases and rethinking in others. Some problems remain altogether unaddressed,” the report says.

The city’s new approach will “require an unprecedented level of management, coordination and discipline,” the BGR document says. “If the execution of the program falls short, it increases the chance that a property will disappear from the code enforcement system unremediated.”

The bureau also alleges that “under the planned program, many decisions will be made behind closed doors,” rather than in public administrative hearings, meaning that “neighbors will not have a sufficient opportunity to be heard.”

However, the report raises doubts about the effectiveness of such hearings, saying that at 137 code enforcement hearings BGR personnel attended last year under the city’s now-abandoned Good Neighbor Program, the hearing officers “accepted any explanation or excuse as a sufficient reason for dismissal or deferral,” and that deferred cases were never rescheduled.

“Overall, between Hurricane Katrina and February 2008, city hearing officers designated 1,736 properties as blighted, a public nuisance or both,” the report says. Those properties represented only “a fraction of the tens of thousands of blighted properties in New Orleans.”

The bureau concludes: “Code enforcement in New Orleans has been — and remains — lax.”

Another problem, the BGR report says, is that the city’s new strategy calls for concentrating enforcement efforts in 17 target recovery zones and “stabilizing areas.” Outside those areas, it says, the city will take action only on the most severely damaged and dangerous buildings, leaving others to “deteriorate without any government intervention. This approach leaves much of the city without effective code enforcement.”

The bureau says the city’s approach “has the effect of creating dual standards: one for target areas, another for all other areas, regardless of whether they are healthy, struggling or nonviable.”

It would be better, the report says, to make the level of enforcement dependent on an area’s realistic prospects for recovery in the foreseeable future. It suggests setting lower short-term maintenance standards in devastated and abandoned areas that are unlikely to see major investment in the short term.

“Regardless of the standard,” the BGR report says, the city should provide strict enforcement “in all parts of the city. The city would investigate all complaints and hearing officers would hear all cases without delay.”

Providing that level of enforcement may require shifting some of the recovery office’s resources away from redevelopment projects, the report says. “We submit that fully funding this basic government function on a citywide basis should take precedence over funding for specific projects.”

. . . . . . .

The full report can be found at the BGR’s Web site, www.bgr.org.

Bruce Eggler can be reached at beggler@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3320.

Apr 21, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

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