In The News › BGR criticizes city’s anti-blight process

Dec 14, 2007

Source: Times-Picayune

BGR criticizes city’s anti-blight process

BGR criticizes city’s anti-blight process
Divisions produce confusion, it says
Friday, December 14, 2007
By Frank Donze
Staff writer

The fragmented process that City Hall uses to deal with blight in New Orleans is confusing to residents and developers and should be assigned to a single agency, a governmental watchdog group said in a package of recommendations submitted Thursday to Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration.

In its analysis, the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research says the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority “is the obvious candidate for running the consolidated blight program.”

The BGR criticizes the administration’s decision to hand over all health and safety code enforcement responsibilities to the city’s new Office of Recovery and Development Administration. The group warns that the recovery office may use code enforcement selectively to support its 17 target redevelopment zones and other recovery-specific programs, “rather than applying it on a comprehensive, citywide basis.”

The BGR released its report in advance of a City Council committee meeting Monday at which aides to Recovery Director Ed Blakely are scheduled to outline new approaches to fighting blight.

Agencies largely agree

Ezra Rapport, Blakely’s chief operating officer, said by e-mail Thursday that NORA and the recovery office “are largely in agreement with BGR’s major observations and recommendations.”

Rapport said the city is working closely with NORA’s staff to develop specific strategies and performance standards for the thousands of blighted properties expected to come under NORA’s control. But he said code enforcement will remain under his office.

“Recovery policies adopted by the city place a major emphasis on neighborhood stabilization,” he said. “In this, we agree that code enforcement is a central means of eradicating blight and creating healthy neighborhoods.”

When it comes to blight remediation, the BGR report says, coordination “has historically been poor” among housing, public health and recovery departments. It says a lone agency should be the depository for all blighted properties, responsible for managing and ultimately disposing of them.

NORA is the logical choice for the job, the BGR states, because the agency’s “sole mission” is remediation and redevelopment of blighted properties and it soon will have responsibility for an estimated 7,000 Road Home properties bought by the state from owners who decided not to rebuild.

That said, the BGR notes that its recommendation “comes with reservations” because of NORA’s spotty record and the fact that it is run by a board of mayoral appointees. Those concerns could be addressed by controls and restrictions on NORA’s operations, the report says.

For example, it says, NORA and the city should agree to specific strategies, procedures and performance standards, and the agency’s actions should not conform to the city’s master land use plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance.

Arguing against placing safety and health regulation under Blakely’s control, the BGR calls code enforcement “a basic governmental function with citywide application rather than a recovery function.”

For more than a year, City Council members have expressed impatience with what they consider the Nagin administration’s failure to enforce laws governing public heath and safety. The result, they have said, is abandoned structures — brimming with rodents, high weeds and broken windows — that hinder entire blocks’ recovery.

Blakely and Rapport have acknowledged that the city has done a poor job since Hurricane Katrina and have promised sweeping code enforcement reforms in 2008.

Details of changes hazy

Though short on details, Blakely’s team has said changes likely will include the addition of more inspectors, more aggressive enforcement of existing property laws and possible elimination of the so-called “good neighbor” law, a minimum-standard ordinance that required property owners to gut and board up their flooded or blighted properties by Aug. 29, 2006.

While the BGR says the basic goal of the blighted property program should be remediation and redevelopment of run-down areas, its analysis warns that NORA and the Nagin administration might try to use the program to achieve other ends, such as creating specific types of communities, favoring one type of development over another or “pursuing social goals that go far beyond blight remediation.”

As an example, the BGR report cites NORA’s recent release of a request for proposals to rehabilitate properties that would favor developers who promise features such as workforce training programs and affordable prices for potential buyers and renters.

“Given the scale of the blight and the difficulty of attracting the massive investment needed to rebuild New Orleans,” the BGR says it would be a mistake to impose limitations on developers unrelated to the basic goals of blight remediation and good-quality development.

It says the city needs to “cast a wide net to encourage development by the largest possible pool of individual, nonprofit and for-profit developers.”

The BGR also calls on the city to work with state legislators to create a “clear and workable definition of blight” for use in legal proceedings, to commit adequate financial resources to maintaining blighted properties in its possession and to improve City Hall’s property information database.

Rapport said his office is evaluating current blight standards and the blight designation process to include owner-driven options for rehabilitation, as well as expropriation of properties when necessary. If city government deems it necessary to expropriate, he said, several strategies will be used to determine the best use of those properties, including the market-driven, targeted and land-banking options detailed by BGR.

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Frank Donze can be reached at fdonze@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3328.

Dec 14, 2007

Source: Times-Picayune

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