Reports › Mending the Urban Fabric: Part 1

Feb 12, 2008

Mending the Urban Fabric - Part 1

This is the first in a two-part series analyzing New Orleans’ blighted property programs and recommending reforms.

Filed under: Blight, Orleans Parish

Today the Bureau of Governmental Research releases Mending the Urban Fabric: Blight in New Orleans, Part I: Structure & Strategy. This is the first in a two-part series analyzing New Orleans’ blighted property programs and recommending reforms.

Blighted properties pose a serious impediment to the city’s recovery. Unfortunately, New Orleans’ blighted property programs have long been ineffective and must be reformed to meet the challenge of rehabilitating tens of thousands of properties. Problems include the following:

  • Fragmented structure
  • Lack of comprehensive and pragmatic goals and strategies
  • Serious funding deficiencies
  • Poor record keeping and access to basic property information
  • Acquisition hurdles
  • Arbitrary, opaque and uncompetitive disposition procedures
  • Poor maintenance and cleanup
  • Poor administration of the involuntary demolition program

Part I of BGR’s report addresses the critical issues of program structure, goals and strategy. Part II will address program funding, as well as technical and procedural issues relating to property acquisition, maintenance, disposition and demolition.

Major Observations

Consolidating Functions into NORA.

Blighted property programs have historically been fragmented and poorly coordinated. This has caused confusion for the public and developers. At the governmental level, it has contributed to a lack of focus on blighted property issues. To address these problems, BGR recommends consolidating blighted property programs, to the greatest extent possible, in the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA). NORA, unlike City government, has a mission limited to blight remediation and redevelopment. This should keep it focused and on task. NORA also has most of the necessary powers, and responsibility for the thousands of Road Home properties that the State is acquirng.

BGR recognizes that consolidating blighted properties in an unelected body with a troubled history has its risks. Policymakers can mitigate these risks with controls on NORA’s operations. Among other things, NORA and the City should jointly commit to specific strategies, procedures and performance standards. NORA’s efforts should be consistent with the City’s master land use plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance. Its efforts should also be subject to meaningful public participation.

Maintaining an Effective Structure for Code Enforcement.

Code enforcement and involuntary demolitions are basic governmental functions that should remain with City government. They should be located in a single department with a citywide focus.

Recently, the City transferred code enforcement and involuntary demolitions to the newly formed Office of Recovery Development and Administration (ORDA) under the direction of Edward Blakely. ORDA maintains that its responsibilities are citywide and that it will implement code enforcement citywide on a strategic basis that is not limited to the City’s 17 target recovery zones. However, BGR remains concerned that ORDA may concentrate code enforcement resources too narrowly in a limited number of troubled areas. Such a focus would leave fewer resources to address blight in well-functioning areas where there is an active real estate market and only scattered blight. These are the very areas where blight remediation would have an immediate and critical impact.

Keeping the Focus on Blight Remediation.

NORA and the City should focus their blighted property programs, within existing legal parameters and funding restraints, on two fundamental goals: blight remediation and good quality redevelopment of blighted areas. While this might sound obvious, there are indications that the City and NORA intend to superimpose other, more expansive goals, such as the creation of “inclusive” and “equitable” communities, workforce training and “green” building. Superimposing restrictions unrelated to the basic goals is likely to impede and slow recovery by limiting the range of potential projects and the pool of interested developers.

BGR is not suggesting that developers who seek to achieve goals beyond blight remediation – such as affordable housing and workforce training – should be discouraged in their efforts. Rather, development should not be limited to specific types. To confront the massive redevelopment task, the City and NORA must cast a wide net that encourages development by the largest possible group of individual, nonprofit and for-profit developers.

Developing a Comprehensive, Pragmatic Strategy.

To address the pervasive blight in post- Katrina New Orleans, the City needs a comprehensive, citywide strategy that takes into account the viability of different areas and limited available resources. NORA and the City intend to rely heavily on a targeted strategy that concentrates resources for blight remediation in specific areas. The strategy is a small part of a much larger recovery plan that also includes infrastructure rebuilding and economic development.

BGR agrees that a targeted strategy is appropriate for troubled, but functioning, areas. However, we believe that blight remediation efforts should focus more aggressively on the well- functioning areas of the city. Addressing blight in those areas through a market-driven strategy will improve the quality of life and increase the housing supply with a relatively modest investment of public resources.

“The challenge of dealing with blight in New Orleans is daunting,” said Lynes R. Sloss, BGR board chairman. “Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to address the problem. Rather, policymakers must roll up their sleeves and comprehensively address a multitude of issues.”

BGR Recommendations

Program Structure

  • Blighted property programs in New Orleans should be consolidated, to the greatest extent possible, in NORA. Specifically:
    • NORA should conduct all expropriations of blighted properties in New Orleans.
    • NORA should serve as the depository for all blighted properties, with responsibility for managing and eventually disposing of them.
  • City government should retain responsibility for the administration of tax sales, code enforcement and involuntary demolitions.
  • The State Legislature should amend NORA’s enabling legislation:
    • To require that NORA follow the City’s master land use plan and its comprehensive zoning ordinance
    • To provide for meaningful public participation in NORA’s property acquisition and disposition decisions
    • To establish strong conflict-of-interest rules for NORA’s board members and staff
  • City Council should amend the City ordinance governing the Office of Inspector General, and State lawmakers should amend NORA’s enabling legislation, to give the Office of Inspector General clear oversight power over NORA.
  • The City and NORA should jointly commit, through a cooperative endeavor agreement, to the allocation of responsibilities recommended in BGR’s report and to specific strategies, procedures and performance standards.
  • To provide a means of enforcing NORA’s commitments, the City should retain a clearly defined right of reversion in properties it transfers to NORA.

Goals and Strategies

  • NORA and the City should focus their blighted property programs, to the extent possible, on the goals of blight remediation and good quality redevelopment of blighted areas. NORA and the City should avoid program requirements that interfere with effective accomplishment of these goals.
  • NORA and the City should adopt a comprehensive, citywide set of strategies that:
    • Facilitates private development
    • Directs limited resources to viable areas with the greatest potential for impact in the near future
    • Gives priority to blight remediation efforts in well-functioning areas and a limited number of carefully chosen target zones
    • Relies on a market-driven approach in areas with sufficient development interest
    • Acquires properties within chosen target areas for simultaneous redevelopment
  • When identifying and prioritizing target zones, NORA and the City should use a public process with clear and limited criteria. Criteria should include proximity to well- functioning and up-and-coming areas, potential to encourage other development, and the presence of existing redevelopment efforts.