Inability to sell Lower 9th Ward lots rekindles debate

It was the phrase “alternative uses” that caught the attention of City Councilman James Gray — alternative uses like “rain gardens” and “urban farms.”

Jeff Hebert, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, was discussing the 600 to 700 properties the city still owns in the Lower 9th Ward during a council budget hearing this month, and Gray, whose district includes that neighborhood, had his back up right away.

He prodded Hebert to explain himself and — though he never invoked it directly — he recalled the notorious “green dot” that some urban planners used after Hurricane Katrina to designate future green space over a swath of territory downriver from the Industrial Canal and on the lake side of North Claiborne Avenue, plus other previously lived-in sections of the city.

Hebert assured Gray that he has no plans to turn the Lower 9th Ward into green space. But then he made a comment of jarring frankness, a rare off-script moment for a City Hall administration that is relentlessly positive in touting the New Orleans comeback.

Gray wanted to know when the city would finally finish selling all of the lots it owns there. Hebert told him: “We don’t expect that we will ever get rid of all those properties.”

“That’s the reality that we face,” he continued, “If you look at Baltimore, if you look at Philadelphia, if you look at Pittsburgh, Cleveland, you name it, we’ve been there, we’ve looked at it. They will tell you that at a certain point there are properties that the city will maintain or own in some fashion because you will never ...”

Hebert did not complete the thought, but his meaning was obvious enough. More than eight years after a wall of water poured through the Industrial Canal floodwall and scraped flat the working-class neighborhood behind it, the Lower 9th Ward has only about 20 percent as many residents as it did when the levees breached, making it easily the city’s least-recovered neighborhood. Meanwhile, City Hall finds itself with several hundred empty lots and abandoned homes in the area that just will not sell, at least not on the city’s terms.

A few of the Lower 9th Ward properties could be converted to “rain gardens,” Hebert said, which would essentially take them out of commerce. But for the vast majority, the city’s policy, for the time being, will simply be to cut the grass and wait for demand to increase — if that ever happens.

Of 140 properties the city put up for sale this month, only five were in the Lower 9th Ward, and two of those did not find a buyer. Hebert told Gray that his agency will go to the trouble of including a property in its twice-annual auctions only after at least two people have expressed an interest in it.

The two men continued to spar over the details of title clearing and appraisals until Council President Jackie Clarkson told them to wrap it up. But the question had been put on the table: If community outcry kept the urban planners from drawing a green dot over much of the Lower 9th Ward back in 2006, what will prevent the low-demand neighborhood from slipping into green oblivion now?

‘Just leave us alone’

One day last week, Laura Paul turned off North Rocheblave Street and edged her way up Choctaw Street, head-high undergrowth crowding in from both sides and scraping against the sides of her Chevy pickup. “This is a major American city,” she said. “It’s just astonishing.”

Paul, the head of a group called LowerNine.org, had just run into Tom Pepper, who runs Common Ground Relief, another nonprofit that, among other projects, builds homes in the neighborhood. She flagged him down to talk about Hebert’s appearance at the City Council.

Among the people still trying to get original residents of the Lower 9th Ward back into their homes, there is a kind of ambivalence about what local government should do, or is capable of doing, at this point, tempered by a cynicism about City Hall that took root during former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration and has not entirely dissipated.

“My attitude,” said Pepper, “is that the city should just leave us alone. Let us all finish using the FEMA dollars to build what was supposed to be built, and this thing will come back organically.”

Paul interrupted: “But what are they going to do about their own property? The city owns 700 lots down here.”

“Well,” Pepper said, “they need to keep it mowed.”

“But that’s not enough!” Paul said. “Sell the properties for $1,000 a pop, but say you have to live in them.”

Paul worries that nonprofit rebuilding efforts like hers and Pepper’s, and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, will peter out before the private market is ready to step in and piggyback on what they’ve done. Every year her budget shrinks, and she sees fewer organizations doing the same work.

On that point, Pepper agrees. “Katrina fatigue” has set in, and the private volunteers who, for years, helped to drive so much of the city’s recovery aren’t arriving in the same numbers. “It’s very difficult to tell them, ‘You’re going to come down to New Orleans to cut grass,’” he said.

Paul acknowledges a certain bias in her preferred solution, which would essentially mirror what her own group does: find people who want to move into the Lower 9th Ward and pair them with nonprofits that can raise cash to help them rebuild.

Like many people who have worked with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, Paul describes Hebert as a “smart guy” who has probably looked at all the same angles of this problem. (Landrieu’s office declined to make Hebert available for an interview.)

Still, it is a chicken-egg question that some argue only the government can solve: You won’t attract more residents to the neighborhood without amenities like a grocery store, and you won’t attract a grocery store without more residents.

“Letting the market solve the problem at this point, I don’t think that will work in the Lower 9th Ward,” said Michelle Thompson, a planning and urban studies professor at the University of New Orleans. “The city has to take the lead.”

‘If I was a young man’

Sitting in his second-floor office at City Hall last week, Gray seemed incredulous that any government jump-start should even be necessary.

On the back of a manila envelope, he had sketched a section of the Lower 9th Ward near where the Landrieu administration has already focused some of its rebuilding efforts. As part of the mayor’s “place-based” development strategy, the city is reconstructing a community center and fire station at North Claiborne and Caffin avenues, next to the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School.

Not far away, by the levee at Caffin and Florida avenues, is a new playground, Gray pointed out, and over by Tennessee Street, Make it Right houses have started filling in at least part of the grid. “If I was a young man starting a family, it would be great to have a house right here,” Gray said, aiming his pen at the center of all the activity.

Gray’s exchange with Hebert on these points ended on an inconclusive and ambiguous note.

Gray pressed him on why the city doesn’t put more 9th Ward properties up for sale. He suggested Hebert should try selling all of them, letting potential buyers pick up the cost of title clearing and appraisals to ensure the city doesn’t lose money.

First, Hebert replied, offering properties for whatever price they might get — “$5, $10, $100” — would cause home values to drop elsewhere. “Every economist we’ve talked to about this has said we would flood the market and kill the market,” he said.

When Gray asked what he thought the actual selling prices might be, however, Hebert changed tack and said he thought many of them wouldn’t sell at all.

Gray seemed taken aback. It somehow did not jibe with the story about New Orleans’ resurgence the mayor repeats at nearly every public appearance. It seemed closer to an acknowledgement that if some parts of New Orleans can stand comparison with San Francisco or Austin, there are other neighborhoods where shrinking Rust Belt towns like Pittsburgh and Cleveland offer the most apt analogy.

“We brag about the fact that we’re growing faster than any other city in America,” Gray said. “All the projections I see say we’re going to go past where we were before the hurricane. And that’s very different from all those shrinking Northern cities that are never going to be what they once were.”