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Raising the bar in The Big Easy: Remediating 10,000 blighted properties in less than four years

A vacant home in Gentilly, New Orleans with high water marks still visible
A vacant home in Gentilly, New Orleans with high water marks still visible - Chelsea Allinger, Community Progress

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In January 2014, Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced that the City of New Orleans had not only met, but actually exceeded a major goal set back in September 2010: remediating 10,000 of the city’s more than 40,000 blighted properties by the end of 2014.
 
The City of New Orleans reached the goal in the first half of 2013, well ahead of schedule, according to an independent study by Peter Yaukey, Ph.D., a professor at the University of New Orleans.
 
It’s a remarkable feat for a city that, prior to this undertaking, lacked direction when it came to blight reduction, as Oliver Wise, director of the city’s Office of Performance and Accountability, described.
 
"[The city] didn't really have a grasp of what tools were available to deal with blight and even if it did have a good grasp on what those tools were, organizationally the city wasn’t equipped…or even given the direction by leadership to pursue those tools."
 
How did New Orleans find its sense of direction and accomplish so much, so quickly?
 
Shifting sentiments; time for change
 
In 2010, New Orleans was five years post-Katrina, and it still bore many physical scars. The city faced 43,755 blighted homes and empty lots and an additional 9,356 houses that were empty but habitable, according to the Blight Reduction Report.
 
Altogether, this meant nearly 25 percent of residential property in New Orleans was blighted or vacant, among the highest rates in the country.
 
"These are innocent victims, people who were living in their houses, paying their taxes, going to school, going to their jobs," said Carey Shea, executive director of Project Home Again, a nonprofit housing developer established in New Orleans post-Katrina to improve communities through rebuilding homes. "And next thing you know, there’s eight feet of water in your home for six weeks." When Hurricane Katrina hit, almost 80 percent of the city’s housing stock flooded.
 
In the wake of the storm, residents forced to flee their homes were permitted to maintain a homestead tax exemption for five years. The homestead exemption is a partial tax exemption that owner occupants receive on their property taxes, and it was extended to hurricane victims who weren’t currently living in their storm-damaged properties. This made it affordable for owners to hold on to their properties for years after the storm.
 
But by 2010, it was becoming clear to residents that many neighbors who had not yet returned or rebuilt after fleeing the storm in 2005 were not going to come back.
 
"The tide started to turn a little bit," said Shea. "People started to want their neighbors to put the properties up for sale so [the blight] can be dealt with."
 
Mayor Landrieu, who took office in 2010, "stepped up and did this series of five town halls," Shea continued, "and he said, 'Well, do you want me to do something about it?' And they all said, 'Yeah, we want you to do it yesterday.'"
 
"Unspoken public sentiment was, 'We're fed up,' but no one wants to be the first one to say it out loud, and he said it, and he helped turn it around," said Shea. "He then hired competent people and gave them the resources... and really helped get the ball rolling."
 
Landing on the number
 
After Mayor Landrieu was elected in February of 2010, he established a transition team dedicated to blight, chaired by Ellen Lee, then of the Greater New Orleans Foundation (and current chair of the Community Progress Board of Directors) and David Marcello of the Tulane Law School. The team presented a report of recommendations to Mayor Landrieu.
 
“It was very clear at that point that the city needed a comprehensive plan for dealing with blight,” said Wise.
 
Following inauguration, Mayor Landrieu tasked Andy Kopplin, first deputy mayor and CAO, and Wise, then policy director, with reviewing the recommendations and other data and finalizing the city’s blight strategy.
 
"We looked at historical trends of where that number [of blighted properties] was heading. Then we looked at the tools that were available to us and the budget dollars that were available, in terms of the amount of blight that the city could actually address," said Wise. "That represented about a 25 percent reduction, which we thought was ambitious, but possible, if we made a concerted effort to meet that goal."
 
And so, in September 2010, the city publicly announced its goal of remediating 10,000 blighted properties by 2014. It was time to turn that goal into action.
 
Bringing everyone to the same table
 

 
"Blight is a multidimensional issue," says Jeff Hebert, Executive Director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) in a video interview with Community Progress. Hebert was brought on board in Mayor Landrieu's office to be the primary point person on blight policy in New Orleans, prior to his move to NORA.
 
"In a city like New Orleans, where we have several different agencies that work on these issues, bringing everybody to the same table was really the first piece of this. And then aligning everybody’s agendas around that one mission was really important," Hebert continued. "…That’s really the directive that the Mayor gave us: that we all had to sit down and collaborate."
 
Hebert, Kopplin, Wise and Chief Information Officer Allen Square spearheaded the weekly blight meetings. Code enforcement, the law department, NORA, the housing department, and the State’s office of community development were also in attendance.
 
"It was completely new to have the city agencies all at the table like this," said Wise. "The city hadn’t provided that leadership role [in the past]."
 
In addition, rather than limiting discussions to government officials, a large number of neighborhood organizations and community development organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, also participated.
           
"It was difficult at first, because you had people who had been doing the same thing in the 'siloed’ way that they were doing it for a very long period of time," said Hebert.
 
"At the end, I think everybody saw the upside that if we all sat down and figured this out, we would be able to solve a problem that really had been festering before Hurricane Katrina and really got way out of control after Hurricane Katrina. And I think the results that we’ve seen have come from a lot of collaboration."
 
The rubber meets the road
 
The newly formed leadership team tackled a blight strategy grounded in the following framework (described in detail in the Blight Reduction Report.
  • Data-driven decision making
  • Blight tool alignment and improvement
  • Organizational architecture and processes
  • Strategic deployment of resources
  • Place-based revitalization
To begin with, Wise said, the city focused on improving its code enforcement operations, followed by housing and redevelopment.
 
At that time, the city had two different agencies involved in enforcing codes, one for structures and one for lots. There was no "assembly line mechanism" for inspecting properties, researching titles, bringing them to hearing and abating them. Instead, staffers in each department would see a single property all the way through from inspection to abatement.
 
"It wasn’t at all strategic," said Wise, "nor did it take advantage of any economies of scale that come from division of labor. So you had a completely fractured enforcement system that was poorly managed and poorly understood."
 
"And then on the redevelopment side, you found similar patterns of there being no coordinated strategy for using scarce redevelopment dollars wisely," he continued. Following Katrina, significant money was spent on the construction of big, multifamily housing projects, which are the easiest type of project to develop with federal and state funding. However, Wise explains, these projects are not the most effective at remediating the city’s currently blighted properties.
 
The city merged its code enforcement operations into one department and boosted the department’s capacity for administrative hearings so that more cases would be heard. And "on the redevelopment side, we changed our NOFA selection criteria so that it preferred infill, small-scale development rather than new, big-scale multifamily projects," said Wise.
 
In addition to the close alignment of departments’ goals and internal shifts in departments’ operations, numerous other adjustments to policies and practices worked together to create an environment that made it easier to remediate blighted properties. These changes ranged from reforming state blight laws to conducting a citywide market value analysis. And a number of specific programs have been developed to remediate blight on the ground. NORA's Lot Next Door program, for example, enables residents to affordably purchase a vacant lot adjacent to their own, expanding the size of their yard.
 
However, one element of the city’s strategic framework, in particular, has emerged as a showcase initiative: data-driven decision making.
 
The role of data
 


"The data was in shambles. It was very hard to get any meaningful data about the state of the problem nor was there good visibility on the city’s enforcement process with those problem properties," said Wise.
 
Hebert echoes this sentiment in a video interview with Community Progress. "The city really wanted to push forward a data-driven decision making process on everything we were doing. We were coming from years of no data and not really following data to make any decisions at all… New Orleans’ data system was horrendous, at best."
 
Inspired by CitiStat in Baltimore, New Orleans developed BlightSTAT, a program that tracks progress on the city’s blight strategy. It took two years to clean up the city’s data systems, but BlightSTAT informs every aspect of the city’s remediation work. The city tracks key performance measures, such as code enforcement’s inspection response rate, the number of administrative hearings held and the results of those hearings, the number of demolitions and the number of properties returned to commerce.
 
City leaders use the data points to inform and adjust their on-the-ground strategies but also, importantly, the data are presented to the public through monthly meetings. Past reports are made available online. This means that city government is held publicly accountable for progress made toward stated goals, and citizens have the opportunity to ask questions and offer feedback.
 
"Every month, the public is there. They hold us accountable. They tell us what we’re doing wrong," says Hebert. "It’s been a really good tool to understand what’s working but also, really, to understand what’s not working and be able to make mid-course corrections right there, on the spot." 
 
Carey Shea of Project Home Again says she attends BlightSTAT meetings "religiously. We try to have someone there at every meeting. They’re really important meetings and we learned a lot by going to them."
 
The organization encourages members of neighborhood associations, who may be frustrated by blight on their own blocks, to attend BlightSTAT meetings, as well. "It’s very complicated and a lot of it happens behind closed doors and involves these counterintuitive, arcane laws. It takes real study, quite honestly, to figure out what’s going on and how to work within the system and get stuff done," Shea says.
 
But BlightSTAT meetings, she explains, are an opportunity for neighborhood association members to learn about the blight remediation process and become active participants in that process. It brings the city’s work out into the open.
 
"It’s been very helpful and it’s built a lot of credibility in the community," says Hebert.
 
 
The way forward
 Through Mayor Landrieu’s blight remediation strategy, New Orleans exceeded its goal of remediating 10,000 blighted properties by 2014. 4,000 units were demolished. 2,000 were brought into compliance at administrative hearings. NORA sold 2,000 former Road Home properties. Other lots are being maintained or have been addressed through other programs, such as Lot Next Door.
 
Mayor Landrieu was reelected to his second term in early February 2014 and the inauguration is in May. In the meantime, the city’s blight squad isn’t just kicking back to savor their successes. Instead, they’re continuing ahead at the same pace and making plans for what’s next.
 
"We continue to refine the strategies we’ve developed and invest resources in the programs that have proven so effective," Hebert noted. BlightSTAT, said Wise, will certainly continue. Beyond that, he expects the city will become more sophisticated and data-driven in its code enforcement and redevelopment work.
 
"I think a lot of it is just continuing the momentum we have and refining our tools so we’re using them in a smarter, thriftier fashion," he said.

"Blight still remains," said Hebert. "So we will be even more creative in our approaches to promote a better quality of life across New Orleans neighborhoods."
 
New Orleans, after all, still faces tens of thousands of blighted properties. The next big goal has yet to be announced. But the city’s blight decreased by 30 percent between September of 2010 and April of 2013, a rate of change that suggests Katrina's physical scars may fade sooner rather than later.
 

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