The Gutting Law: One Year In

I wrote the article below a year ago when I was doing media advocacy work as a volunteer. Despite the best intentions of the city council to enact quality laws that address the needs of all residents, including ways for people to appeal, the law has only loosely been followed. There is an obvious lack of inspectors, as the Times-Picayune reports in its delays on inspections across the city the average for first inspections being nearly six months rather than the 30 days prescribed below.
Also, the Mayor’s Good Neighbor program, what many fair housing advocates call the “Bad Neighbor” program, designed for residents to report any neglected housing in the area for inspection, further complicated the matter politically and increased expectations for action to be taken by residents who reported properties.

What once was an optimistic gutting law to ensure a lengthy process to protect homeowners now has even some of the civic groups who raised hell to get appeal processes into the law wishing the state could at least stay on time.

Gutting Deadline Eased, Lower Ninth Exempt
NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 26 — In mid-August, representatives of community, housing and relief organizations pled with the New Orleans City Council to work with communities to assist homeowners’ rebuilding efforts and extend the August 29 gutting deadline enacted in April. The city council passed the law to urge residents to gut, clean or get on a waiting list to treat their flooded properties before the year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Mary Fontenot, President of All Congregations Together (ACT), led a press conference on August 17 before the city council meeting, the last regularly scheduled meeting before the deadline. “We would like to invite the city at this time to partner with us, to create a partnership to lift up solutions and ideas as to how we might support our people in returning,” she said.

But on Friday August 25, four days before the deadline, the city council voted 7-0 to keep their verbal assurances and not enforce demolitions in the days after August 29. The emergency ordinance passed with the support of Mayor Ray Nagin, who told Fontenot at an all-day mayoral retreat ten days prior to the deadline that “it’s not going to be enforced.” However, Nagin did have the chance to veto the ordinance back in April, but chose to abstain and let it pass into law unsigned.

Despite the assurances, Fontenot knew the language of the law didn’t prevent action. “To have it be revoked or amended would make us feel a lot better.”

Fortunately, the language of the new ordinance provides homeowners with detailed legal protections, such as a thirty-day notice after city inspections start on August 29. Upon re-inspection, if the property does not pass, then a second notice assigns the owner a date to have his or her case heard as a possible hardship exemption.

The former law stated that residents who bide by the August 29 deadline could have their homes seized by the city and demolished, but now a demolition can only occur if the judge at a hearing finds the homeowner in violation of the law. Even then, the homeowner has thirty days to appeal the decision and prove his or her intention to have the house gutted. Otherwise, the city will only have the legal authority to enter the premises to gut and do mold remediation at the homeowners expense.

The entire Lower Ninth Ward, including Holy Cross, is now exempt from inspections with no specified time-line for when the properties will be removed from the exemption. The immediate danger for many historic homes in Holy Cross has been averted for at least sixty days, which was the council’s estimate for hardship cases.

Once again, the council’s ordinance will use the thirty-day notice to refer residents to the 19 groups offering free or low-cost gutting instead of taking responsibility for its own citizens. Even though the deadline has been eased, many still would like the city to offer more services or assistance.

John Anderson, a displaced resident, has returned eleven times to rebuild, but is asking for partnership. “We are asking for equitable ownership in the rebuilding process, and that starts with you not giving us a deadline, you should give us an opportunity to work together so we can have hands on building for our community,” Anderson said at the press conference.

Though Louisiana has allocated money to go to New Orleans, residents themselves have not received adequate funds. “As of today, not one penny is in the hands of our citizens to rebuild,” Fontenot said at the August 17 press conference. A representative of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association questioned how the council could consider demolishing houses when people have not been given the financial opportunities to rebuild. “We are here to ask the council to extend the deadline until the residents of the lower 9 get their LRA [Louisiana Recovery Authority] money,” she said.

Another impact goes beyond housing, for those people with high levels of stress and anxiety struggling to return home, said Alice Craft-Kerney, a lower ninth ward resident and registered nurse. “We have many people who are displaced, who are emotionally traumatized and this trauma is definitely magnified because they cannot return home,” she said at the press conference. “The suicide rate is directly related to the fact that they have no income, they can’t do the things they used to do and we want the city council to be aware that this is a health problem caused by the stress of the August 29 deadline.”

Noise Before the Deadline

Addressing the city council, Malcolm Suber, director of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, introduced an ordinance to repeal the August 29 deadline, but the council never brought it up for a vote. With the prospect of the city demolishing its residents’ homes, Suber urged, “That’s not the role of government.” Only an injunction by the mayor or a City Council Special Meeting could address the deadline a week before the anniversary, council members said.
Assuming that no such action would be taken, Suber called on the council to put aside funds to assist non-profit organizations that already gut houses, such as Hands On or Habitat for Humanity, if the council could not help homeowners directly. Since non-profit organizations and churches are overwhelmed by gutting requests and waiting lists in the thousands, community leaders have asked for the National Guard to reconsider its role in New Orleans. “We are asking the city to consider, to just imagine if we were to, for a change, to have the National Guard here not just in a policing fashion, but in a partnership fashion, assisting our homeowners as they do all around the world to clean and to gut their homes,” Fontenot recommended in front of city hall.

In response to similar sentiments by speakers in its chamber, the city council passed a verbal resolution proposed by Willard-Lewis to ask the Louisiana National Guard to expand their role to assist in gutting and securing properties. The resolution cannot force the guard to assist residents in rebuilding efforts.

However, not all groups believe the National Guard should have an increased role in New Orleans. “I’m anti-National Guard. I don’t want them doing anything. I don’t want them in the city,” Suber said.

The council voted in May to set aside the deadline for much of the Lower 9th Ward. It passed an ordinance proposed by Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis–who represents that area–declaring that all owner-occupied homes, plus all “residential rental property” owned by people 65 or older, in about two-thirds of the Lower 9th Ward “shall be deemed to be hardship cases” and thus “eligible for exceptions to the remediation requirements” imposed by the April law. Since the lower 9th was the last area to be opened for rebuilding, most of the area’s residents did not return until March or April at the earliest.

Since the re-population of New Orleans was staggered by zip code, that alone should exempt certain neighborhoods at this time and allow for a staggered deadline, community members said. Not applying the same exemption to New Orleans East, which was similarly devastated by Hurricane Katrina and in Willard-Lewis’ district, is somewhat surprising, said Fontenot, a lower 9th ward resident.
Vanessa Gueringer called the deadline “Draconian.”

Gueringer, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward and a member of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), told the council that “the lack of notice to homeowners is evident.” One homeowner from the lower 9 affiliated with ACORN claimed that her neighbor had to inform her that her home was being torn down despite the council reiterating that no houses have been or will be demolished before August 29. There was no notification from the city even though she was a state employee and life-long New Orleanian, she said.

Assurances had been repeatedly made by both the city council and the mayor that the gutting law chronicling a year after Katrina would not be strictly enforced. Amending the law on August 25 provides a compromise to “move forward” and clarity, but some community activists still say that setting a deadline is an improper role for the government in relation to its citizens.

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take action to prevent demolitions on erroneously listed properties in New Orleans!

Karen Gadbois, a neighborhood association leader, updates the blog Squandered Heritage and has this recent post that provides links and instructions to get your property off the demolition list.

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Published in: on August 27, 2007 at 10:05 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I was told by the city of NEW ORLEANS in a hearing that my grandfarters house that was under succession would not be demolished since it was gutted and there were leagal dealins going on with it, but it was demolished on today by R&R construction who contacted me on yesterday by leaving a voicemail only, no call on my phone . They also left a disconnected phone number for me to contact them at to stop the demolition. Im looking for some serious help.

    lawrence williams
    lawrence.williams@yahoo.com
    337-296-2777


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