Fear of blight confounds many wanting to rebuild
Few ways to force cleanup for now
Sunday, February 26, 2006
By Coleman Warner Staff writer
Leland Champagne is in a hurry to put his home back together on Argonne Boulevard, one of Lakeview's high-demand streets before Hurricane Katrina and a busted flood wall drowned the neighborhood. Workers crawl around the place as the orthodontic sales rep makes cell phone calls rapid-fire from the driveway. He wants to move in by April. Advertisement
But Champagne's push comes against a bleak backdrop. Several other homes in the 5900 block of Argonne show little or no sign of cleanup, much less gutting or renovation. Information is sketchy about what will become of them. A few still have moldering furniture inside and splintered doors. Personal effects are scattered about, as if the disaster just happened.
But six months have passed, and Champagne, now staying in Kenner, is getting antsy.
"The scenario I'm concerned about is that nothing is going to be done with the property, that it's going to sit there as a blighted and abandoned home," he said.
His concern is shared by his next-door neighbor, former City Councilman Scott Shea, who also is renovating and hopes to move back in several weeks.
"There are some people that are playing this waiting game," said Shea, a lawyer now living in Baton Rouge. "I'm concerned that I'm going to be surrounded by (blighted) houses, some of which look like they haven't even been touched."
Experts have warned from the start of the post-Katrina planning process that a failure to shrink New Orleans' footprint and consolidate recovery efforts in the most viable areas would result in gap-toothed redevelopment, sometimes called the jack-o'-lantern effect. But in a metro area wracked by flood damage to more than 100,000 homes, the problem of spotty cleanup and repair efforts can be found even in sections believed to have long-term viability, including the Lakeview section with the Argonne block. Just how many homes are being rehabbed is unclear; Orleans Parish issued more than 3,000 building permits in December alone, 10 times the number issued in August, but many structures remain untouched since the flooding.
Champagne, Shea and others pouring time and money into their damaged homes are bumping up against a temporary paralysis seen among many Katrina victims. Their immediate concern is that idle, blighted and unoccupied buildings will pose a fire hazard or become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and rodents, not to mention their demoralizing effect on neighborhood revival.
Champagne, with three children, ages 5, 8 and 11, is worried about risks posed by the combination of blown-down fences and festering backyard pools.
While some of the houses may have been truly abandoned, there's another reason why many homeowners have not begun cleanup or repair. They're waiting for insurance settlements or to determine how they will be treated under a government buyout and grant program. Some were so traumatized by the disaster that they find it difficult to visit their trashed homes or make decisions. And displaced owners living far from New Orleans say it's difficult to get back and deal with nitty-gritty recovery issues.
The waiting game
Argonne's 5900 block offers glimpses into the thinking of a spectrum of owners who have not gutted or cleaned out their houses. Benjamin Franklin High School staff member Lynn Jenkins decided her cottage was beyond repair. In a bid to stabilize a family already hit hard by her husband's death in June after an extended illness, Jenkins bought a house near the lakefront. She expects to tear down the Argonne house but wants to find out if the Army Corps of Engineers will take on that task.
"I feel very strongly that I don't want to have a blighted house there, but I don't want to pay to have it gutted," she said. "My timetable is the Corps of Engineers' timetable."
The owner of another badly damaged cottage on Argonne, Richard Bagnetto, a TV engineer with WVUE, said he bought a house in Jefferson Parish after the storm, unsure that Lakeview could be made safe. He plans to tear down the cottage but doesn't have a timetable in mind. He plans to hold the lot for a couple of years as an investment.
Bagnetto said he hauled out most of his ruined furniture, but a piano, hot water heater, washer and drier remain inside. His garage was crushed by a falling tree. Too much about the future remains unclear, he said.
"I've been there maybe half a dozen times, looking around," he said. "I know that it's a problem. I wish I could do something about it right now, but I just haven't figured it out yet."
The former residents of another blighted cottage, Elsie and Stanley Dinkel, an elderly couple now living in Birmingham, Ala., are trying to sell the property for $160,000, so far unsuccessfully said their daughter, Dawnell Sands. The family at first didn't want to spend money on gutting, she said. Now they may gut the house and hold it until they find a buyer, she said.
Baton Rouge resident Patrick Duggan said he recently helped his mother-in-law, Claire Mura, sell her home on the block, a building notable now for its splintered door and the mish-mash of ruined furniture and appliances inside.
Duggan said Mura didn't have money for rebuilding and he was furious about confused signals offered by federal and city officials about rules for redeveloping flooded homes. Decision-making has been made painful because of poor guidance from government, he said. The home's new owner, whom Duggan declined to name, is a previous Lakeview resident who wants to return. The buyer plans to tear down the house, hold the lot for two or three years and eventually build a dream home there, Duggan said. Meanwhile, he added, he feels no obligation to clean the place up.
"Why did we want to spend time, money and effort to clean it up when it was going to be chopped up and hauled off to a dump?" he asked.
No one on the block knew the plans for the decimated cottage at the corner of Argonne and Brooks, the one with shattered windows and children's bunk beds inside. The family had fixed up the place before the storm and the father was enraged when he returned after Katrina, neighbors said.
"He smashed the windows in the bedroom out," Bagnetto said. "He was disgusted. Everything he had was pretty much lost."
Despite the empty houses, several property owners said the block's revival is only a matter of time. But the issue of property neglect and blight is sure to roil communities across the metro area that were hit by floodwaters. In the 5400 block of Elysian Fields Avenue, retired city conveyance office worker Vincent Savarese said he has gutted and cleaned up his damaged two-story home. Once his dispute with an insurance company is settled, he wants to patch up the place and return from temporary quarters Uptown. But he's alarmed that nothing has been done to clean out four homes on his block.
"They should try to clean it up, even if they're not coming back," he said. "It's going to bring down the neighborhood."
'Do the cleanup'
In St. Bernard Parish, Chalmette resident Mae Mendoza has cleaned out two houses she owns on Palmetto Street and gutted one of them. Now living in a FEMA trailer, the hotel desk clerk plans more repair work. But her neighborhood is littered with homes that have barely been visited by their owners, elderly people for the most part, who can't come to grips with their losses, Mendoza said.
"They just can't bring themselves to look at it," she said. "Some of them are old or crippled, and there's nothing for them to come back to. I've had some of my neighbors say they're not touching it until after the next hurricane season."
The Preservation Resource Center, which provides cleaning supplies and mold-remediation workshops for owners of damaged homes, urges careful gutting and other measures to preserve the option of eventually restoring the building. Neighborhood associations around the city are pushing the same message, said PRC Executive Director Patricia Gay, who has been concerned that some redevelopment scenarios envision unnecessarily widespread demolition of the city's historic housing stock.
"People are indecisive . . . but they need to go ahead and do the cleanup, and the neighborhood should get behind them to make sure that happens," she said.
Some property owners who are rebuilding, Shea and Champagne among them, believe local officials should set a deadline for people to take at least basic cleanup measures. Gay tends to agree that if persuasion and advocacy don't work, officials should take legal action.
New Orleans' chief deputy city attorney, Frank Nicotera, said a nuisance-property hearing process may prove a helpful tool for residents who want something done about a seemingly abandoned home next door. The process, which can take as long as two months, can result in an order for the owner to take specific steps, leading ultimately to a city demolition if nothing is done. But Nicotera said it's not yet clear how big the issue of indecisive, missing property owners will become.
Be a good neighbor
New Orleans lawyer Peter Trapolin, who long before Katrina used the courts to force a neglectful property owner to make repairs, said he doubts there would be wide support for tougher steps -- at least not until another hurricane season passes. And he, for one, mostly has sympathy for such owners, he said.
The ownership rolls are rife with people who are depressed about the storm's ramifications, or who face major financial troubles, Trapolin said. And he argues that those who sit tight as they hope for a buyout or demolition program are quite logical: "They are doing something. They are conserving their resources and waiting for the government to do something."
But Trapolin added that owners should, if they are able, quickly take steps to clean up and secure their properties -- in a good-neighbor spirit.
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Coleman Warner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3311.