Eminent Domain Deadline in New Orleans is August 29

“We have to watch the redevelopment in New Orleans for a lot of reasons, and one of them is to make sure that the shadow government of the rich and the powerful does not end up abusing eminent domain to take property that belongs to poor people in order to get them out of the city.” – U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, San Francisco Chronicle (Sept. 21, 2005)

As reported yesterday on Indybay.org, Stephen Bradberry, head organizer for ACORN New Orleans, and Jeffrey Buchanan, communications officer of Center for Human Rights, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, wrote:

…Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans City Council have callously chosen the one-year anniversary of Katrina to begin a policy that will demolish what little hope displaced, largely African American, families have of returning to their city. In May, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed City Ordinance #26031, which sets a deadline for homeowners to gut their homes or potentially lose them.

By Aug. 29, homeowners who have not been able to make the necessary repairs to their battered homes risk having their property seized by eminent domain and bulldozed by the city. The Council’s decision will further “cleanse” New Orleans of its African American low and middle income families, continuing the exclusion and discrimination that have become hallmarks of the reconstruction.

 Bradberry and Buchanan advise:

If you are displaced from New Orleans or know someone who is, call ACORN now at 1 (800) 239-7379, ext. 187, to begin the process of saving your home by putting it on the clean-out list. Other organizations providing free house gutting – and also seeking volunteers and donations – are listed on the City of New Orleans website, http://www.cityofno.com. They include Common Ground, (504) 312-1731; United Methodist Recovery, (504) 461-0425; Catholic Charities, (504) 895-5439; and United Church of Christ, (504) 258-7306.

The ordinance on its face appears to be blatantly unconstitutional. Where is the due process? New Orleans officials have no way to contact the former owners who are scattered throughout the United States. What about compensation? Will title pass by default to the city and then to a developer? Ordinance No. 22203 (April 2006) states the following:

Section 26-261. Remediation of Housing following Hurricane Katrina

(a) When buildings used for living purposes have become and remain vacant as a result of damage sustained by Hurricanes Katrina and/or Rita, such buildings shall be subject to inspection by various inspection agencies of the city where the safety, health or welfare of the citizens of the city is concerned. The city may utilize records of public utilities or private utilities regulated by the city to determine when a premise is vacated.

(b) Every owner of a dwelling or dwelling unit shall be responsible for mold remediation, cleaning, gutting, and properly securing the premises of all properties so damaged in a manner so as to render the premises environmentally sound and not open to the public.

(c) Every owner of a dwelling or dwelling unit shall take appropriate measures to complete this work as soon as possible, but no later than August 29, 2006.

(d) All dwellings and dwelling units which, after inspection, are found not to comply with the requirements of this section are hereby declared to be public nuisances and shall be abated by repair, rehabilitation, demolition or removal in accordance with the provisions of this Article.

“As they used to say in the French Quarter, bonne chance!” wrote Frank Rich in his op-ed piece, Return to the Scene of the Crime (New York Times, August 27, 2006). Douglas Brinkley, Tulane University historian and author of the Katrina best seller, The Great Deluge, opined that the Bush administration is abetted by NOLA’s “opportunistic mayor,” Ray Nagin. Brinkley told Rich, “The crucial point is that the inaction is deliberate – the inaction is the action.”

In other words, “disastrous opportunities” come to those who wait in the post-Katrina world. Or, as Adam Nossitor writes in Outlines Emerge for a Shaken New Orleans (New York Times, August 27, 2006):

No area is officially off the table for redevelopment….

The absence of a plan has forced developers, who might otherwise be building housing for the displaced, to the sidelines. “The developers, they want to know what the plan is,” said Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

The latest notion, after earlier false or incomplete starts, is to turn planning over to the citizens, allowing neighborhoods to choose from a list of planners, with the hope that at the end it can all be folded into one giant framework. It was pushed by state officials holding the redevelopment purse strings who grew impatient this summer with the city’s abortive planning efforts.

The Congress of New Urbanism issued an August 23 press release, New Urbanism in the Post-Katrina Storm Zone,  proposing that charettes,  such as those prepared with communities in Mississippi, may provide regional models for New Orleans. The vision of planners converging to create villages comprised of little cottages is reminiscent of Battle for Biloxi by Jim Lewis in the New York Times Magazine (May 21, 2006).

Katrina hit Mississippi harder than Louisiana and in its aftermath, Governor Haley Barbour invited Jim Barksdale to head a commission to expedite the reconstruction effort. Barksdale brought in Leland Speed, an advocate of smart growth planning who works for the Mississippi Development Authority, and Speed brought in Andrés Duany, founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Lewis wrote:

…The New Urbanists proposed higher-density, pedestrian-friendly communities: old-fashioned neighborhoods with schools and shops, parks and offices, single-family homes and low income apartment buildings, all mixed together and connected by shady streets and wide sidewalks. …Leland Speed convinced Barksdale that the New Urbanists had a vision for how cities should look and had experience designing huge parcels of land. They also had access to hundreds of architects and designers and a knack for preserving land values. "You see, it works," Speed told me. "It's good. It makes money."

Last year on October 12, architects, engineers, traffic experts, and FEMA employees converged for six days and nights and, Lo! They created six zones or transects of the entire Mississippi Gulf region, now complied in a book called SmartCode, which defines highway relocations and affordable housing, and offers patterns of Gulf architecture, alternating Victorian with Creole styles on boulevards complete with parks and squares, like a Deep-South Disneyland. But as the months rolled by, people took issue with the grandiose plan, especially the “affordable to who” part.  Lewis wrote:

…I asked Andrés Duany what he meant by "affordable," and he said: "$140,000. We can make a really nice three-bedroom house for $140,000, working with mobile-home manufacturers." When I asked Bill Stallworth, a black councilman whose ward includes about half of East Biloxi, he was just as blunt. "That's not affordable for this area," he said. "Affordability is $65,000 to $95,000…."

"A poor lady like me, what the hell am I going to do with that? Walk by it and admire it? We can't buy it. The white man will always have us pushed to where we have to just...go by and admire it and then go home somewhere and eat them old beans and bread and be thankful." – Bernice Catchings, Biloxi resident