Councilwoman rebukes administration over demolition mishap

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by Bigad Shaban / Eyewitness News bshaban@wwltv.com

wwltv.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:03 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 21 at 6:00 PM

NEW ORLEANS - A story Eyewitness News first reported on Tuesday prompted tough questions on Wednesday in the New Orleans City Council chambers.

At issue, how the city managed to demolish a Bywater home one week after the homeowner says the city told her she had an extension to fix up her property and bring it into compliance with city code.

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"Who, indeed, addresses this issue and where does the buck stop?" asked Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis during a New Orleans Recovery Committee meeting on Wednesday.

Willard-Lewis questioned members of the Nagin administration about how a woman, featured on the Eyewitness News on Tuesday, had her house demolished by the city even though last week, she says, a city code enforcement officer gave her until May 20 to adequately board up her home.

"It is the tragedy of a human's life and a family's history," Willard-Lewis said.

65-year-old Brenda Steward said Hurricane Katrina damaged part of her roof, forcing her out of the home and into a nearby senior center.

Steward says she was unable to renovate her property because she was still waiting on financial assistance from the state-run Road Home Program.

Melissa Walker, a spokesperson for the agency, confirms the delay in getting Steward her financial assistance, but says they are reaching out to her now.

Walker says Road Home officials previously had difficulty in getting in touch with Steward, which added to the wait time.

The delay might also be traced to the need for additional paperwork. Steward Initially indicted to Road Home that she would like to sell her house to the state, but after learning how much she was eligible for, Steward decided to change payment options to a more cost effective plan.

Rather than selling the home outright, Steward indicated she would instead like to use the state assistance to renovate her damaged home.Walker says the payment switch may have also added to the delay.

While Steward's home is no longer standing, Walker says she is still eligible for state assistance.The dollar amount, however, will be based on the estimate Road Home compiled on how much it would have cost to fix the home before it was demolished.

Completing a new estimate, Walker says, is unlikely. If the city, however, acknowledges they were at fault in approving an improper demolition, Walker says the state could choose to make an exception and conduct a new estimate, which could lead to an increase in Steward's portion of state assistance from the Road Home program.

Winston Reid, Director of Code Enforcement, said Steward's blight problems predate the Hurricane Katrina.

"The property had not been gutted," said Reid while testifying at the meeting. "The whole front side was missing."

But Steward disagreed.

"No, it was not," Steward said. "I was living in it."

Steward admits the exterior of the home was damaged, but says the city run Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) forced her to stop making improvements.According to Reid, it was the HDLC which approved the demolition.

"Notification went out, certificates were issued," Reid said.

Brenda says she was never given notice and now wants to know why the city told her she had a sixty day extension to improve her property.

We tried to ask Reid that very same question following the Recovery Committee meeting.While he was available, Reid said he was unable to provide Eyewitness News with an on-camera interview because he did have prior permission from Mayor Ray Nagin's press department.

Late Wednesday night, Eyewitness submitted an interview request to the Mayor's Office, but an official response wasn't sent out until an hour after the Recovery Committee meeting was over.

Spokesperson James Ross e-mailed Eyewitness News, saying "unfortunately, no one is available for this interview." In the message, Ross also wrote that if the city improperly demolishes a home, "the owner of the property would be entitled to compensation."

Ross said the city has never paid anyone, however, because the city has never been responsible.

Councilwoman Willard-Lewis appeared to say otherwise during the committee meeting.

"This is not the first time that we have had a tragic announcement of a property that was demolished even as the family was attempting to restore it," said Willard-Lewis.

For now, Brenda says all she can do is wait until the city completes its own investigation of the demolition.

"I've had that house for about 30 some odd years, I raised the kids there," said Steward. "It meant a lot to me."

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