Millions of taxpayer dollars spent to move homes that are now decaying

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wwltv.com

Posted on May 17, 2013 at 11:08 PM

Updated Friday, May 17 at 11:21 PM

Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
Email: mhernandez@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mhernandezwwl

NEW ORLEANS - Dozens of homes sit vacant and decaying in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. And what's worse, the city spent millions of dollars moving them there.

Donald Neapollioun has lived across from one of those homes for nearly three years.

“I know what it look like to me an eyesore and it's a pain all the time,” said Neapollioun.

The house still doesn't have a back or a roof. Vagrants have broken through the wrapping to get inside the building.

And Neapollioun hopes the city either moves it or tears it down.

“They just left it alone and didn't care about it anymore,” he said. “They put it where they wanted and that was it.”

The city spent tens of thousands of dollars moving the home to the Treme nearly three years ago.

It's among 81 houses relocated from the VA/UMC Hospital footprint. It was an unprecedented effort to save historic homes that would have otherwise been demolished to make way for the hospitals. It was meant to be a national model for preservation.

“If we can save something, save the beautiful architectural aspects of that building, and say, ‘That's 100 years old,’ there's culture in that, there's tradition in that, and that's New Orleans,” said Terri North, head of Providence Community Housing.

The city spent nearly $4 million federal dollars to move and secure the homes.

But today, many of the houses have become dangerous eyesores.

“Was it a waste of taxpayer money? I think it was a legitimate good faith attempt to preserve,” said Brian Lawlor, Housing Policy Director for the City of New Orleans. “I think we'll have to look at whether it was a waste of taxpayer dollars when we're all done.”

The project was more difficult than anyone expected.

The contractor, Builders of Hope, sawed off roofs and backs to maneuver under power lines and around corners during the move. The houses were left unsecured for months as the city scrambled to find the money to pay for that part of the project.

Eventually, most of the homes got new roofs and foundations. But dozens still sit vacant and dilapidated.

At least two still don’t have roofs.

But perhaps one of the most powerful parts of this story is what you don't see- the 14 houses fell into such disrepair after being moved, they had to be demolished, leaving behind empty lots the one next to Juanita Dunn’s 7th Ward home.

“It was an eyesore,” said Dunn. “It was big. It was out of place.”

Dunn first called Eyewitness News about the house nearly three years ago, when it was placed next door.

The home was left wide open, attracting vagrants and crime. A series of photos show its slow decay, until finally, after Hurricane Isaac, it collapsed.

“It looked like a cyclone had actually took the house and split it apart,” said Dunn.

The city spent over $30,000 bringing the house to Dunn’s neighborhood. It cost another $8,000 to tear it down, according to Neighborhood Housing Services, the non-profit that owns the lot.

Neighborhood Housing Services, the non-profit that owns the lot, said Builders of Hope placed the house on the wrong part of the lot. Builders of Hope promised to move it, but never did. And that’s why the home never got a roof or a foundation.

And while Dunn is relieved the blight next door is gone, it should have never gotten so bad in the first place.

“The city had the fight blight campaign going on, but it turned out, instead of fighting blight, blight was brought into our neighborhood,” said Dunn. “I do think this was a waste of time, energy, and money spent improperly.”

But wasted taxpayers dollars aren't the only concern for those who live near these homes.

Firefighters believe a six-alarm fire in November that destroyed most of a city block and displaced multiple families may have started in one of the vacant homes relocated from the VA footprint.

“We would do a lot of things differently,” said Lawlor. “I think we would have looked at the houses a little more closely, we know now what no one in the country knows, because no one has tried to do this before.”

It sounded like a good idea at the time. The plan was to move the homes to lots owned by non profits. The groups would complete renovation with some city funding, and sell them to low income families.  So what went wrong? Some say the rush to make way for the hospital meant the plan was doomed from the start.

“If a plan was developed I think it could have been a success,” said Sandra Stokes, board member of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana. “But it was rushed through. It was just one bad decision after another.”

The project wound to a halt when a lawsuit began. A subcontractor , Tim Clark Construction, sued Builders of Hope for not paying on time. Then, Orleans Shoring placed liens on the homes, essentially freezing efforts to finance renovations.

Those liens are finally being released, now that a federal judge has ordered Builders of Hope to pay subcontractors $550,000 over six months.

And Builders of Hope is no longer part of the project.

“We had problems with them in disclosing information, with getting records from them, reconciling where payments went and it was basically their contract was over,” said Lawlor.

Just a fraction of the homes have been rehabilitated and are back in commerce. All of them are owned by the same non-profit, Providence Community Housing.

The non-profit has been able to rebuild 27 homes so far, all of which are now occupied rentals located in and around the new Lafitte Housing Development. Their location made them eligible for tax credits so Providence Community Housing didn’t have to wait on the city to release funding for renovation, like many other non-profits.

“We had some resources available to us that other non profits just didn't have access to,” said North.

Even so, the group had to strip many of these homes down to the studs to remediate lead, taking away some of the historic elements that made the homes so valuable in the first place. They tried to save what they could.

“It's been a very difficult experience. And we've cried a lot of tears, especially me,” said North.

But even as many of the homes continue to create problems in neighborhoods, in the Hoffman Triangle area, they've inspired a new phenomenon.

“The message is that we haven't forgotten this neighborhood. People are aware. Somebody's watching,” said Chris Schottland, director of community development with the United Saints Recovery Project.

Artists with the United Saints Recovery Project, volunteered to board up several homes and turn them into art. It's a project aimed at showing neighbors someone cares.

“We just look to give the folks in the neighborhood a little a little bit of leverage in their struggle, that's all,” said Schottland.

It's a struggle that, for those like Neapollioun, won't be over soon enough.

 

The city says, there is hope. It recently awarded more than a million dollars to help non-profits renovate 10 houses.

Another two are already under construction

“We say to work with us, we have a plan, we're working to get every house back into commerce,” said Lawlor. “We didn't walk away from it, we won't walk away from it. We don't walk away from any neighborhoods.”

As for the other homes the city is working to develop 21 of them with both a non-profit and NORA.

Another was sold in a NORA auction.

Builders of Hope is working to sell four of them to a private developer and the city is trying to figure out what to do with a house Builders of Hope placed on the wrong lot.

Builders of Hope declined to comment, except to say that they were no longer part of the project.

 

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