Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Kingdom of the Wicked part 1

Did cruelty live in the bones of this late pastel double joined shotgun -or is the world really this evil?
This unremarkable double shotgun was demolished yesterday by city contractors after being declared an imminent health threat in danger of collapse. The wrecking ball punctuated a pattern of neglect, and in the sharp tongue of the New Orleans Police Department, "slum conditions."
According to a 2004 police investigation, the son of the house's owner "willfully neglected to provide adequate living accommodations to a 76-year-old female who rented a home from him. The suspect refused to make structural repairs to the home. The home’s interior and exterior had unsanitary conditions and the City of New Orleans’ Health Department declared the residence unfit for human habitation."
Five years and one mama storm later, this house was still unfit, and still inhabited.
In the weeks before the bulldozers arrived, a homeless family had been squatting there, taking shelter inside the house's unsteady walls while they waited for transitional housing to open up. It was probably not a great place to be; on a recent Thursday night, a lone man stood in front of a nearby house, also unlit, waving his arms frantically at passing cars. Finally late last week, the city called Unity of Greater New Orleans , and requested the housing non-profit place the family in some kind of transitional housing. By Monday afternoon, the house was gone, a patch of mud in its place. By evening, the frenzied waver was likely back on site.
While confidentiality rules prevent Unity from providing any information on the family's whereabouts a case worker said today that they, at least temporarily, were staying somewhere more secure than the South Liberty Street house. The organization estimates there are thousands of people living in homes awaiting demolition. The Beck contractor who handled the eviction of the squatters on South Liberty, Justin Augustine, agrees.
"It’s very common that people are living in the structures we are demolishing,” said Augustine told a today.
Imagine spending your days traveling from decrepit house to decrepit house, sometimes finding extreme decay, other times a freshly made bedroll and on occasion, a family that you must evict. Now imagine doing that with relatively little support from the city. Unity, an umbrella of more than 70 social service providers and community organizations, relies on its vast network to point its outreach workers towards the 1619 South Liberty Streets in our midst. Last year it launched a program, "No One Suffers Alone" aimed at moving people from abandoned houses or the streets and into permanent housing that will be paid for with an increased number of supportive housing vouchers the organization is currently asking federal officials to approve. The organization is also advocating for the city to rewrite zoning policies to mandate developers to make a certain percentage of units in all new housing developments available to low to moderate income renters or buyers. The practice, known as "inclusionary zoning," is done in New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco, and other major cities.
But these progressive housing policies alone won't solve the problem of New Orleans' impatient wrecking ball.
Other tools are needed. One the most critical is an active and engaged City Council. District B Councilwoman Stacy Head was able to get three properties back on the tax rolls with a successful sheriff sale on the courthouse steps. Head said the sale netted the city almost $50,000. She plans to spearhead more of the sales in the future.
"Rampant demolition is NOT the answer," Head wrote (the caps are all her) in an email today. "If the properties are salvageable, the city should secure them and code enforcement should push the owners to compliance with codes, to sale or to expropriation."
Wise words. Maybe the next mayor will listen.

credit: Ariella Cohen.
Ariella is a freelance journalist and a contributor to the New Orleans Institute

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