Blight Reduction: What Other Regions Can Learn From New Orleans

8.27.12 | Flint and Detroit have outpaced post-Katrina New Orleans as the most blighted city in America, according to new data from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC) released this week.

As we’ve reported, neighborhoods in Detroit and elsewhere in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis have fallen into disrepair after the decline in manufacturing,  population loss, recession, and the foreclosures crisis. Vacancies are often a dangerous precursor to neighborhood blight where neglected, empty homes can become vulnerable to a cycle of crime and further disrepair.

Many of the U.S. cities that experience a growing number of vacancies are also experiencing a growing number of blighted homes, according to GNOCDC.

But in some parts of New Orleans, where residents faced a double hit of hurricane Katrina followed by a recession, things are improving.

The percentage of blighted properties in the city dropped from 34% in 2008 to 21% in March of this year, compared with 27% in Flint and 24% in Detroit, according to the analysis, which is based on data from the U.S. Postal Service. The report estimates that 8,000 properties in New Orleans were repaired or rebuilt between September 2010 and March 2011.

In New Orleans in 2010, the Landrieu administration announced a comprehensive strategy to reduce blight by 10,000 properties in three years, and this research suggests the city is on target to meet that goal. Their efforts include bringing properties into code compliance and efforts to support renters and homeowners.

Researchers also cite a stronger economy and federal support to residents for rebuilding and reoccupying storm-damaged homes as contributing to the improvement. Population growth, however, has been the most important factor in blight reduction there. The Census Bureau estimates 5% population growth between 2010 and 2011 alone.

BRR Network member Amy Liu says there are lessons other regions can learn from New Orleans, specifically about crisis as an opportunity for rebound.

“In New Orleans, citizens and leaders have committed to not go back to the past but to rebuild better than before.” Liu said in a recent BRR Q&A.  “That means addressing head-on decades of high poverty, wide racial and economic disparities, a weak economy, and unsustainable development patterns.  While reversing those outcomes will take time, New Orleans is in the midst of a series of systemic reforms that may put them on the path to healthier outcomes.”

Liu’s recent book “Resilience and Opportunity: Lessons from the Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita,” draws on the lessons learned in both disasters and chronicles the capacities of local citizens and government needed to bring the city back.

Liu said the city has also benefited from civic participation, national-local partnerships with leadership from philanthropy, the private sector, and government. In addition to blight reduction, early successes include new charter schools, primary health care centers that serve low-income patients, and criminal justice reforms that are lowering crime in the city. Liu says planners also see positive signs of economic growth — improvements in wage growth and new growth in knowledge-based sectors.

GNOCDC calls for a more complete blight tracking system. Researchers say there’s evidence that population growth may be slowing in New Orleans, making blight reduction more difficult, which means it will be critical for the city to keep up its efforts at tracking and prevention.

Resident surveys conducted by GNOCDC reveal that especially in neighborhoods that have seen decades of poverty and neglect, residents who have rebuilt are growing inpatient with dilapidated buildings and with their neighbors who don’t have the resources to improve their homes.

“I would love to see someone, the city, anyone, come in and rehab our houses, to make them the way they used to be,” Charmaine Baker-Fox of the Central City Partnership told The Times-Picayune.

Demographers say the city needs to continue to target blight aggressively and make sure property owners are motivated to maintain their properties, whether or not they are inhabited.

Researchers also recommend conversion of empty lots for other uses: water retention areas, for example, which they say, “can serve the multiple purposes of eliminating blight, beautifying neighborhoods, and reducing flood risk.” [Also see our post on “The Future of Urban and Suburban Spaces” for more reuse examples.]

“We’re doing better than the rest of the nation,” Allyson Plyer, chief demographer for GNOCDC told The Times-Picayune, “but it’s not like we’re in this booming economy.”

Photo/ Karen Apricot.

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