Legal and Other Obstacles to Community Rebuilding Efforts in New Orleans

At yesterday’s faculty workshop, Professor John Lovett of Loyola-New Orleans gave an eye-opening presentation on his latest scholarship, entitled “The Winding Road to Recovery: Observations on Property Relations Three Years After Hurricane Katrina.” Professor Lovett detailed the devastation to single-family and multi-family housing in New Orleans. He then explained how different governmental programs — responsible for billions of dollars earmarked for rebuilding and repopulation efforts — have failed or had limited success.

This lack of success is due, in part, to certain property laws which hamstring the redevelopment process. For example, while Congress earmarked significant monies for loans to homeowners willing to repopulate the areas most devastated by Hurricane Katrina, federal law — according to those administering the program — prohibits using such money for construction loans. Homeowners can only access these federal dollars for more coventional loans (for financing a mortgage) which will only occur once the homes have been rehabilitated. As might be expected, private banks are unwilling to lend money for construction loans to likely homebuyers (many of whom do not have good credit scores or money for a downpayment). So unless a potential homebuyer can self-fund the rehabilitation of the house (which most certainly cannot), there appears few avenues for homebuyers to secure funding to renovate these homes. Therefore, the federal money set aside for loans to homebuyers sits idle as do these homes in need of renovation — a maddening result in the context of the revitalization efforts described by Professor Lovett.

But Professor Lovett also gives another reason for the lack of success in repopulating and redevelopment: community distrust, particularly from poorer and minority neighborhoods in New Orleans. Given many cities’ history of mistreating these communities — and it appears so is the case with New Orleans as well — this skepticism and resistence to certain proposed redevelopment efforts is, perhaps, unsurprising. Professor Lovett’s conclusion is that the city, state, and federal officials overseeing the redevelopment efforts must work to build more trust with the community to further everyone’s goals of rebuilding New Orleans.

Given this prescription, I encourage Professor Lovett and others interested in this subject to research community outreach efforts by other cities who have demonstrated some success in involving traditionally marginalized segments of their communities in such important local decision-making processes. In particular, Seattle effectively reached out to minority communities who felt disconnected from their local government officials and engaged them in helping to revise the city’s general plan. Los Angeles has also seen some significant successes through its neighborhood council system in engaging traditionally disenfranchised communities in local governance.

Attaining this level of trust (and I would add support and involvement of those most affected by local land use decisions), as Professor Lovett points out, is critical to accomplish the ambitious goals set for rebuilding New Orleans. But reaching out to these skeptical communities cannot be done in a top-down, paternalistic way. These government officials would be wise to inculcate civic republican values into their approach and begin a dialogue with these communities to make the redevelopment efforts a truly collaborative process where the community has meaningful input to help craft the land use policies for these devastated regions.

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