Miitch Landrieu looked around New Orleans when he became mayor in 2010, and got angry. The thousands of houses still abandoned and rotting in the city, five years after Hurricane Katrina? The thousands more empty lots where 10-foot-tall weeds had taken over?
That, Landrieu says, was “basically property owners walking away from their responsibility and leaving it to the rest of the public to clean up their mess.”
It’s not that the city had done nothing since the mammoth storm washed ashore in August 2005. Many home and business owners had rebuilt. The public and private sectors had helped other displaced residents come back. The government bought and razed properties from absentee landlords and owners who had no intention of returning. Despite these efforts, New Orleans remained No. 1 in blight when Landrieu took the reins, in far worse shape than Detroit, Flint, Cleveland or Baltimore.
It was past time, the mayor decided, for delinquent property owners to step up—or step aside.
“I told my team we have to go everywhere in America where they’re solving difficult problems,” Landrieu says. “We have to figure out not only what they’re doing but how they’re doing it. And then we have to bring best practices here.”
The city adopted or adapted ideas from places like Boston and Philadelphia—from special phone hotlines for reporting blight to market studies that helped planners understand where best to focus efforts. Then New Orleans added new tools, one by one: Creating a state-of-the-art database to track the status of every blighted property; passing laws that allow the city to enforce blight codes with lightning speed (at least bureaucratic lightning speed); and targeting specific neighborhoods that, while not exactly jewels before Katrina, were teetering on the brink of collapse because added blight brought more crime and instability.
Landrieu’s administration reached its first-term goal to demolish, rehabilitate or clear 10,000 of the city’s 44,000 blighted residential properties when the eradication program was launched in fall 2010. Roughly a year into his second term, the count is up to 13,000 properties, officials say.
“Hurricane Katrina was an awful event,” says Ryan Berni, a senior aide to Landrieu. “But it presented the opportunity for New Orleans to become this country’s laboratory and hub for innovation and change.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, above, has cleared up to 13,000 properties during his tenure. | Mark Peterson/Redux
The blight fight has aided a recent resurgence. New Orleans has recovered some 85 percent of its pre-Katrina population. The food-mad city now has 1,400 restaurants—far more than before Katrina. New high-tech companies are helping diversify the economy. Tourism, a top employer, is all but back; some 9.5 million visitors spent a record $6.8 billion in 2014, drawn by Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Sugar Bowl college football game, conventions, cruise ships and myriad parties the city and its neighborhoods throw on any given week.
Yet for all its progress, New Orleans still has roughly the same number of blighted properties as before Katrina, proving that while blight is easy to spot, it is deceptively difficult to attack.
Where recovery has taken hold, affordable housing is scarce; some poor and moderate-income people are being priced out of the market. And progress has been painfully slow in many neighborhoods with concentrated, long-term decay and poverty like the Lower Ninth Ward—the community that provided iconic images during Katrina of its residents frantically waving down rescue helicopters from the roofs of submerged homes.
The Lower Ninth once boasted the highest rate of homeownership among African-Americans in New Orleans. About 18,000 people lived in its 5,400 houses and apartments when Katrina made landfall. A mere 1,800 residences received mail in mid-2014—an indication of how many people have restarted elsewhere and how little the neighborhood has recovered in the last decade.