geoffrey gauchet

Other People's Property: A Blighted New Orleans

Updated on April 15, 2013 at the bottom.

I’m going to jump right into this one. I know I’m not the only one with this problem in the city, and I know others have worse issues, but this problem keeps getting worse for me personally.

We’ve been in our house for about two years. The lot behind us has been vacant since before we bought the house. Next to that lot is a gutted house.

The gutted house behind us has its lawn cut regularly, and the home, while gutted, is secured to keep animals and people out of it. The lot next to it, however, is completely overgrown, with grass up to about 6 feet high, and other weeds growing out into the street.

At first, it was just unsightly, and then we built our 6-foot cedar fence and we didn’t see it anymore. The weeds then grew taller than our fence last summer, so I called 311 to report it. The City’s blightStatus project shows that complaint I raised.

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I blocked out the case number so that it isn’t so easy to find my address. So, as you can see, I complained about the property on July 11th last year, and it was marked for inspection.

As of today, March 18, 2013, no inspection has taken place and the case is still open. Now, at the time of my complaint, it was just a cosmetic thing, so I get that it was low priority.

However, about two months ago, we had the pest control company come to our house to do our annual renewal of our termite contract. As the pest control guy was making his rounds around the house, he saw a rat in our backyard, and then noticed a series burrows, under the slab of the house. He tracked the source of them down to the yard behind us, that I’ve called about. The rats did find their way inside our attic, but luckily the poison placed was effective and I’ve filled in the burrows.

But before the rats were eradicated, we got an influx of feral and domestic cats in our backyard, as well as opossum! It’s only a matter of time that the rats return, creating a crazy cycle of animals carrying disease.

And this is where I called 311 to report the property again. At this point, with the rats getting into our home, and causing damage under our house (and probably inside). My second report was on February 13 of this year. I made sure to emphasize the health risks and the damage to my property that this lot was now causing.

As you can see on that screen capture of the blightStatus record for the property, there are no updated records of my most recent complaint. It’s as if I never called and reported it in February (I have a case number written down that I was given). Shouldn’t there be a record of multiple complaints for a property?

Ah, but there are more complaints!

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Someone filed a complaint in 2010 and the property was inspected twice within 8 days and then the case was closed for whatever reason.

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Then, the case was re-opened the same day as the final inspection from the first complaint. It was then inspected that same day, then inspected again about a month later, again 3 months after that, again a couple of weeks later, and then again 7 months after that. And then the case was closed, again.

Now, the site doesn’t give you any information about why an inspection passed, or even if the inspection was passed or not. When I first called in July of 2012, the person on the phone at 311 told me that I wasn’t the first person to complain about that property recently, which is probably why an inspection was scheduled.

How was an inspection performed within 8 days of a case being opened in 2010, but in 2012, it’s been 8 months and still no inspection? I can answer that with some information the 311 rep gave me when I first complained in 2012. She told me that originally (in 2010), the complaints on the property were because of the house that was there. Apparently, they tore down the house and cleared the lot to appease the City. 

And then never did anything again.

Some of those 2011 inspections took place since we’ve lived in the house, which means that the 6-foot tall weeds and grass passed inspection. How is that possible?!

In fact, those 2011 inspections took place in April and May of 2011. According to Google Maps, this is what it looked like in April 2011:

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Notice the photo date, as reported by Google Maps: “April 2011”. 

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From Google Maps, but at a different angle. I don’t see how you can possibly let this property make it through an inspection.

Here’s what the lot looks like now, in photos I took from the street it’s on:

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Can you see me and Rhea’s house in this photo? I’ll give you a hint: no, you can’t. These photos are almost 2 years younger than the ones on Google Maps and it looks exactly the same, with more growth.

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This view is from the left side, near the gutted house I mentioned in the beginning. You can see how they maintain their grass, compared to the lot. Grass is down to three feet high because of winter killing off some of it.

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This is a view from the right side of the lot. You can kind of see our roof in this one, on the right edge of the screen.

What these photos don’t show is the weeds and tree that now take up 1/3rd of the street right there, and how the sidewalk pretty much doesn’t exist anymore.

Now, I know our situation isn’t nearly as bad as some people’s in New Orleans is, but this affects me, so I’m talking about it because I know about it.

I wouldn’t worry so much if it was just an appearance thing, but now that we’re getting rodents (and now that it’s spring, insects) as a direct result of this property, it’s an issue.

My question is really though, how can this property pass any inspections, and how come it’s been over 8 months since the case was opened on it and no inspection has happened?

According to the CIty’s website, step 3 of Code Enforcement says:

Code Enforcement inspectors follow a dynamic work queue in the LAMA system to perform detailed inspections of building exterior and lot conditions, with digital photography and clear lists of violations of City ordinances.  Our target for the average time from a complaint and creation of a case to inspection is 30 days.

“Our target for the average time from a complaint and creation of a case to inspection is 30 days.” Try 8 months.

I mainly point this all out to complain again, but also to raise the point that I know we aren’t the only ones having this experience. The city recently announced plans to revise code enforcement ordinances, which is great, assuming they actually do anything about it. 

I don’t see how a program run so poorly can win awards, when things go undone and fines for blight have gone uncollected.

In January, the City announced that they’ve hired three new staff members to research these properties, with plans to hire more.

The City claims it can take longer than 30 days to do the research to track down the property owners for a hearing, which is understandable, but in my case, there hasn’t even been an inspection, so there hasn’t even been an effort to hunt down the owners.

I have, though. After a quick set of Google searching after finding the names of the property owners on the City’s website, I can tell you all sorts of stuff about them. It was super easy to find them.

So what gives?

I offered to send 311 the photos of the lot, but they declined them. In 2010, eight people died in a fire because of a blighted building that caught fire. The property had been inspected, and fines were levied against the owners, but nothing ever happened to change the state of the building, a fire started, and 8 people died.

In February when all the Super Bowl hubbub was going on, The Lens reported on blight in Central City, mere steps away from The Big Game and all the parts of the city that the City spent money on repaving streets, cleaning up, and even building a new street car lines. The Lens’s photo essay speaks volumes about the blight issue in the city, and the seemingly mis-directed emphasis of progress. I highly suggest you read that Lens article.

So, how much longer will Mayor Mitch keep talking about progress and the brand of the city, while the City That Care Forgot further becomes The City That Forgot to Care?

UPDATE! So, the day I posted this, I sent an email to Cynthia Hedge Morrell, my city councilmember. About an hour later, her Chief of Staff forwarded my email to the Code Enforcement department (including its director and deputy director) and copied me on it and asked that her office be informed of the progress. That was almost a month ago.

Today, I sent another email to those same people to complain about the lot again because after the thunderstorm we had Sunday morning, a tree fell onto our fence and into our yard. Now this is getting super personal. Here are photos I took this morning. I hope something happens soon.

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Luckily, there isn’t much damage if any, but it’s still an issue. Another five feet the other way and it would’ve landed on the roof of our neighbor’s addition.

We’ve now hit the 2 year mark of my complaints. And ironically, today, the City claims they’ve speeded up the inspection process, claiming 85% of complaints are investigated within 30 days. Try over 700 days. 


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