Bayou St. John battles blight one lot at a time
BY: David Muller, City Business Staff Writer.
Years of disputes between owners of vacant homes in Faubourg St. John and the residents who live near them are unlikely to be resolved before the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
That means once again, thousands of fest-goers will march past what residents consider a blemish in their otherwise scenic neighborhood as they head to the Fair Grounds. It’s the house at 1551 Mystery St., where neglect has set in and nature has regained control, with vines overgrowing the structure.
“I’d like to see it fixed up or torn down. Whatever comes first,” said Nelson Savoie, who co-owns a nearby property. “(The) garage is housing all kinds of rats – rats are running up and down the deck.”
While not on the scale that exists in Central City, eastern New Orleans or the Lower 9th Ward, residents in Mid-City and Bayou St. John are not taking the blight problem in their own neighborhood lightly, even in isolated cases.
Charlie London, board member of the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, has dozens of documents on properties in his own neighborhood and surrounding ones. But the piece of property on Mystery Street is No. 1 on his list.
“It’s been blighted for a long time now, long before the storm,” London said. “There’s no excuse.”
Reached by phone, the most recent owner of the property, Charles Philippi, was surprised and suspicious. “There are thousands of properties like that,” Philippi said. “Some are in worse shape, some in better.”
Philippi said he has never been cited by the city for the property, but records indicate he was a no-show to a city code enforcement hearing in 2009. The city declared the property a nuisance and blighted, and the property has had a $400-a-day fine leveled against it ever since.
When asked about repairing the property, Philippi’s response was confrontational and elusive. “Let’s just say I demolished it tomorrow, how would that change your life?” he answered.
If neighbors are disturbed by the property, Philippi said they are “certainly savvy enough to go through the city” to address the problem. But he also questions whether those complaining are using the media to bring down the value of the property so they can buy it.
Assessment records show the property was valued at $172,800 in 2009. Philippi said he’s in the process of transferring the property to his ex-wife, Adyleen Philippi, but public records indicate he sold it to her in July for $65,000.
Philippi’s property is not the only property on the FSJNA’s radar. The association examines the records of each vacant property in the area, London said, checking for homestead exemptions and whether the owner has a history of blight problems. An owner receiving an exemption would indicate someone is seeking the tax break without maintaining the property.
The typical process for the FSJNA is to first file a complaint with the city. If the gripe is legitimate, the property is adjudicated and, depending on the severity of the violation, the owner can be penalized up to $500 per day until a maximum fine of $15,575 is reached.
If the owner fails to address the property, it’s certified as blighted as long as there is no homestead exemption and there hasn’t been a tax sale involving the property in the past three years.
Learn more about the process of blight eradication at FSJNA’s webpage in the link below:
Another vacant Mid-City property is 208 David St. Kurt Buchert, who moved to the street in 2008, lives next door and says the boarded-up home has been an eyesore for years. “I’ve been complaining to the city for a couple years now,” he said. “Nothing’s been done.” He said squatters have come and gone, and his efforts to get the city to pay more attention to it have fallen on deaf ears.
The property’s owner, Mandeville resident Hilda Roberta Maestri, has found herself at odds with various residents of the Mid-City and Faubourg St. John area for the properties she owns.
As for the property on David Street, Maestri said she obtained a building permit two months ago to begin renovations, but a lack of Road Home money has delayed repair work.
“They lost my application,” she said.
Maestri, the only child of former New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri, also owns the entire even-numbered 600 block of Hagan Avenue near Bayou St. John through a company called Hagan Avenue LLC.
FSJNA members said she wanted to tear all the homes down but when the city wouldn’t let her, she instead made “shoddy” renovations to the homes – something she denies.
“On the contrary, the city condemned them and I had to fight to take them off the list,” Maestri said. “I could have bulldozed them.”
The 10 shotgun doubles on the block have been assessed at combined value of $336,000. Maestri has been charging $750 rent for each of the 20 units, according to tenants. All but two of the homes are rented, she said.
“When you put $600,000 into a string of properties and suddenly they double your assessment, you really don’t want to renovate the other two,” she said.
City spokesman Ryan Berni did not respond to a request seeking comment by Wednesday afternoon. In unveiling his blight strategy last year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it would first focus on large areas of rundown homes near schools.
View Charlie London’s report on the November 18, 2011 BlightStat meeting and view the certified judgement against 1551 Mystery in the link below: