An analysis by Justin Kray
As a City Planner and former lead architect of the BlightStat program while working at OPA, I am in a unique position to offer some deeper insight on this story. There are many interconnected issues at work here, but the central question is how effectively the City executed upon the blight strategy, and the danger of using “Stat” meetings to create positive spin in the public sphere. This seems especially important to understand given that other cities are now seeking to emulate/adapt these models.
- At its core, BlightStat sought to employ data to drive better decision making – yet no analysis is provided in the 2014 “victory report” as to whether such a structural shift actually occurred. A look back through the monthly BlightStat reports show that core operational inefficiencies persist. One explanation is that no meaningful mechanism exists for attaching consequences to poor performance. In fact, I observed just the opposite – if a department is can manage to meet its targets under budget constraints, it is asked to do more with less; however if a well-connected department lagging on indicators can make the case that they are under-resourced, they can be rewarded. A cautionary tale in connecting budgets to performance measurement in a political environment.
- GIS mapping software, which holds the potential to inform spatially-strategic decisions, was never meaningfully harnessed to direct Code Enforcement action. Whole blocks of valuable historic blighted housing literally burned to the ground during the height of the program. Database migration to new workflow-tracking software in 2012 actually lost upwards of 5,000 active blight cases – an oversight that the administration sought to shuttle once it was discovered – mostly because the blight-fight was already being treated internally as a cause célèbre.
- The 2014 Blight Reduction report which claims that the City had delivered on it’s promise of remediating 10,000 blighted properties uses a fuzzy statistical methodology instead of counting hard numbers. This was actually a strategic decision. Initially the BlightStat program tracked a complete list of blighted properties influenced through City action by unique address, but it was determined that some insulation could be provided by utilizing a statistical approach created by a third party. One of the key recommendations of Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC), who produced the initial estimate of blighted property in 2010, was that the City undertake a full survey and inventory of blighted property, but this was never completed, even though there were opportunities to use the BlightStat program to meet this objective. It is notable that a different statistician from UNO provided estimates for the 2014 report. A core weaknesses of relying upon statistics instead of hard numbers is that it does not permit measurable insight into the comparative effectiveness of the City’s blight remediation programs, and how much of that reduction was through private market action.
- A cornerstone of New Orleans’ award-winning blight strategy, and perhaps the only aspect which distinguishes it from other bulldoze & backfill blight strategies (such as the plan recently announced by Detroit) is the Code Lien Foreclosure program. This program sought to deliver 1,000 blighted properties to auction 2011 alone, yet far far fewer properties were moved to sale through the lifetime of the program. How many properties were actually sold and returned to productive use? Sadly no analysis was ever conducted to assess this. To be fair, this program, which held the potential to revolutionize Code Enforcement, was sorely understaffed, underfunded, and suffered from inter-jurisdictional relationship friction between the Mayor and the Sheriff.
- Holding accountability meetings in public is a good idea, yet this transparency component created its own odd pressures to create good solid press coverage, even if the outcomes were less than ideal. Demolition of blighted structures is the most straightforward route, and this was the avenue most often employed by the City. More importantly, the pressure to maintain good publicity around the blight program made it extremely difficult to investigate publicly-funded programs where things had gone awry (aka the failure to salvage and relocate houses condemned to make way for the biomedical district).
- The punitive application of Code Enforcement liens was never balanced with ameliorative assistance to encourage residents to restore their housing. The influence of this “no carrot but stick” accelerated displacement of residents in neighborhoods that were disadvantaged through meager Road Home grants due to inaccurate pre-storm assessments.
- Code Enforcement action was exercised primarily upon private citizen land-owners. Large institutional organizations and commercial investors (think Archdiocese, State of Louisiana, Orleans Parish School Board, HANO, Mall holding corporations) never saw equivalent enforcement action, despite being owners of some of the most obvious & significant blighted structures along main traffic corridors.
- The City was never able to find a vehicle to salvage significant “non-architectural” components of demolished housing stock due to restrictive FEMA regulations and the procurement cost-model of private contractors.
- If you walk through any streets of New Orleans, there is still ample blight staring you in the face (attached photo is a house that stood vacant for 9 years before burning earlier this year. A posted notice stated it is slated for emergency demolition on 3/5/14, photo taken on 4/8/14).
All in all, this is a cautionary tale. Yes, New Orleans is on the path to recovery, but it certainly deserves closer investigation as to how well we have governed ourselves towards that outcome.
New Orleans’ Winning Strategy in the War on Blight
A city with one of the nation’s worst blight problems is now considered a national leader in reducing vacant and dilapidated properties.
Few urban problems are more insidious than blight. Vacant or dilapidated properties suppress property values, threaten public safety, chase away investment and hurt quality of life.
Blight was a challenge for New Orleans even before Hurricane Katrina flooded nearly 80 percent of the city’s housing stock in 2005. By 2010, New Orleans had perhaps the country’s worst blight problem, affecting an estimated 43,755 properties — nearly one-quarter of the city’s residential addresses.
So it might be something of a surprise that the city now is considered a national model for blight reduction. What might be even more surprising is how that turnaround has been accomplished in little more than three years.
What wasn’t surprising at all was that blight was a big issue in the 2010 mayoral race. The winner of that contest, Mitch Landrieu, had promised to reduce the number of blighted properties by 10,000 by 2014.
Landrieu quickly went to work, strengthening the city’s enforcement powers, streamlining the process for remediating blighted properties and implementing a new computerized system to track code enforcement and permitting.
The new blight remediation process begins with property inspection. It then moves to a hearing in which the property owner is either found guilty or in compliance. If guilty, the owner must remediate the problem or the property is either demolished or goes to a sheriff’s sale, which allows for a clean transfer of ownership.
Elected officials are generally reticent to take people’s property, but the old approach just wasn’t working. “Before, owners of blighted properties just ignored city fines, and peer pressure didn’t change their behavior,” said Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin. “But once they know you’ll seize their property, they get religion.”
To coordinate the blight-reduction efforts of various city agencies, the Landrieu administration created BlightSTAT, a process in which representatives from the Department of Code Enforcement, the Office of Community Development, the Office of Information Technology and Innovation, the Law Department and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority meet to set goals and report on progress. The city’s Office of Performance and Accountability acts as an ombudsman, presenting data and holding the agencies’ feet to the fire.
But no one does a better job of holding feet to the fire than New Orleans’ residents. The BlightSTAT meetings are open to the public, some have drawn over 100 attendees and each concludes with a question-and-answer period. (For two years after the first meeting in November 2010, the meetings were held twice a month; now that the initial surge of dilapidated properties has been addressed, they’re held monthly.) Residents can also find out the status of specific properties on a “BlightStatus” website.
Feedback from residents and the New Orleans police department is used to set priorities among the dilapidated properties. BlightSTAT prioritizes properties whose remediation can stabilize a neighborhood as well as those in high-crime areas and major commercial corridors. Blight remediation is also the top priority when federal assistance is made available.
By early this year, Mayor Landrieu had more than made good on his promise, reducing the number of blighted residential properties by about 13,000. The average time from initial inspection to hearing has been cut in half, and one of the nation’s former blight leaders is now reducing it faster than any other American city.
Just as blight threatens public safety and harms quality of life, eliminating it creates a virtuous circle. BlightSTAT can’t claim sole credit for an extended real-estate boom in New Orleans or for the new confidence investors are demonstrating in the city, but it’s hard to imagine that New Orleans’ comeback would be nearly as robust without it.