Lower 9th Ward revitalization plan to go before voters

In an effort to jump-start development in parts of the Lower 9th Ward that have stood empty since Hurricane Katrina, City Hall would get permission to sell off abandoned properties in the neighborhood for $100 each under a proposal that will go before state voters in the fall.

The Legislature approved a constitutional amendment before the 2014 session ended Monday that would allow the sales. Now, the measure will head to a statewide ballot Nov. 4.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, a city agency, owns about 600 properties in the 9th Ward but has attracted little interest from potential buyers over the past few years when offering them at market rates.

A constitutional amendment is needed to sell the lots for a nominal $100 fee because the Louisiana Constitution prohibits the loan, pledge or donation of property by the state or a political subdivision. The change approved by the Legislature would carve out an exception for the Lower 9th Ward properties.

Companion legislation, which is on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk, would allow each abandoned parcel to be sold for $100 with certain restrictions imposed.

The constitutional amendment must pass before the program could begin.

“Tons of people are interested in the program,” said the proposition’s sponsor, state Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans. He said they include former Lower 9th Ward residents who want to return there.

Bishop said he has been working with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration on the proposal “recently, particularly when it became evident the bill was going to pass. They have not taken a position on it yet.” Bishop said he hopes that will change.

“The way the law is written, it mandates the program to go forward,” Bishop said.

Bishop said he will be traveling the state promoting the constitutional change. He said he hopes to get newspaper support in all corners of the state. “It benefits the 9th Ward and the entire state,” he said.

Bishop said he wants to use the Lower 9th Ward redevelopment plan as a pilot to see if it could work in other areas that have had trouble “repopulating since Hurricane Katrina,” such as the Desire-Florida neighborhood in the Upper 9th Ward. He said the program is patterned after one used in Baltimore, Harlem, New York, and Detroit dealing with blighted areas.

Under the program advanced by Bishop, homeowners living next to each piece of property would get the first opportunity to purchase it. After that, priority would be given to people who have lived in the neighborhood for at least 18 months, followed by veterans, teachers, first responders and former neighborhood residents.

All buyers would have to agree to redevelop the lots and live there for a minimum of five years after construction is complete.

In 2005, Katrina’s floodwaters sent a barge over a floodwall on the Industrial Canal near the St. Claude Avenue bridge. The wall collapsed, causing water to sweep aside homes and other buildings.

The legislation, House Bill 1001, defines the Lower 9th Ward as the area bound by Jourdan Avenue, Florida Avenue, the Orleans-St. Bernard Parish line and the Mississippi River.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.