City councilwoman calls for more stringent demolition process

Citing “troubling mistakes,” New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head is calling on the city to develop a stronger system of checks and balances when determining which structures are demolished as part of its effort to reduce blight.

Head said the final determination of a structure’s fate shouldn’t be decided by Department of Code Enforcement Director Pura Bascos alone.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate in a city like New Orleans and also when you’re dealing with property rights for the fate of a property to be decided by one person,” Head said. The current process is not good government, and it’s not transparent, Head said. “And I also don’t think it’s necessarily respectful to the historic housing stock that we have.”

Head said a new code enforcement policy should be written or law created to give final say to a broader group of stakeholders.

The discussion came during an update on the city’s strategic demolition program to the council’s Housing & Human Needs committee, which Head co-chairs.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration launched a blight reduction strategy three years ago aimed at eliminating 10,000 blighted properties in New Orleans by 2014.

New Orleans was the most blighted city in America in 2010.

The strategy includes a process that allows properties, which have been determined noncompliant after a hearing, to either be sold at a sheriff’s sale, demolished or entered into the city’s abatement program. The city has completed nearly 4,000 demolitions since October 2010.

Bascos decides which of the three will happen.

Bascos said Monday that she considers the recommendation of a hearing officer, the opinion of people who live in the neighborhood and the actions of the property owner in making the call. Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said Bascos also consults with her own staff and with council staff before making a decision.

But Head said those consultations don’t go far enough. The administration should have a documented procedure to ensure that a “broader view” is taken, she said.

“In a balanced government it probably is more appropriate, at least in my opinion, to have a policy that is set forth in law or, either a policy that’s put forth by that department, and then those policies come to the council,” Head said.

Head said there have been major errors in which Bascos has authorized demolitions even as property owners were securing permits or making renovations.

But Kopplin said the city exercises a bias toward selling structures at auction as a way to preserve those having “historic character.”

“We lean aggressively in favor of doing sheriff sales,” Kopplin said. “A number of properties that have been brought to sheriff’s sales did not sell and we bring them back a second time because that was the request the council and the (Preservation Resource Committee) and others made.”

While Kopplin said the administration is happy to have a conversation with council members on the topic, he stressed that delinquent property owners, not the administration, are the ones to blame.

Head, however, said the city has an obligation to protect its architecture.

“The historic fabric of New Orleans is something I consider a stewardship obligation on my part to maintain,” Head said. “And so while I’m very sad that property owners have been irresponsible, I do think we have a broader goal as government, at least from my perspective, to preserve the beautiful historic architecture.”