Our Views: A new fight against blight

From a safe distance, at City Hall, the blight problem in New Orleans is looking better. If you’re down the street from the Rat Hotel that’s been an eyesore for the eight years since Hurricane Katrina, it’s a different perspective.

That was one view at a City Council hearing on blight issues that included some really good news about the rollback of some of the worst problems. With more energy and financial commitment from the Landrieu administration, and a reinvigorated and better-led New Orleans Redevelopment Authority in the past few years, the reduction in blighted structures is past 8,500. Many homes have been repaired and returned to commerce, as well as tracts, such as the old Gentilly Woods shopping center, where a Wal-Mart is now going up.

But once again, it’s a matter of perspective: Those are good numbers but not so good in the context of historic levels of damage during the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both in the city of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes.

And many people showed up at the council hearing to reiterate that the city hasn’t gotten around to evicting Mr. and Mrs. Rat from down the block.

The city’s chief administrative officer acknowledged the complaints. “While we’ve made tremendous progress, there is still a long, long way to go,” Andy Kopplin said.

If the situation in Orleans is particularly dramatic, the issue of urban blight is larger than the city’s boundaries. After Katrina, efforts to deal with blight ran up against tough requirements for notice to property owners, even if manifestly slumlords or absentees who neglected structures for years or even decades.

It has been a heavy lift in the Legislature, despite the urgency of the post-Katrina problems: In a strong property-rights legal structure, changes were needed to put community interests in their proper place in the statutes.

At the local level, slumlords have gamed the system. And the sheer volume of hurricane-related damage has not been helped by an eventual slackening of federal support as the floodwaters pulled back and the years passed.

As residents pointed out, forcefully, the issues of absentee and neglectful owners is still very much with many neighborhoods. It is very little consolation that cities across the state have also wrestled with similar problems on a smaller scale.

We are delighted with the progress that has been made, but the central importance of New Orleans’ recovery — for Louisiana as a whole, as well as the city itself — requires a new look at ways to fast-track the relocation of Mr. Rat and his relatives sooner rather than later.