The LA Times ran an interesting piece this weekend about how local housing advocates are trying to address the perplexing issue of fixing up the some 100,000 homes in New Orleans that were rendered inhabitable by Hurricane Katrina.
It's a tough issue -- many home-owners are battling insurance companies and other obstacles in deciding how, when and if they can return. And many are already feeling the pressure to quickly sell their homes to the teams of developers poised to carry out their vision of a whiter and wealthier city.
The Times piece focuses on how an idea that started with a handful of housing advocates in the city has now gained traction in Louisiana and even Capitol Hill. It's a novel legal concept in Louisiana (which was founded on Napoleonic code rather than English common law) called "usufruct," which steers a middle ground between two possible fates for NOLA's houses: falling into private developer hands on one hand, and condemnation and seizure-by-eminent domain on the other.
Here's how it works: basically, the government would get limited ownership rights to fix the houses up, and then would give owners the chance to buy back over time for the cost of repairs. As the Times describes it:
Authorities would locate scattered homeowners to determine if they have the means or the inclination to rebuild ... If the owner is not planning to return anytime soon, local officials would strike a deal.
The owner would sign over controlling rights of the property - but not the title - to the government. In most cases, that would likely be the city of New Orleans, but the program would apply statewide and could involve numerous municipal or parish governments.
Through contracts targeting hundreds of properties at once, the government would then pay to make the home habitable again, while assuming, in most cases, mortgage payments for the owner.
The home would then be rented out, first to displaced "essential workers" such as teachers, police officers and firefighters and their families, then to the public. Rents would likely be subsidized, and checks would be written to the government agency that signed the deal or to a company hired to manage the money.
The owners would be allowed to return after an agreed-upon period of time - perhaps three to five years - provided they could repay the government for repairs made. If, at that point, the owner did not want to return or could not pay for the fixes, the government would have the right to sell it. If the house were sold, the government and the owner could share in profits and losses.
The plan has some obstacles -- money, possible legal questions -- but it's great to see people are thinking creatively to tackle the underlying problems at hand. A leader in pushing the proposal is Mtumishi St. Julien, a longtime community advocate, a housing advisor to Mayor C. Ray Nagin and the executive director of the Finance Authority, one of the primary local agencies that administers government housing programs. Here's how describes it:
"The entire redevelopment of New Orleans rests on this issue. We have a lot of people who, through no fault of their own, do not have the capability to come home and fix up their property. So our greatest challenge in redeveloping is acquiring the land to rebuild."
"You are not going to rebuild New Orleans unless you are able to get government access to private property. If government does not solve that problem, everything else is just talk. It is foolish to believe otherwise."