On Jan. 9, a month before he would be re-elected to a second term in a landslide, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said his administration had achieved one of its most ambitious goals: eliminating 10,000 blighted properties in New Orleans. The city had been the most blighted in the United States when Landrieu took office; now it was third and dropping.
Blight has undoubtedly been reduced since Katrina, but the city is still dotted by vacant, crumbling homes and overgrown lots. Only a handful of neighborhoods are close to being free of blight. So where are these 10,000 properties that have been fixed up?
City officials can’t say for sure.
Even with BlightStat, New Orleans’ much-heralded blight-tracking system, there is no verifiable list of 10,000 remediated properties.
Landrieu has trumpeted the 10,000 figure for years. In a letter to The Times-Picayune published on Christmas 2010, he wrote: “This past September, my administration announced our blight strategy, pledging to reduce blighted properties by 10,000 in three years and compelling property owner[s] to rehabilitate their properties and remediate blighted conditions.”
Three years later, the administration decided it had met that goal. But you may be surprised to learn that those 10,000 properties properties weren’t necessarily fixed up because the city got involved.
Instead, the city based Landrieu’s announcement on a study by University of New Orleans geography professor Peter Yaukey.
That analysis, done at the city’s behest, was based on a survey of certain neighborhoods in the city. It concluded that the number of blighted properties had dropped by at least 10,328 — possibly as many as 14,591 — since 2010, when it was estimated at 43,755.
Yaukey has no way of knowing why the properties in his survey were cleaned up. He said his understanding from talking to city officials “was that any property that ends up going from blighted to non-blighted is part of what the mayor was figuring when he came up with 10,000 — not just things that were accomplished through the direct intervention of city government.”
Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s second-in-command, said Yaukey is correct. The city’s BlightStat program tracks all the things the city is doing to deal with blighted properties. But those 10,000 remediated properties aren’t necessarily in BlightStat, he said.
Besides, Kopplin said, BlightStat doesn’t represent everything the administration has done to reduce blight.
He said job creation and economic development, which strengthens the real-estate market and spurs private investment, “is a city action, just as taking a house to sheriff’s sale or demolition is. So there are a number of things we in the city do to improve property and property values in the city that lead to the reduction of blight.”
But that’s not how Landrieu sold his blight eradication campaign to the public, and it’s not how his accomplishment has been reported nationally. In a story published on Governing’s website last month, a Harvard University researcher wrote that New Orleans “now is considered a national model for blight reduction.”
The story goes on to describe how “that turnaround has been accomplished in little more than three years,” detailing BlightStat and the city’s tougher enforcement process.
Did the mayor make good on his promise? It’s a surprisingly hard question to answer.
Back when Landrieu made his pronouncement in the fall of 2010, there didn’t seem to be much confusion about what he was promising.
“The goal: to eliminate 10,000 blighted properties over three years, or nearly a quarter of the 43,800 blighted homes that pock the city’s landscape, according to a recent study,” reported The Times-Picayune. The story described how much of the city’s budget would go to fighting blight.
In his 2011 State of the City address, Landrieu said, “Our aggressive blight reduction effort will eliminate 10,000 blighted properties over the next three years.” He said something similar in his 2012 address.
Last summer, the message was the same. “We have one of the largest blight programs in America,” he said at a public forum. “But we set a goal of 10,000 that we are either going to take down or put back into commerce. And we are absolutely going to meet that goal.”
In announcing his achievement, Landrieu credited much of the success to his “comprehensive blight reduction strategy” — an aggressive campaign of more code enforcement inspections, more blight hearings, more demolitions, and more public sales of blighted property. Each action was tracked through BlightStat.
Justin Kray, the lead project manager on BlightStat from 2011 to 2012, said the Landrieu administration should be held accountable for the specific actions it took to reduce blight.
“In the interest of accountability, which was also part of the blight strategy, I think it merits actual numbers or addresses,” Kray said.
Shortly after Landrieu’s announcement in January, The Lens used BlightStat to get the address of every blighted property remediated through city intervention since he made his promise in 2010.
BlightStat’s list came to 7,671. Once duplicate addresses were eliminated, it came to fewer than 7,200 unique addresses.
That’s fewer than what Kopplin cited in September, when he gave the City Council’s Housing and Human Needs Committee an update on blight remediation.
“We set a goal of 10,000,” Kopplin told the committee. “We’ve actually hit, ourselves, through our direct action, over 8,500, to date that have moved from blighted to non-blighted.”
The disparity may have been easily explained. The city, citing federal privacy restrictions, does not release the addresses of hundreds of properties fixed up with the federally funded Owner-Occupied Rehabilitation program. And many of the addresses in BlightStat have multiple housing units.
Yet in an interview with The Lens, Kopplin and another top-ranking city official distanced Landrieu’s announcement from BlightStat.
“Those are two different things,” Kopplin said. “You just went from Dr. Yaukey’s analysis that led to the conclusion that the city had remediated 10,000 blighted properties to a very discrete tracking system about the work different agencies in the city produce.”
Despite what he told the council committee, Kopplin said the addresses in BlightStat don’t necessarily reflect properties “moved from blighted to non-blighted.” It’s just a list of properties that the city has taken some kind of action on — a way to measure productivity at City Hall.
“So a property could be blighted, it could be remediated, and it could become blighted again. That is something that happens from time to time,” Kopplin said.
Oliver Wise, director of the Office of Performance and Accountability, which oversees BlightStat, was with Kopplin in the interview. Wise said his office couldn’t count how many properties had been fixed up because decisions on whether properties are blighted are made by Code Enforcement hearing officers. “Not by us. Not by policy makers. That’s a legal action,” he said.
Allison Plyer, executive director of The Data Center (formerly the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center) agreed with Kopplin and Wise. In 2012, her organization estimated that the city already had reduced blight by 8,000 properties since Landrieu made his declaration. Like Yaukey’s later report, that study relied on an estimate of overall blight reduction, not a count of properties that the city had dealt with.
“I didn’t actually think anyone expected them to touch all of the 10,000 properties,” Plyer said. Asked later about the mayor’s comments otherwise, she reiterated her interpretation and explained that city enforcement and demolition don’t necessarily eliminate blight — and “can actually have unintended and very much unwanted consequences.”
Market forces, not enforcement, play the largest role in eliminating blight, Plyer said. “Even if the city touched 10,000 or 20,000 properties or whatever, if you don’t have people coming to live in them, you’re not going to reduce blight. You need bodies,” she said. “The main thing the city needs and the region needs is economic development, jobs.”
Between 2006 and 2013, Yaukey and a team of researchers conducted an annual curbside survey of 2,400 flood-damaged properties in randomly selected census blocks in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. They rated them on a scale of “derelict” to “rebuilt.”
Every year, Yaukey recorded the percentage that had been fixed up.
In April 2013, Yaukey said, Wise contacted him and asked if he would use his research to extrapolate what had happened citywide.
According to Yaukey, “they were basically in a pickle because the data resource they had been planning on using to assess whether the mayor had reached his 10,000 property goal was the U.S. Postal Service.”
The problem was explained in the Data Center report Benchmarks for Blight, which said the Postal Service deleted nearly every “no-stat” address in March 2011, dropping the count from 43,755 to 1,651.
“Most observers would agree that in March 2011, New Orleans had well over 1,651 blighted homes still remaining in the city,” the Data Center study says. Without a reliable figure, the study’s authors had to use year-old Postal Service data to estimate how much blight had dropped.
BlightStat itself might have served to fill in the gap left by the Postal Service. As envisioned, the program tracked progress on every blighted property that was subject to city action.
“If you look back at the older reports from 2011, there was actually kind of a temperature gauge,” a one-page summary showing demolitions, code liens, owner compliance and sales since the beginning of the program, Kray said. “And that was the tally being used to get to that 10,000 goal.”
However, Kray added, the means by which the city would get to 10,000 was not explicitly spelled out, which allowed for some flexibility.
According to Kray, the city began to change how it counted remediations in mid-2012. He said that’s when city officials received word of the Data Center’s upcoming blight report, which would estimate that 8,000 blighted properties had been eliminated since September 2010.
That report put the city well on the way toward achieving its goal, with two years left to go.
“When that report was about to surface, there was a realization that we could be on track, trending toward 10,000 by 2014,” Kray said. “I do know, and what I can say on record, is we were actively counting toward that goal. That was an important part of our reporting. It became less important, in light of the fact that we were trending toward the goal.”
Kopplin said the debate over exactly how many properties the city has remediated misses the point. “We’re making dramatic progress in the city of New Orleans, faster than anywhere else,” he said.
So why does Kray think it’s important to count addresses?
First, he said, “because it’s the essence of an accountability program.” By using verifiable data to back up administration goals, the city can assess what types of enforcement are most effective. That connects high-level city policy to visible neighborhood impact, he said.
“The BlightStat model is being used as a model for how other cities will do blight eradication,” Kray said.
But if there’s no way to know exactly how much Landrieu’s strategy is responsible for the city’s blight reduction, there’s no way of telling if adopting the strategy will produce the same results.
The Landrieu administration deserves credit for devoting so many resources to fighting blight, Kray said in an interview with The Lens and Fox 8 News. “That recovery is ongoing; I think it’s all around us.”
But, he said, “the 10,000 is not something the city can claim ownership over.”
In the run-up to Landrieu’s “mission accomplished” announcement, the city still occasionally announced overall city intervention tallies in some BlightStat reports. The administration did this at monthly BlightStat meetings and most recently at the September Council committee meeting, when Kopplin said the city had directly moved 8,500 properties from blighted to non-blighted.
Councilwoman Stacy Head, who co-chairs the Housing Committee, said she believed Landrieu’s announcement meant the city had pushed that number up to 10,000 by January.
“It was my understanding that the city had taken some kind of action to issue a citation or give some type of notice to an owner that they were not in compliance … and some action was taken,” she said.
She added that the Landrieu administration’s enforcement strategy is a huge improvement over the previous administration’s.
Now, Head said she plans to request a tally of properties where the city took an enforcement action.
The Governing article was written by Charles Chieppo, a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School, which in 2012 recognized BlightStat as a “Bright Idea in Government.”
“By early this year,” Chieppo wrote, “Mayor Landrieu had more than made good on his promise, reducing the number of blighted residential properties by about 13,000.”
The story doesn’t say anything about Yaukey’s study. The Lens asked Chieppo if the Landrieu administration had tried to clarify his understanding that the city had dealt with all those properties. He said they hadn’t, and that they had seen his story before it was published.
“I asked them to review a draft of the piece for accuracy,” he wrote. “They made a couple of minor changes but didn’t change that.”
The Lens staff writer Karen Gadbois contributed to this story.
This story was originally published by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.