[StBernard] Road Home turns into absentee landlord

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Aug 13 18:37:12 EDT 2007

Road Home turns into absentee landlord
Posted by David Hammer, Staff writer August 11, 2007 9:37PM
Categories: Breaking News
With the ring of a nearby pile-driver clanging on the London Avenue Canal
floodwall nearby, Hilton Prosper takes a break from rebuilding his mother's
house and glares at the weed-choked property next door, with its shattered
yard lamp and tattered strands of blue roof tarp dangling from the sagging

"I was the last one to cut that grass, two months ago. Hey, if it's going to
make my house look better, you know?" Prosper said. "But I can't control
what other people do."

Trouble is, the derelict owners aren't people, but rather a
government-created agency: Road Home Corp., the depository for all
properties of Road Home grant recipients who opt to sell to the state.

Worse, the owner is a government-financed agency in the throes of poverty --
with no immediate plans to gut, secure or maintain any of the more than 700
properties it already owns, with 91 percent of them in Orleans and St.
Bernard parishes, and the nearly 20,000 it expects to eventually buy

Jerry Reaux, chairman of the Road Home Corp., said the corporation is
working with a $2.5 million line of credit, barely enough to hire staff and
set up computer databases. His seven-member board has received proposals
from companies to maintain and secure the properties, but Reaux, a banker
from Lafayette, said they won't be able to sign a contract until the state
Office of Community Development sends more federal block grant money.

The nonprofit corporation, designed to take storm-damaged homes and empty
lots purchased by Road Home under the state's buyout option and pass the
properties on to local parish development agencies, must wait in line for
federal housing dollars behind more than 100,000 homeowner grant applicants.
With a $5 billion shortfall looming for the entire homeowner relief effort,
money to maintain and secure Road Home Corp. properties is a low priority.

Now, even as parish authorities bear down harder on displaced residents to
eliminate eyesores, the Road Home Corp. could become the worst of the
absentee owners. Already under fire for continuing failures to cut through
red tape and pay flooded-out homeowners, the program now concedes it can't
cut the grass on the small percentage of properties it has managed to buy.

Prosper's situation provides a case in point. While he's gone out of his way
to clean up the neglected Road Home property, he and his mother still
haven't gotten their Road Home grant to pay for the work he's done on their
own house.

Office of Community Development spokeswoman GeGe Roulaine declined to
respond Friday, saying she couldn't speak for Road Home Corp.

Through the first year of the Road Home grant program, the Road Home Corp.'s
functionality wasn't much of an issue. The state didn't execute the first
batch of buyouts until March and ramped up buyouts significantly in July.

Although trends suggest that about 13 percent of eligible applicants, or
about 19,000 homeowners, will choose a buyout when all is said and done,
less than 2 percent of the 40,000 Road Home awards doled out so far have
been buyouts.

But Reaux said the pace of buyouts will quicken from now on. New performance
measures in the Road Home administrator's contract require it to keep the
buyout closings coming. Reaux expects the number of properties transferred
to Road Home Corp. to increase 12 times to about 9,000 by Dec. 31. At that
time, the corporation will need $40 million in federal dollars from the
Office of Community Development to be able to oversee that many properties,
Reaux said.

The first buyouts have proceeded more quickly than anyone anticipated when
the Road Home Corp. was set up this spring, Reaux said. That's bad news for
neighbors of these properties.

Reaux encouraged neighbors to do "the best they can" to maintain derelict
state-owned properties near them and put pressure on local officials to
lobby Road Home Corp. to get the money to take over the job.

Local officials are all too familiar with money problems. Many of the
agencies that will eventually get the properties from Road Home Corp., and
thus inherit the maintenance burden, are strapped for cash themselves,
meaning that even if Road Home Corp. could perform its pass-through duties
now, the situation isn't likely to improve once the locals take over.

Moreover, the Road Home Corp. and its local counterparts could be keeping
the properties for a long time before putting them back into commerce or
public use. Reaux said the Road Home Corp. must wait until the Louisiana
Recovery Authority approves parish plans for dealing with the properties
before it can transfer any of them. That poses problems, because the local
agencies aren't likely to have specific strategies in place until they see
larger numbers of buyout properties and can identify land-use patterns, such
as clusters of Road Home properties that can be converted into parks or sold
to large developers.

Joe Williams, a Road Home Corp. board member and the executive director of
the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, the agency that will get the Road
Home properties in New Orleans, said NORA is working closely with state
officials to prepare for the handover. But he added there's still no
timetable and the state hasn't settled how the process will work.

Williams and others in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes are starting to hear
from irate neighbors. "It's so disheartening for the people living near"
Road Home properties, St. Bernard Parish Councilman Mark Madary said. "The
person who has the most at stake is the person who's returned, and now they
have to put up with this."

The issue is particularly acute in St. Bernard Parish, where 42 percent of
the 8,610 Road Home applicants who have declared their plans have decided to
take a buyout. The Road Home properties stick out like sore thumbs.

A gutted house at the corner of Mayflower and Tracy in the Lexington
subdivision of Meraux sits on a lot infested with head-high weeds, its doors
and windows wide open.

Neighbor Bill Roescher said the former owner of the house kept the grass cut
until she sold it to the Road Home. Now, he said, "you probably couldn't
even get a lawnmower through the grass."

Parish Councilman Craig Taffaro, who heads the Housing, Quality of Life and
Redevelopment Commission that will take over the properties, said recently
that most of the Road Home-owned properties in St. Bernard are out of
compliance with the derelict property ordinance. And those that aren't out
of compliance now, he said, "will soon be out of compliance."

Taffaro said the parish had proposed handling the maintenance of the
properties -- for a fee -- but the Road Home Corp. turned it down. Reaux
said federal housing grant rules prevent such an arrangement.

Just across the St. Bernard Parish line in New Orleans, Leona Ford Mitchell
lives in the recovering Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward, while
the Road Home house two doors down lies fallow, the 10-foot weeds in the
front yard are eclipsed in enormity only by the gaping, 20-foot hole along
the left side of the house.

"It's filthy dirty. I'm scared of all this grass," said Mitchell, 76, who is
wheelchair-bound in her ramp-accessible FEMA trailer but pays workers to
keep up her yard as she rebuilds her home.

She says her neighbor in the house next to the Road Home property is afraid
to let her children play near the tangled weeds. That neighbor, and the one
on the other side of the overgrowth, each proudly sport yard signs
proclaiming their dedication to rebuilding.

"I'm home," says one Holy Cross Neighborhood Association sign.

"Welcome Home," says the other.

And the problem isn't just affecting the pioneers leading nascent recoveries
in the most battered areas. Even those who sold their land in fully restored
subdivisions have run up against the Road Home Corp. roadblock.

Eugene Singer sold his Uptown lot to Road Home last month. Before the
closing, he kept the grass groomed to blend in with the large home next
door, and at the closing, he asked the Road Home agent who would keep it up.

"She just said, 'It's not your problem.' So, I said, 'Well, it's not my
problem, but it's civil,' " Singer recalled. "She goes, 'Well, call the
city.' Thanks."

Staff writer Bob Warren contributed to this report.

David Hammer can be reached at dhammer at timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3322.

More information about the StBernard mailing list