[StBernard] Drive to demolish blighted houses stirs controversy in St. Bernard

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Mar 9 10:12:37 EDT 2009

Drive to demolish blighted houses stirs controversy in St. Bernard
by Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
Saturday March 07, 2009, 9:42 PM

On a now-vacant block in Chalmette, Lawrence and Otsie Ruiz slowly surveyed
their slab on Prince Drive. Three weeks ago, it held a gutted house with a
sound roof, solid windows and a trimmed lawn -- secure, but still not up to
parish housing codes.

Repair work was slow because of sickness and limited money, but the Ruiz
family hoped to eventually sell the Buccaneer Villa North home or pass it on
to relatives.

But on Feb. 18, the house was demolished -- one of hundreds that have come
down in 2009 as St. Bernard Parish's FEMA-financed demolition contract nears
its end.

The couple appealed the condemnation last fall, but were rejected. The
parish said it sent a demolition notice last month, but the couple said
their only warning came when bulldozers arrived.

"We've got a hundred yards of concrete here; it's worthless now," Otsie Ruiz

Farther down the parish in Violet, Tracey Jeanfreau Naquin has been trying
for nearly two years to get the house behind hers on Violet Drive torn down.
She and her husband, Arnold, bought the mildewed, barely gutted green home
from a relative, hoping to expand their backyard and install a swing set for
their children once crews tore it down.

It's been on the parish's demolition list since summer 2007, but every time
Naquin calls the parish, she gets no clear answer on when crews will arrive.

"If they're desperate for a house to come down, they're more than welcome,"
she said. "They don't have to tell me or anything."

The two tales point to a central challenge in St. Bernard's recovery: how to
prioritize and dispose of thousands of condemned properties across the
parish, each with a different narrative. And with its FEMA-financed
demolition contract due to end March 31, the cash-strapped parish is under
heightened pressure to tackle hundreds of abandoned properties that could
sit idle for years if not addressed immediately.

New Orleans faces the same March 31 deadline, and a City Hall spokesman said
officials plan to submit a request this week for a 30-day extension. St.
Bernard officials said they have requested an extension but have not
received a response.

In New Orleans, 5,670 Katrina-damaged structures have been torn down with
$53 million in FEMA money, officials said.

Opposing forces

The St. Bernard contractor, Unified Recovery Group, has demolished more than
7,000 buildings costing $241 million of FEMA money since Katrina. About half
of the buildings were sold to the state through Road Home buyouts.

But the most recent wave of demolitions -- of homes still in the hands of
their owners -- has ignited a thorny debate about the pace of recovery in
St. Bernard.

Homeowners and contractors in the midst of repairs say they are being unduly
threatened by parish officials to finish repairs or face demolition. The
policy led to the filing of a recall petition against Parish President Craig
Taffaro by residents Paul Molinary and Bradley Cantrell, both owners of
several properties subject to demolition.

More than 80 property owners have filed for temporary restraining orders
against the parish to halt demolitions, and more than 20 have joined a
lawsuit claiming their homes were demolished without proper cause.

On the other hand are parish residents who rebuilt early and who argue they
have contended with nearby vacant homes for too long.

"Just because they put doors up and they put windows up, it still just sits
there," said Jerry Perry, one of the few returning Buccaneer Villa North
residents, who lives down the street from where the Ruiz house stood. "It's
going on what, four years? It's time to move on."

The most emotionally fraught cases are those involving homes that are
somewhere between the categories of "newly refurbished" and "abandoned
shell." Homeowners have countless reasons for delay: sickness in the family,
unreliable contractors, economic hardship.

"This is a difficult time for the community as a whole, and individuals have
1,000 different reasons for delay," Taffaro said. "At some point, there's a
reality that we all have to face of, 'Am I really going to be able to
rehabilitate this property?' "

Out of the loop

>From parish government's standpoint, the most recent demolitions are near

the end of a long process of condemnation. In January 2008, the Parish
Council approved a list of more than 5,000 properties that were condemned.

How properties got on the list varies: Some had no record of proper building
permits; others were deemed public nuisance properties based on physical

Residents were notified by letter and could appeal the condemnation by
meeting with a three-member citizen panel and showing either the proper
permits, evidence of repairs that met parish housing codes, proof that the
property was tied up in litigation, proof that Road Home money had recently
come through, or evidence that the house had recently been sold.

The committee then forwarded a recommendation to the parish's Office of
Safety and Permits, which decided whether the home would be subject to

That's when the confusion began for many.

Because the three-person panel didn't render a decision at the time of the
hearing, folks like the Ruizes said they were told they'd be notified if
there was a problem. Parish government officials sent notification letters
to them, but they went to the addresses scheduled for demolition -- houses
that were not occupied by those making the appeal.

Had they gotten the letter, Lawrence Ruiz said, he would have retrieved
building supplies that had been delivered to the house and heirlooms stored
in the attic.

Mistaken demolitions

Nolan Estopinal, who owned a house in Arabi and has since moved to Denham
Springs, reported the same problem.

"They never notified me that they were going to tear the house down," said
Estopinal, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the parish and Unified
Recovery Group. "My daughter just happened to pass by and said, 'Hey, they
tore your house down.' "

Taffaro said that if repair work was happening at the houses, the residents
should have received the demolition notifications. Despite the complaints,
Taffaro said, there are only about a dozen known cases of mistaken
demolition, where houses were up to code yet still torn down.

For nuisance properties that remain standing, like the house in the Naquins'
backyard, Taffaro said the parish is aiming to target as many as possible
for demolition before month's end.

Because the FEMA review can take longer for some properties than for others,
Taffaro said, the parish submitted long lists of condemned properties to the
contractor rather than prioritize certain demolitions and risk future

Two weeks ago, Taffaro said the parish was still reviewing about 800
condemned properties. He declined to provide a list of upcoming demolitions,
saying the parish was still reviewing many cases.

When federal demolition dollars get cut off in New Orleans, City Hall
spokesman James Ross said, the city will employ a contractor retained by the
code enforcement office to raze problem properties. Officials also eagerly
await the start of a demolition and slab-removal program through the
Louisiana Land Trust.

Race against the clock

For those still facing the threat of demolition, the pressure is on.

The time crunch has spurred a flurry of last-minute construction and legal
filings. Local newspapers are filled with lawyers' ads offering to seek
restraining orders to halt demolitions.

Until recently, a court order was the only recourse property owners had to
stop parish-ordered demolitions. Letters from the St. Bernard Office of
Safety and Permits said that if no proof of repairs could be submitted to
the parish government, then further requests should be submitted to the 34th
Judicial District Court. Taffaro has since relaxed the policy, asking
property owners to submit construction schedules directly to his office for

He said that despite the complaints about court filings and appeals, there
has been a marked uptick in renovation activity.

"The positive outcome is our community is cleaned up and the people who have
reinvested their time and money and energy into rebuilding are rewarded with
a clean community," Taffaro said.

In the past week, he has created the template for a written agreement
between property owners and the parish government that sets specific
deadlines for completing repairs.

Anthony Chai, a Gretna home renovator who bought and refurbished four other
homes in St. Bernard, got a demolition warning letter four weeks ago about
his Kenneth Drive property in Violet.

He had brought photos and a construction schedule to the three-person
committee. But he didn't have drywall installed in time, meaning the home
did not comply with the parish's minimum housing ordinance.

Short on cash, Chai is pressing ahead with repairs on credit. "All my money
is tied up in these properties, and I'm at a standstill right now getting
money to finish it," Chai said. He's been in Violet every day for the past
month and plans to submit an appeal to Taffaro's office.

His final assessment: "I don't think I'm going to do any more business in
St. Bernard Parish. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

Staff writer Michelle Krupa contributed to this story.

Chris Kirkham can be reached at ckirkham at timespicayune.com or 504.826.3321.

More information about the StBernard mailing list