[StBernard] St. Bernard housing rules pit neighbor against neighbor

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sun Oct 25 11:05:22 EDT 2009

St. Bernard housing rules pit neighbor against neighbor
By Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
October 25, 2009, 5:39AM

In a quiet corner of Arabi, the 7200 block of Success Street has become the
latest battleground over post-Katrina housing in St. Bernard.

On one side is David Jarrell, a landlord seeking a parish permit to rent out
his property. On the other are two neighbors, Christine Roig and Joanna
Ragas, who applied for the permit earlier but have no immediate plans to

Parish regulations prevent two rentals within a limited space, so
technically Jarrell's permit request is invalid. He has since brought the
matter to state court, and the decision is pending before the Parish

"They talk about the free market, " Jarrell said. "Well, this is the exact
opposite of that."

As St. Bernard's real estate market stagnates after the double whammy of
untold destruction and economic recession, concerns about the proliferation
of rentals have prompted homeowners to take block-by-block stands in
subdivisions across the parish. In some cases, residents are using the
parish's own rental ordinance to prevent new rentals near them, using a
provision that prevents more than two new permits within 500 feet.

For many St. Bernardians, the fear of rentals is a gut reaction to the
changes wrought by Katrina. Neighborhoods once filled with generations of
familiar faces have failed to come back, and renters symbolize a new,
transient element.

"It wasn't to keep anyone in particular out, it was to just keep out the
influx of rentals, to the point where all of a sudden it's not a
neighborhood anymore, " said Sandy Farragut, who applied for a rental permit
on Lyndel Drive in Chalmette but has no immediate plans to rent.

But the trend points to shortcomings in the parish's controversial rental
process, which does not require property owners to show proof that the
property is actually being leased and includes no sunset on the rental

Rental policies in St. Bernard have been the subject of two separate federal
court cases. The most recent version, with the 500-foot limits, got the
green light from U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance last fall.

But since her ruling , there have been practical problems with enforcing the
law. Parish administrators don't ask for a lease agreement, meaning those
that receive the permit need not prove that they are actually leasing their
property. Officials say it would be too burdensome to monitor every lease at
every property.

In addition, there's no formal way to revoke a permit for landlords who fail
to maintain their property or are a nuisance to neighbors. And many rentals
fly under the radar, where property owners never apply for permits until
they are reported.

The Parish Council last week tabled several dozen permit requests, citing
problems with the rental law. Some council members and Parish President
Craig Taffaro are considering major revisions.

But because St. Bernard has been under the legal microscope, politicians
have been hesitant to alter the law and face additional lawsuits.

"I don't like the ordinance at all the way it's written," said Earl
Dauterive, the chairman of the parish's Planning Commission, which reviews
reams of permissive use permits before they go to the Parish Council for
final approval. "But I've got to live with it."

In the case on Success Street in Arabi, Jarrell began refurbishing a house
he bought this spring. Before he was done with the renovations, his
next-door neighbor, Christine Roig, had applied for a permissive use permit
-- in essence formal permission to rent her property. Joanna Ragas, a
neighbor on the opposite corner, did the same.

Roig's permit was approved last month, technically preventing Jarrell from
renting out his property. He has already leased out the property, in
violation of parish leasing regulations, and has protested the law at
several recent council meetings.

"You're making it where it's a dice roll, " said Jarrell, a lawyer who works
at the law firm of Sidney Torres III. "I wanted to be here in St. Bernard,
and make St. Bernard a better place. It frustrates me that the parish has a
system that is hurting people like me."

The response has not been receptive.

"You took a chance, by buying a property that was not properly zoned, and
now you're upset because it didn't work out, " Councilman Ray Lauga said

Ragas, the other property owner on the block, defended her permit

"I am going to be looking for a bigger house, because if I expand my family,
I'm going to need a bigger house, " she said. "The ordinance doesn't say
that I have to rent the house within 90 days, 190 days or anything."

The rental fears in St. Bernard are largely the byproduct of a real estate
market in a tailspin.

Even before Katrina, St. Bernard's home values were noticeably lower than
neighboring parishes. Obviously in 2006 those sales prices plummeted, with
abandoned and flooded homes in some cases going for less than half of their
pre-Katrina values.

Average sales prices have continued to increase, but are still below
pre-Katrina levels and are priced much less than homes in Jefferson Parish
or Belle Chasse, according to a recent report commissioned by the Greater
New Orleans Foundation.

What's saddling home values overall in St. Bernard are the massive
differences in the type of properties for sale: some vacant lots, some
abandoned and gutted homes, some completely refurbished ones.

"The sprinkling of homes and shells of varying types makes it difficult to
value, with the result being that St. Bernard is both a discounted market
and a split one where the impacts of the split reduce all values, "
according to the Greater New Orleans Foundation report.

Drive down any block in the parish, and the number of "for sale" signs is
striking. Many houses and lots have sat on the market for more than a year,
and often property owners have no choice but to make up the difference by
renting out property.

The scattershot approach has led to unintended consequences, where neighbors
feel obliged to protect their investments and prevent a backslide of
property values.

"I think that you have more of an ad-hoc reaction to events when you don't
have a plan that guides you - an overarching plan, " said Marco
Cocito-Monoc, director of regional initiatives for the Greater New Orleans

The recently released report from his group points out the real estate
trends, but also urges the parish leadership to be more proactive in
demolishing vacant commercial buildings and homes. The outcome would be a
landscape with more open space, but less overall blight.

Taffaro in the past has run up against opposition to demolitions from some
homeowners, and significant FEMA roadblocks in demolishing commercial

In the near term, Taffaro said there are plans in the works to craft a
rental licensing ordinance that would improve enforcement and verify that
properties with permits are actually being rented.

"If that accomplishes the same goal, then maybe we could look at doing away
with the current ordinance entirely, " Taffaro said.

More information about the StBernard mailing list