The Rev. Louis Adams had a dream. His church in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward was going to be a beacon for struggling single mothers, alcoholics and the destitute.
But what used to be Holy Ground Baptist Church is now an empty, muddy lot.
It’s on a block in which only one house remains standing. Empty lots stretch for blocks in every direction. The muddy, post-urban landscape is broken only by weeds, piles of debris or the occasional shell of a house or a FEMA trailer.
“We was ready to move back in here. We was ready to move back in here,” Adams says.
Adams spent most of 2006 trying to get a building permit to repair his church. In October, while he was still negotiating with officials at city hall, a demolition permit was issued and contractors bulldozed his sanctuary.
“Someone was supposed to meet us out here. No one came. We came two days later, our church was completely demolished,” Adams says.
Like most buildings in the Lower Ninth Ward, the Holy Ground Baptist Church was damaged by Katrina and the extensive flooding that followed. Adams says the damage to his church was minor compared with many of his neighbors’ homes.
Adams says he followed the process set up by the city to deal with properties severely damaged by Katrina. He had the building gutted and boarded up as required. He got city inspectors to re-characterize his damage as being less than 50 percent. He submitted pictures, plans and proof of ownership.
City council member Stacey Head says on paper, the procedure set up by the city is a good one. It requires public notice and a hearing before a demolition takes place.
But, she says, the procedure “doesn’t work this way, at all.”
‘Destroying a Treasure’
In 2006 and 2007, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers demolished thousands of severely damaged homes. Now almost two and a half years later, the city has taken over the task. Officials estimate that roughly 20,000 derelict structures remain. Of that group, more than 1,000 are on a list for potential demolition.
Head acknowledges that abandoned, blighted properties remain a huge problem in New Orleans, but she says the process to deal with them right now is too rushed and too chaotic.
For example, a number of properties were put on the list for demolition on the Thursday or Friday before New Year’s Eve, which was a Monday. A public hearing was scheduled for New Year’s Eve day.
“I don’t think that’s very good notice, when you’re talking about demolishing someone’s house and also destroying a treasure that you can never get back,” Head says.
Chanel Debose almost lost such a treasure. Chanel grew up in the Calliope Housing Projects of New Orleans. She went on to Louisiana State University and became a lawyer. In 2001, Chanel and her husband, Stanley, bought a rambling old Victorian in Mid-City for $15,000.
Stanley restored the pine floors, the leaded glass windows and the carved wooden mantels. He built the kitchen cabinets, which now have granite counter tops, from scratch.
Then last year, contractors hired by the city showed up at their house, shut off the gas, clipped the power lines and were getting ready to knock it down.
“What I don’t understand is how do you not inquire? How do you not knock on the door? I just don’t get it. I just don’t get it,” Chanel says.
Chanel convinced the contractors to go away and got her power restored, but their house remains on the city’s demolition list.
Their house flooded during Katrina. They escaped in Stanley’s boat, and their house did suffer some damage. But you’d never know it now. Stanley painted the outside bright yellow and restored the 100-year-old woodwork inside. Bold Afro-centric art adorns their walls.
Understanding the Process
Chanel and Stanley Debose were lucky. They were in their house and were able to stop the demolition.
But more than 100,000 former New Orleaneans who fled after Katrina still haven’t returned. And 10,000 of them are still waiting for state compensation so they can afford to rebuild.
Davida Finger, a staff attorney at the Katrina Clinic at Loyola Law School, has sued the city of New Orleans over the demolition process. Currently, individual adjudication hearings are legally required before demolition, but in practice, they don’t always take place. The suit seeks to bolster compliance with the law to avoid the types of bureaucratic mistakes that nearly cost the Debose family their home.
“Those mistakes were not caught and homes were demolished – structurally sound homes, homes that were being rebuilt,” Finger says.
One common complaint from people who are trying to stop demolitions is that they are unable to get information or help from city hall about the entire process.
Repeated phone calls by NPR to the city’s code enforcement department, which is responsible for demolitions, went unanswered.
Audio link at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18306959