Realtors Hash Out Future of New Orleans' Market

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Residents are allowed to return to every New Orleans neighborhood except the Ninth Ward, which still remains closed. At a meeting of real estate agents outside the city, the ins and outs of selling flooded homes are discussed.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week on MORNING EDITION, we've been listening as the city of New Orleans tries to bring itself back to life. As of today, people are allowed to return to every neighborhood in the city except one. They're permitted to come to places, like this street where I'm walking where you can still see the signs of flooding. A boat rests in the median where water set it down. There's downed power lines here at my feet along with downed trees. And across the street, a marquis left over from the crisis reads `Help us.' Residents are expected only to visit here because countless homes are uninhabitable. And yesterday, Mayor Ray Nagin predicted that in the near future, New Orleans may only return to less than half its former size. Across this area, countless people are making decisions about their own futures, and it's easy to sense the changes under way by dropping in on a meeting of New Orleans-area real estate agents. We found them outside town in a suburb that is trying to reopen for business.

Group of Women: (In unison) Wow!

Unidentified Woman #1: Wow. Isn't that cool?

Group of Women: (In unison) That is good, yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: Getting it off the ground...

Unidentified Woman #2: Having a rally.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...getting everybody going.

INSKEEP: At their weekly meeting in Metairie, about a dozen Realtors are discussing the ins and outs of selling flood-damaged homes.

Unidentified Woman #3: Well, let me tell you, I had a client that did not get that much water. He only got, like, two, three inches in his house. He goes and buys, like, four of these dehumidifiers.

Unidentified Woman #4: Yeah, they're $200 apiece.

Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, yeah! But I told him, I was, like, `For the $800 you spent on these dehumidifiers, you could have paid someone to rip out your Sheetrock. You're gonna end up doing it.' `No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.'

INSKEEP: The Realtors from a company called Keller Williams also trade rumors about the direction of the market.

Unidentified Woman #5: Well, you know, Donald Trump has been buying up everything.

Unidentified Woman #3: I know! I said--when I saw him talking about that...

Unidentified Woman #5: He must know something we don't.

Unidentified Woman #3: ...I was, like, `They ain't never gonna sell that.' And then when I saw his name, I was, like, `Oh, they'll sell that for twice what they worth.'

INSKEEP: To get one perspective on the local economy, we spoke with a Realtor outside. We stood for a while on a porch. We had a view of the grassy levee meant to hold back Lake Pontchartrain. Kelly Trail Zea is a long-time Realtor with casual clothes and long blonde hair. She's back at work after a month as an evacuee.

Ms. KELLY TRAIL ZEA (Realtor): A lot of people have lost their jobs, but on the flip side, a lot of people that haven't come back have created opportunities. If you drive up and down Veterans and West Esplanade, there are signs everywhere. Everybody's hiring. Everybody from coffee shops to appliance shops. I live right by Comeaux Furniture, I can hardly get through there 'cause people are just buying refrigerators and couches just by the truckloads, and they're hiring, you know.

INSKEEP: So how's the real estate market?

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: The real estate market, it's incredibly crazy. It's busy. We have tons of sellers and we have tons of renters. The buyers have been slow to come. And those people that can't afford to buy, they've been having cash sales. That's the people who've been coming in. `Yeah, I'll pay $30,000 more for your house, here's my cash.'

INSKEEP: You said the buyers have been slow in coming...

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: ...but the prices have been going up.

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: How does that make sense?

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: Well, all these sellers that have their house and their houses are high and dry, they think they're sitting on a gold mine. And so they're jacking up their prices 'cause they know people are going to need places to live.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you don't think actually that people who want to sell are going make such a huge profit. They might make some, but...

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: Correct. I do not believe that people are gonna be walking away for anything more, you know, at the most maybe 20 percent of what their property value was pre-Katrina. And then...

INSKEEP: Twenty percent over the property value.

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: Twenty percent over the pre-Katrina appraised price.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Are people conscious of whether it's at sea level, below sea level, above sea level?

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: I don't believe so. I think people are more conscious of what streets flood. In Metairie, we may have Street A that doesn't flood, but Street B does. You know, I don't want to be on Focis or Aris 'cause that street's always going to flood as to where everybody can say, `Oh, my block on Nursery never floods.'

INSKEEP: In this market, who's getting shafted?

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: In this market--well, you have to have money to buy and to rent. There are many people who don't have anything in the bank except what FEMA's given them and the food stamps and the Red Cross trucks that have been out there and the Goodwill clothes that they've gotten. So got to have money to buy and move.

INSKEEP: Like so many people in this area, Kelly Trail Zea has trouble keeping her distance from the business right now. The Realtors at this meeting include a man whose house burned down after the hurricane. His family can't afford to buy and can't find anyplace to rent.

Unidentified Man: I haven't heard from FEMA to let me know if they have a trailer for me or anything like that. And we're living now in a 10-by-15--literally, living in a 10-by-15 room. We're living out of plastic bags, Wal-Mart bags and things like that.

INSKEEP: And Realtor Kelly Trail Zea has found herself with a grim responsibility. She's selling the homes of old friends who've decided they've had enough of New Orleans.

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: (Talking on the phone) Hey, Kristie, it's Kelly. Give me a call when you land. I wanted to see when we could go by your house and check it out. Hope to talk to you soon, bye-bye.

INSKEEP; On this day, she's waiting on one of those friends to come back for the first time since fleeing the storm.

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: I don't think she's seen her house since the storm.

INSKEEP: Oh, no.

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: I have. But...

INSKEEP: What does it look like?

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: The roof is down to the plywood and it caved in--the roof is caved in on the baby's room, so the baby's crib is all full of roof and insulation. It looks like a bomb went off in the house. It's just tough to go in your baby's room and see insulation in the crib.

INSKEEP: Even though the crib was empty at the time, Kelly Trail Zea suspects that news of that child's ruined room added to the dismay that nudged Kristie Villalobos and her husband toward a decision. They're moving permanently to Indiana, the state where they've been staying. They've come back today with their 14-month-old son to start wrapping up their affairs. And Realtor Kelly Trail Zea meets them at a Cuban restaurant where they stopped for lunch.

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible) like that.

Ms. TRAIL ZEA: How you doing, little boy?

Unidentified Woman #6: Hey, Monti(ph).

MONTI: Hey.

Unidentified Woman #6: How are you doing?

MONTI: Good.

INSKEEP: Once the house is repaired, Kristie Villalobos may be able to sell it for about $300,000, likely enough to buy a nicer place in the cheaper Midwestern market. She'll have to leave behind the place where she was born and raised.

Ms. KRISTIE VILLALOBOS: This is the place where I thought my son would grow up with the culture that we grew up with, with the food that we grew up with, with my family that is now dispersed all over the country. My son's probably never going to see either of his great-grandmothers again. He's not going to see any of his cousins, he's not going to see the people who we saw every day. You know, I had him already--I had picked out the school he was going to go to when he was five already, which is underwater now and it's no longer there, you know.

INSKEEP: The Vialobos settle in at a restaurant that was one of their favorites. It's serving only a limited menu in these days after the storm, but they are able to get Cuban steak and plantains. They relax a little while. They don't seem to be in any rush to go see their house, to look over what remains of their old life.

Unidentified Woman #1: OK, babe. I'll see you later tonight.

Unidentified Man: Got everything? Everyone ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #1: Good luck with everything. Bye, Hira (ph), sweetie.

Unidentified Man: Bye.

Unidentified Child: Bye, Connor(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: Say bye.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #1: Yep. I hope so.

MONTAGNE: And you can find complete NPR coverage of Hurricane Katrina at our Web site, npr.org.

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