New Orleans Homeowners Get Say in Demolition

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Residents in New Orleans can now challenge the city before it tears down homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, thanks in part to a recent agreement requiring homeowners be notified before their properties go up for demolition. Ed Gordon discusses the settlement with Tracie Washington, an attorney who has led the fight against the demolitions, particularly in the Lower Ninth ward — one of the hardest-hit areas of the storm.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Residents in New Orleans must be alerted by the city before it tears down homes damaged by Katrina. That, thanks in part to a recent agreement requiring the city to notify homeowners before their properties go up for demolition. Last month, evacuees were outraged after learning some 2,500 buildings were to be demolished whether owners consented or not. The city said that damaged homes posed an imminent threat to the public. A lawsuit was filed to stop the city from proceeding, and last week a Federal Judge approved a settlement to establish a notification system.

Attorney Tracie Washington has been leading the fight against the demolitions, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the worst-hit areas of the storm. She joins us from New Orleans via phone with an update. Tracie, good to have you with us. We appreciate it.

Ms. TRACIE WASHINGTON (Attorney, New Orleans): Thank you so much.

GORDON: Let me ask you, first and foremost, where are you specifically with the negotiation. I understand as of Friday, last week, there was still a bit of negotiation going back and forth.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Yes, basically, on I guess it was January 13th, we entered into a Consent Decree, at least the city did, with regard to notification of property owners concerning whether their homes were on a list prepared by the city, sort of a floating list, sometimes it was, some days it was 5,000 properties, some days it was less, we weren't really sure, but, a notification process of those, for those homeowners concerning whether their property was set to be demolished.

What we had to do, and what we're still working on, is that list of homes that is slated to be demolished and which property owners need to be notified by the city. It broke down into a list of three categories, some homeowners are going to be given seven working days notice, some ten working days notice, and then any and everyone else that the city may designate will have 30 working day notice, prior to any scheduled demolition.

GORDON: We should know that you and many others have really been on the forefront, including in the streets, to have this fight. Are you satisfied with the kind of notification that the city is suggesting? We understand they'll be taking out pages in the local newspapers, and trying to reach as many people possible, but one would have to believe, even after all these months, that many of these people will still be difficult to find.

Ms. WASHINGTON: It is really, really a difficult process, and the city is doing the bare minimum that we could force through negotiation. And with the assistance of the Federal Judge, Martin Feldman, to get them to do that notification, being certified mail, return receipt requested to the last known address that the city has, and the notification through the internet. We're taking, through my law office and through the Advancement Project, a Washington D.C. based organization, we're taking that a step further. We're going to be using several other methods for notification. Number one, Senator Sarbanes, who has a New Orleans agenda, we're going to be using that. Some of the state representatives and council members from that area are going to actually help us find these property owners by their actual addresses now, through resources that they have, that the city would not use, namely FEMA, to find actual, you know, addresses for these folks, so we can send actual notification to these folks, to the extent that we can.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, many of these structures, I think everybody realizes and understands that they're going to have to come down. You entered into this fight with these residents not to save the actual structure, but to give these people a voice, correct?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Exactly. And I think that's been lost on a lot of folks. We've seen a lot of commentary saying why are you trying to save these properties? Why are you trying to save them? The issue is not necessarily saving the properties, because many of the properties are going to have to be demolished, I mean, some of them are simply shells of themselves, but there are personal items, still, that are salvageable. And what a shame it would have been for folks to return to New Orleans, not only not see their homes, but recognize and understand that their personal property, mementos for 30,40 years, are somewhere in a dumpster.

GORDON: Tracie, before we let you go, I want to ask you this, in relation to where you stand with the residents and others that you are representing, obviously, you've gotten one, part one of the battle, and that's the notification, but with demolition still pending, what are the options and will you continue to fight to try to halt it until all are able to, in fact, go in.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, this is just part one, as you said, Ed, of the fight. There is, still, the monitoring process, that's part two. And then, there is the big picture. We still need to work on a comprehensive transition plan. When the properties are gone, these folks have still been asked to return to New Orleans, and they need a place to stay. They need either trailers on their property, or some government assistance to rebuild in those areas.

GORDON: All right.

Ms. WASHINGTON: So, that's, this is just the start of what I anticipate will be a really long battle.

GORDON: All right, attorney Tracie Washington, she works with the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, which represents residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Tracie, thanks very much for joining us, keep us updated.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Thank you so much.

GORDON: All right.

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