Homeowners Bet on Rebuilding New Orleans

Katrina: One Year Later

Some New Orleans homeowners see rebuilding their city as an opportunity to make a profit. Some city residents are "buying up abandoned properties in their neighborhoods, fixing up homes and looking to make a profit on the sale or by renting it out.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, NPR News has produced the series Katrina: Where Did the Money Go? Earlier in the program we heard from the Smith family. They decided they just can't afford to live in New Orleans anymore.

BRAND: Some residents who have returned see a real estate opportunity. They're betting that the New Orleans housing market will heat up.

NPR's Molly Peterson reports.

MOLLY PETERSON reporting:

If you were gauging progress in the Broadmoor neighborhood by sounds, as Maggie Carole(ph) does from her porch on Walmsley Avenue, you'd find it's slow tonight. Just one yard trimmer.

(Soundbite of yard trimmer)

PETERSON: Slower still, considering that Maggie's husband, J.C., is the one out there. But he's working on the lawn next door. The Caroles and another neighboring couple, who still live out of state, bought that house for $40,000. They've gutted it. Maggie says they hope to rent it out in the next year.

Ms. MAGGIE CAROLE (New Orleans Resident): I feel really at peace with the fact that we have this property and we'll have some control over the future with that property. Because there's so many unknowns right now. Nobody really knows what's going on.

PETERSON: She calls the post-Katrina housing market the Wild West. Her street got seven and a half feet of water. And realtor Conrad Abadie says even in the historic neighborhoods where he works, the ones that didn't flood, potential buyers are watchful of the risks.

Mr. CONRAD ABADIE (Realtor): We hold an open house and if we're lucky we get a few people in there and they come in with big question marks on their faces and we spend a lot of time counseling people, trying to help them resolve their unanswered questions. And we feel much more like social workers and psychologists sometimes.

PETERSON: Realtor Val Le Mancy(ph) calls her territory Waterworld: neighborhoods that got the worst of the flooding. She says outsiders who wanted to flip houses, buy cheap and sell quick were scared off.

Ms. VAL LE MANCY (Realtor): They all wanted to come in and buy a few - just mom and pop operations - buy a few houses, come in and flip them. I'm thinking, where are you even going to get a contractor to do the work? For a while there we had a shortage of sheet rock.

PETERSON: That uncertain climate has created an opportunity for locals like Broadmoor resident Virginia Saucy Bernisfather(ph). She and her husband are resourceful veterans of local bureaucracy. To get their own power back after the storm, they knew how to grease the skids.

Ms. VIRGINIA SAUCY BERNISFATHER (New Orleans Resident): We went down to City Hall with four dozen hot doughnuts at 7:45 in the morning, because we heard they gave the assignments for inspections out between 7:30 and 8:30. And at 11:15 we had an inspector and by 11:30 we'd passed.

PETERSON: And once back, they benefited from local intelligence, getting wind of who was back and who wasn't from Ike, the mailman who knows everyone's business. The Bernisfathers jumped at the chance to reinvest in the neighborhood.

Ms. BERNISFATHER: We finished at two and a half year renovation in June of 2005 and it had seven and a half feet of water in it in September of 2005. I mean it was not good. But we knew - we knew this house - a lot of these houses were built knowing where the top of the lake that was here had been. So they built them right.

PETERSON: Realtor Le Mancy says there's not that same confidence in Waterworld.

Ms. LE MANCY: I don't see people coming back.

PETERSON: And she expects a new round of foreclosures to bring a glut of houses into the market soon, especially in the east of the city.

Ms. LE MANCY: It's going to be a bloodbath. There's going to be two houses on the block that are not for sale and everything else will have a for sale sign and you literally bid to the lowest price.

PETERSON: That kind of talk doesn't scare residents of the Claiborne University neighborhood like Blake Hymen(ph). He was already flipping houses before Katrina. Today he's standing in a recent acquisition.

Mr. BLAKE HYMEN (New Orleans Resident): We put the rail up for the spiral staircase.

PETERSON: Hymen bought this house for $100,000. He says he expects to sell it for $375,000 later this year.

Mr. HYMEN: Seeing what has happened uptown, how high those prices have gone, you know, I don't see how people can't look in some of the flooded areas, because I don't know how you can afford some of the other areas.

PETERSON: Hymen points out that his neighborhood is close to everything, including downtown. He admits he was nervous back in January when he bought the first house, but since then he's bought two more. Molly Peterson, NPR News, New Orleans.

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