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Monday, January 24, 2011

New Orleans blight fines go uncollected...

M. Kimball PRC quoted in the full article below:
"If the city is just going to place a fine on a property and do nothing to collect it, there is no encouragement for the property owner either to pay the fine or to bring their property into compliance."

We thought that was exactly what was happening at the corner of Dante & Fig in NorthWest Carrollton. But we've discovered that at least the property has changed hands. Now we're asking what kind of followup takes place when this happens.

In the past there was always a a bit of cursory scrambling after a hearing and then.... same old same old. We're hoping this won't be the case in 2011. But if there is one thing we've learned it's that only followup and exposure gets action. We had similar issues with property on Apricot, but Blight Hearings and fines seem to have caused both the city and the owner to get serious about repairs. The owner on her properties and the city on a leak that made the sidewalk impassible for years. So the process can work and can save properties from being torn down.

Full Article below taken from the Front Page TP January 22, 2011

As Mayor Mitch Landrieu ramps up a campaign to eliminate blight in New Orleans, records show his administration has collected less than 3 percent of nearly $29 million in fines levied since mid-2008 against property owners whose homes and businesses violate local building and heath codes.

The owners of almost 3,300 properties have outstanding fines for failing to comply with laws that require doors and windows to be boarded up, unused swimming pools to be filled and lawns to be tended, data provided by the city show.

Though the fines are supposed to be paid within weeks, only 355 of the properties' owners had paid anything at all through Jan. 14, the data show.

Asked why collections were so low, Jeff Hebert, who oversees blight policy for the Landrieu administration, pointed to the failure of City Hall -- until recently -- to enforce the ultimate penalty against delinquent owners: seizing and selling their properties.

The purpose of fines, he added, is not to rake in cash but to prompt negligent owners to clean up their lots. If they don't, the city should sell the property quickly at a sheriff's sale.

Local and state laws allow the city to sell properties whose owners fail to pay fines or liens after just 30 days. The fines are levied to cover the cost of cutting grass and other cleanup measures, and in some cases can reach $500 a day.

A sale usually can be scheduled within 60 days after a lien is issued, meaning the whole process, from an initial citation to a final sale, could take no longer than four to six months.

The tool was used just seven times during former Mayor Ray Nagin's tenure, which explains why a large number of fines levied before Landrieu took office in May remain unpaid, Hebert said.

"Without the ability for the city to do something with the properties, ... no one has an incentive to pay the fines," he said.

A pair of recent fires, including one that killed eight young people in an abandoned 9th Ward warehouse and another that destroyed a vacant church and adjacent home on Prytania Street, show that fines without enforcement don't prompt owners to bring their properties into compliance.

Despite being cited for structural problems in 2007 and fined $575, the maximum penalty then allowed by law, the warehouse's owner took no corrective action at the building on St. Ferdinand Street, city officials have said.

The same goes for the two-story home next to the church, which was slapped with $15,575 in fines in 2008. New rules enacted in July of that year authorize the city to impose fines of as much as $15,000, plus fees.

A recent study estimated that there are 43,800 blighted properties in New Orleans.

Michelle Kimball, a senior advocate at the Preservation Resource Center, said the city's low collection rate comes as no surprise.

"We're seeing so few of the properties that are going through the process that are coming into compliance," she said. "If the city is just going to place a fine on a property and do nothing to collect it, there is no encouragement for the property owner either to pay the fine or to bring their property into compliance."

Money collected from fines also could be used to beef up the property inspection staff, she said.

Keene Kelley, president of the Garden District Association board, said he felt "totally discouraged and outraged" when he learned about the outstanding fines on the Prytania Street house. Enforcement efforts "could be a lot more effective," he said, adding that fines alone aren't the answer.

"They have to create an automatic opportunity for seizure and sale," he said.

That's exactly what city officials have been working to do, Hebert said.

But so far, sheriff's sales have gotten off to a slow start, according to data provided at last week's BlightStat session, a biweekly public meeting at which officials discuss their efforts to meet Landrieu's goal of eliminating 10,000 nuisance properties by 2014.

Of nearly 750 files reviewed since October, just 63 properties carrying a combined total of almost $550,000 in liens are set for the auction block, according to City Hall.

Hebert blamed delays on the frequent failure of Nagin-era staffers to notify all interested parties of maximum fines and potential sales. The new administration has been working to verify and, in some cases, re-issue notices so the properties can get back into the pipeline, he said.

To meet Landrieu's benchmarks, the pace will have to increase. The administration has set a goal of 1,000 sheriff's sales this year, and the 2011 budget relies on at least $3.75 million in revenue from the transactions to help pay for code enforcement efforts, Hebert said.

Meanwhile, some may see the $27.5 million in outstanding fines as a potential windfall, particularly for a cash-strapped city that recently hiked property taxes and sanitation fees to cover a budget shortfall.

But Hebert said officials "would much rather see the property come into compliance than go collect $30 million" because the value of properly tended homes and commercial buildings far exceeds the cash value of the fines.

Michelle Krupa can be reached at or 504.826.3312.

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