A failed intervention by Blights Out
Facing the sea of 20-50,000 (according to the City’s own estimates) “blighted” homes and businesses in post-Katrina New Orleans, Blights Out had a vision: we would purchase one of these properties and transform it into a community center to generate art and action to challenge gentrification in the historically disinvested Black neighborhood of N. Treme. We decided to purchase a house directly from a homeowner who was struggling with blight and tax liens (fines) levied by the city and whose homes were at risk of reposession and resale on the predatory post-Katrina auction market. We made three such attempts. But each home was found to be mired in a limbo
greater than us.
Each opened a wormhole
onto the failed policies and corruption
that feed the system
of structural community decay...
1201 N. Galvez was the first home. We learned that it was illegally gifted to an individual by a non-profit housing orgainzation. Ownership had been transferred to that non-profit by the City through a program that reposessed homes a mere three years after Katrina left 80% of New Orleans under water. The CEO of the non-profit and the individual they sold it to were members of the same Mardi Gras krewe (social club). After we expressed interest in purchasing it, the individual quickly sold the property for $7,000 to an anonymous shell company that flipped it within days, placing it on the market for $150,000, likely anticipating the impending wave of gentrification that would raise the neighborhood’s market value. I learned that a member of my own family had lived there in the 1970s...
1731 Orleans Avenue was the second home. It is the only one that we were able to view and thus the ‘face’ of this story. Ultimately, the homeowner decided to gift the building to a member of the family. But they soon learned that the land held over $40,000 in debt due to liens. They deemed it too expensive to restore. It was ultimately demolished. The lot where it stood remains empty...
2001 Orleans Avenue was the third and final home. In late 2016, Blights Out agreed on a purchase price of $40,000 (for the house, as well as a vacant lot across the street) with the homeowner, who couldn’t afford to maintain it after Katrina. One week later, we arranged a viewing. We arrived to to find the house gone. The City had demolished it without notice at some point during the prior few days. We decided to purchase the vacant lot where it had stood...
Only to learn that the land bore $90,000 of “unforgiveable” debt (the word used by various city officials) due to accruing blight and tax liens, which would have to be paid on top of the $40,000 to the homeowner. It was too much for us to take on. The land remains “under water”—it, along with Black New Orleans, has been captured in a debtor’s prison.
These experiences revealed the processes and procedures through which bureaucracies foreclose on possibility in rapidly gentrifying New Orleans, a city that once boasted the highest population of Black home owners in the United States. It shattered any lingering naive hopes that disaster capitalism could ever be fought with the tool of private property. It taught us that the land must be liberated. It demands reparations.