Repossession of blighted properties: Landrieu addresses city services, race, and medical care with Ninth Ward and New Orleans East residents

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Residents in New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward expressed concerns to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and city officials about their communities’ lack of resources at a budget meeting last night.

At a standing-room only meeting at the Household of Faith church near the I-10 freeway, 50 people asked questions about the lack of a hospital, blight, lack of community resources like parks and retail, and shuttered high schools in the area.

There was plenty of emotional testimony about the problems being faced, but the most newsworthy exchange came toward the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu directly addressed his race in the context of the city repossessing blighted properties from black property owners who have failed to return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

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Roughly 1,000 people packed the church for the budget hearing last night.

"I want to talk about race," said Landrieu, responding to the testimony at the end of the evening. "You start taking people's homes, people start asking 'why you trying to stop people coming home, Mr.Mitch, looking the way you do' — do I need to say it?"

The crowd murmured support for Landrieu.

"The question is is this about race? Or is about the city?" Landrieu asked. "And when is the day when we start focusing on these properties? Is it now? Is it September? Is it November? Or yesterday?"

The crowd cheered when he said "yesterday."

"I'm just asking, I just want to make sure I heard you," said Landrieu. "Because I promise you as soon as I lay it down, somebody's going to lay it down, and there's going to be a march."

"We got your back, Mitch," shouted several people in the crowd.

The idea of repossessing vacant properties in New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward has been increasingly on council's radar over recent months. At a meeting of the council recovery meeting on June 30, consultant Greg Rigamer told council that of 52,800 New Orleans applicants to the state's Road Home program, 34,921 applicants have closed on their homes and are moving forward, but about 14,000 are showing no sign of progress after having received the money.

"There is a colossal compliance issue in front of us," Rigamer said, urging the council to look into donating out-of-compliance properties to the Louisiana Land Trust.

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First Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse addresses the crowd, watched by Councilman Jon Johnson, Chief Administrative Office Andy Kopplin, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu last night.

Mayor Landrieu demonstrated remarkable communication ability throughout the hearing last night — for example, he offered at one point to stay all night, listening to residents' concerns, and the crowd responded by asking en masse for him to please bring the evening to a close. In the public relations playbook, this seemed to be a new twist on the so-called "Iron Man press conference," where a politician simply responds to questions on a controversial subject until the crowd exhausts itself and goes home. Employed by Landrieu last night, it appeared sincere, as though he were eager to do the crowd a favor. Almost.

More on the testimony and the meeting after the jump.

Councilman Johnson said he understood why so many people had come out to the meeting, stressing that a hospital for the district was the number one priority for New Orleans. There were also concerns about the lack of retail in the district, with the crowd asking for the shuttered Plaza mall to be reopened. "It's a shame that for a lady to buy a pair of stockings, she's got to leave this community in order to do so," said councilman Johnson. "Why should we continue to give money to Jefferson and St. Tammany parish, money that we should keep here in this community?"

Reese Morse told the crowd about council's guiding principles for its "Budgeting for Outcomes" process. "These are not just statements," she told the crowd. "They are missions in city government." For example, the city should be "eager to respond to citizens' requests," she said. Gambit saw a few rolled eyes in the crowd.

Then came time for citizen testimony.

"It would be nice if I could go online and find out what's happening, so I won't be stressed out when nothing is happening out here in New Orleans East," said Johnny Bridges.

Later, New Orleans East resident Brenda Miller told the crowd about an accident involving her son that took place in April. He was badly burned and called an ambulance, which didn’t come in time, she said. “And when I found him, he looked like a piece of burnt barbecue,” she said. “He lost a leg. I’m a taxpayer, I work two jobs, my husband worked three jobs, I don’t owe anybody anything. How come the ambulances aren’t coming out here?

Natasha Dixon said her kids needed somewhere to go, and issued a plea for council to reorganize the New Orleans Recreation District — which is still in disarray.

"We've been considered the armpit of New Orleans," said Charles Phillips. "We'd like to not feel that way." He said spending money on New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward would yield dividends.

Danise Pruitt said she would like to see the rebuilding of Alfred Lawless High Schoool. "I want to send my kids to the school that I graduated from," said Pruitt.

"We want quality of life," said another resident. "When you bring the retail back, make sure it's quality merchandize we're getting. My husband couldn't buy a suit in New Orleans East."

"It boils down to three words, quality of life," said Joyce Chapital. "We're a highly literate group of people in New Orleans East but we feel like we're living in a third world country. It's as if we've been forgotten out here, and yet we're a large portion of the city's tax base. We're not just interested in a Walmart, an Applebees, or a Sam's Club — though we do shop there. We'd like to be considered for a Barnes and Noble."

"We have a lot of crime cameras catching people doing 37 in a 34, but if somebody gets shot, then nobody takes pictures," said another resident. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro applauded at the back of the room.

"Why do you think Jefferson Parish has Macy's?" asked Donald Bacot. "Because it looks good.

"The word that's missing here is respect," said Cynthia Bell. "We haven't gotten any respect in the last five years. We have nothing. We don't have any lemony fresh scent."

Bell said the lack of hospital and ambulance services wasn't funny — giving an example where her niece had an accident on Father's day, and had to wait too long for an ambulance. "People are dying out here," she said. "This is serious."

"Just about every major street in Gentilly is being repaired, but you can count on one hand the streets that are being repaired in this district," said Adrienne Quintal.

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