Entries for March, 2007
March 31st, 2007
OK, I can’t come up with a New Orleans Recovery palindrome. I tried my hand at some anagrams though, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Mayor of New Orleans – A sworn loony re fame. Parish Recovery Council – A cyclone: ouch, rivers rip. Unified New Orleans Plan – A serene fill-in. Own up: nada. Army Corps of Engineers – If errors, spongy menace.
Best I could do. I’m no Nabokov.
But down to business now, The Man is Recovery Czar Ed Blakely, The Plans are the ones we’re all too familiar with already, plus the new addition of Blakely’s “It’s not my plan, it’s the people’s plan,” and The Canals, well – if the powers that be don’t start listening to vox clamantis Matt McBride, the unholy waters will flow again and the plans won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.
My initial reaction to Blakely’s announcement of his 17 target zones was, like that of some fellow bloggers who were (as usual) quicker on the uptake than me, optimistic, if guardedly so. It’s reassuring to see a commitment to the severely devastated 9th Ward and New Orleans East, and the distribution of the “Redevelop” and “Renew” areas seems reasonable. And it’s fair of Blakely to observe that New Orleans doesn’t have the best record when it comes to finishing projects, and as nice as it would be to address everything that needs attention immediately, chances are that would lead to nothing getting done at all, anywhere. (That said, it would be worthwhile if Blakely and his Parishwide Recovery Committee would let on which areas are under consideration for Phase 2 and beyond – lots more neighborhoods’ futures hang in the balance, and they deserve some idea of what to expect and when.)
Despite my hope that the announcement means that these 17 zones will see some real action in the near future, my optimism guard, as I mentioned, is up and fully armed. As Library Chronicles points out, the Blakely Plan isn’t much longer on specifics than anything else we’ve seen (and the financing is fishy: notably the “blight bonds” and the unlikely waiver of the requirement of the 10% match for FEMA projects). There’s a general opacity to it that doesn’t augur well if it continues.
A Recovery Czar who says in response to reporters’ inquiries about what development in the 17 zones might look like:
“I have a very clear idea” of how the zones will develop, he said. “Developers make a lot of money by getting those clear ideas early and getting the jump in the game. And that shouldn’t happen in the newspaper. You’re a newspaper reporter, not a developer.”
and a Mayor who follows (not surprisingly) with:
“I don’t want to get into specific dates and specific projects with you guys because I know what you do with that: You come back later and you talk about the things that we haven’t done.”
don’t sound like executors of a “people’s plan.”
And for that matter, I haven’t yet found a comprehensive list of who is serving on the Parishwide Recovery Committee, or when and where their future meetings will be held (I would think their proceedings would fall under the requirements of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law). Also, Blakely has called the UNOP “a critical part of [the] process” (falling somewhat short of explicitly endorsing it – and while we’re on that topic, is the Parishwide Recovery Committee the same as the Parishwide Recovery Council, or is it a pointed snub? I’ve seen it referred to as both), and he seems to invoke it as the basis of calling it “the people’s plan,” but if the UNOP and/or other previous planning efforts are going to be the sum-total of public participation, I’m concerned. Not that I think we need to be put through any more magic-marker-and-red-dot exercises, but the UNOP has its share of woolly bits that could be stretched to fit plenty of interpretations of “the will of the people.” The public deserves comment periods and scrutiny of plan particulars in the media, mainstream- and citizen-varieties. Any developers worth their salt should be able to cope with that.
So, my fingers are crossed that we can get some positive action without more secrecy, otherwise, I’m afraid New Orleans Recovery = CRoWN EVERYONE A LOSER (OK, I cheated on that one – it was just too close to resist).
March 23rd, 2007
Mockingbird, by Bob Hines, United States Fish and Wildlife Service
“The process on how damage percentages is determined is the estimate of the cost of repair compared to the replacement cost of the home, if you had to build it from scratch,” [Robert Evans, Allied American's chief operating officer] said. – The Mississippi Press, 8/14/2006
With all the recent fuss over “rebuilding” vs “compensation” regarding Road Home payments and CDBG regulations, I was surprised to hear yesterday that Phase II of Mississippi’s Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP) is basing its grant calculations on cost to rebuild.
I wrote about the “worst of both worlds” scenario Louisiana’s Road Home Program was facing the other day at Think New Orleans: in a nutshell, the LRA was allegedly told when designing the RHP that they had to cap awards at the pre-Katrina appraised value of the home even if the estimated cost to repair/rebuild was greater, because basing awards on rebuilding costs would make it, aptly enough, a “rebuilding program” and thereby trigger torrents of onerous requirements and regulations. And just lately, HUD “discovered” that the method of Road Home payments constituted a “rebuilding program” as well – maximum burden for the minimum award.
Mississippi’s HAP is using a phased approach: Phase I was for homeowners with homeowners insurance (although not necessarily flood insurance) living outside the pre-Katrina FEMA designated flood zone. Like the Road Home, it also had an ultimate $150,000 cap, and beneath that cap, the upper limit was based on the value of the home – in this case, the insured value of the home, plus 35%. Meaning that, should the damage estimate, determined by the method described above, exceed the insured value of the home (or the appraised value, for that matter), a higher award could be calculated. What exactly is being “compensated” here, that’s not compensable in Louisiana?
Phase II is directed at homeowners with a household income beneath 120% AMI with Hurricane Katrina storm surge damage. The HUD-approved action plan makes no mention of insured or appraised value. This award is capped at $100,000, but up to that amount, the award is based exclusively on the official damage assessment – insured homeowners receiving 100% of the estimate, uninsured receiving 70%. And yet, “In consultation with HUD, and due to the nature and design of the Homeowner Assistance Grant Program, the State has determined through its environmental review that project level actions are categorically excluded and not subject to related laws for Phase II.” No NEPA.
I don’t begrudge Mississippians any additional money they may be awarded via their damage assessments; I also wouldn’t be surprised if the assessments were erratic or out of sync with today’s real costs of rebuilding, as the rest of the Mississippi Press article cited above suggests. But I’d really like to understand why Louisiana can’t have similar latitude for the Road Home. Granted, there are a number of other differences between the programs, some of which may influence which requirements might apply, but on their faces, both states’ programs have very explicit rebuilding components, sometimes favoring rebuilding over relocating, and as far as I can tell, the only difference between “rebuilding” (i.e. triggers-multitudes-of-onerous-regulations) and “compensation” (i.e. you-might-get-some-money-in-this-lifetime) is smoke and mirrors.
Was the LRA Housing Committee really too thick to rephrase their “compensation” package to permit greater consideration of rebuilding costs? Is there some secret catch to Mississippi’s plan that would make its rebuilding-cost “compensatory” provisions unfavorable to Louisianans somehow? Or does the fact that the nebulous nature of CDBGs requires negotiating with HUD, currently headed by Alphonso “heck of a crony” Jackson, mean that our marginally-Blue State will be held to a different standard no matter what we do? Or is it some combintion of all three?
Or am I completely missing the point?
March 21st, 2007
I missed this last year, but surprise, surprise, Bush appointed HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson was found to have “urged staff members to favor friends of President Bush when awarding Department of Housing and Urban Development contracts,” (Washington Post, 8/22/06). This after an anecdote he told at a Real Estate Executive Council forum in Dallas last April, about revoking a contract awarded for “a heck of a proposal” (is “heck of a” a required phrase in Bush Administration circles?) after the chief of the firm said he didn’t like the president (Dallas Business Journal, 5/5/2006).
Alphonso Jackson, Alberto Gonzoles, Michael Brown…
I have to doubt that HUD’s intervention in the Road Home Program at such a late stage was entirely on behalf of the beleaguered citizens of Louisiana.
I wonder whether self-lamed duck Blanco will find a stronger voice regarding “her” Road Home Program (with ICF, HUD, or anyone else) now that the re-election pressure is off, or whether she’ll wilt. Waterfowl can get pretty aggressive when they want to. (Seriously. There was this goose once, on my uncle’s farm…)
March 6th, 2007
photo by Fiona Cooper
A belated hat-tip to Maitri for pointing out that the glowing quotes from Andres Duany about New Orleans being “the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities,” and singing the praises of our music, food and culture are excerpted from a BusinessWeek.com article culminating in the recommendation of
“…an experimental ‘opt-out zone’: areas where one ‘contracts out’ of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing – solving a problem that it created in the first place.”
There’s another name for the sort of “opt-out zone” he’s proposing, and that’s shantytown (he’s not the only one: economist Tyler Cowen explicitly suggests a shantytown reconstruction here). Duany, who is famously prickly about affordable housing (preferring, in true New Urbanist form, fantasies of past “good” poor neighborhoods bustling with Sesame Street-like cheerful activity), has finally announced what sort of decanter he’d like to pour the monoculture of poverty into, but he hasn’t yet proposed where to put it. Probably not in the vicinity of the Cuban-esque Marigny Creole Cottage that inspired his epiphany about New Orleans culture.
Another of Duany’s good-old-days fantasies is that:
“Until recently this [building by one's self, or by barter] was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option,”
forgetting that if one’s home burned down, flooded or collapsed, one was left with nothing, however individually responsible one was. Also forgetting that New Orleans’ building-code history actually pre-dates our Anglo-American period that Duany insists will kill our culture – when the Spanish acquired Louisiana and decided it was a bad idea to keep letting the Vieux Carre burn down every few years.
Could there be less red tape in permitting? Of course. Is building according to safety standards more expensive than not? Naturally. Will debt be hard to bear for those who must rebuild or restore homes that were previously paid off? Afraid so, although it seems like addressing that problem ought to entail putting insurance companies feet to the fire, eliminating the Road Home restriction to awards based on “pre-storm value” rather than real rebuilding costs, and holding the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for its negligence, before throwing up our hands in defeat and suggesting that standards and safety should be considered luxury commodities.
The materials for these new pioneer opt-out homes had better be damn cheap or free (maybe salvaged off of the moldering ruins of abandoned properties – blight and affordable housing, two birds with one stone!), since no lending institution is going to approve even a modest amount for a building with no insurance, which is another item this experimental zone will be opting out of. (And, should another disaster occur, the naysayers who question New Orleans’ “right” to exist in the first place will crow the world’s loudest told-you-so.) Will Entergy turn the gas and lights on with no assurance that the wiring etc. was professionally done? (No doubt it’s more romantically Caribbean to dine by candlelight.)
No insurance also means no legitimate business even if one has the means to start up without a loan. Liability, workers comp, and other forms of insurance required are hardly likely to be obtainable either, let alone business, as opposed to building, permits. But no matter – illegitimate business is full of the plucky New World entrepreneurial spirit, and organized crime already loves “lending” and “insuring.” Maitri wrote that one of her first thoughts on reading about what a well-run Caribbean city we have was “tell this to the families of murder victims whose killers walk the streets due to inefficient government.” A criminal justice system is one of our government “nannies,” and ours is so abysmal right now that faced with an Opt Out Zone, opting out is probably what it would do too.
Maitri explains better than I can how wrong it is to conflate laissez-faire culture with laissez-faire governance – under the latter, the bon temps doesn’t roule so well. But beneath the fawning over the Caribbean value of enjoying quality of life before retirement, sometimes by sacrificing a bigger salary (but not necessarily by not working much, as he implies – someone should remind him of how much laundry gets done on Mondays while those red beans are slowly simmering) laissez-faire economics are what “New Orleans: The Wealthiest City of the Caribbean” is all about. And plenty of lives were just as nasty, brutish and short in the Old Free-For-All Urbanism that the New kind selectively appeals to as they are now (what shall we opt out of next? child labor laws? wouldn’t little chimney sweeps be cute, crawling up the flues of all those gas- and electric-free houses? how retro).
Someone please tell me that The Onion bought BusinessWeek, and a super-star urban planner did not just go down that road, or I’m going to have to opt out of what little sanity I have left.