June 28th, 2007
Who really holds the keys?
I had to wonder whether it was with deliberate irony that yesterday’s Times Picayune placed the article N.O.’s plan for rebuilding passes Muster with LRA immediately beneath LRA feeds Road Home kitty, with it’s handy inset showing of the approximately $1 billion the state is adding to the Road Home program, $577.5 million is coming from CDBG funds previously slated for infrastructure repairs, and another $50 million was “carved out of other recovery spending areas” by the LRA. (The amount to be doled out for New Orleans rebuilding is $117 million – of the $1.1 billion that “officials” (whoever they are these days) say we need.) Oh, and that doesn’t count the $513 million the LRA now has access to since the 10% match of federal funds requirement was waived – $513 million the LRA had earmarked for parish recovery projects, of which New Orleans was to receive $324 million – so they can sit on it in case the state needs to ante up even more cash to help close the Road Home gap.
Today’s TP editorial, A good faith effort, claims that “repairs to storm-damaged state buildings and construction of a replacement for Charity Hospital in New Orleans,” which were to be paid out of the $577.5 million would be paid out of the state’s budget, but forgive me if I’m skeptical.
What really infuriates me is the nearly blind eye being turned to the source of a sizable chunk of the Road Home gap: insurance underpayment, to the estimate tune of $2.7 billion. To be fair, in May Blanco and Walter Leger recommended that the state pursue claims on the behalf of cheated policyholders – after all, what hope can individuals have suing the colossi piecemeal (the insurance industry is the only other field besides Major League Baseball exempt from antitrust regulation, making the combined insurers a pretty daunting monolith). But it looks like, yet again, insurers have passed the buck to taxpayers, and worse, the state and federal governments have chosen to bleed the programs that are underfunded already. Big surprise.
This is yet another instance of why the entire state and nation should be taking heed of Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s situation. Insurers – property, health, auto, etc. – are as consequence free everywhere as they are here. The number of ways in which the system is scandalously broken is too great for me to digest, but PLEASE check out the Insurance Transparency Project for much more – inspired by, but not exclusive to, Katrina’s insurance aftermath.
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?
August 10th, 2006
Reading Karen’s Who Elected the LRA? post and following its links today, I was surprised to find out (where have I been?) that just as the UNOP is supposed to be administered by the CSO, which is overseen by the NOCSF, which was in turn established by the GNOF to manage $4.5 million in grants to create a planning process (acronym and abbreviation help); the information-gathering and planning of LRA‘s long-term recovery planning initiative, “Louisiana Speaks,” is being funded significantly by the LRA Fund, which was established by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF), and will be administered by the LRA Support Foundation (created separately from the LRA Fund) once it gets its IRS qualification as a charity. (Gasp. I wish I had a flowchart) For now, as far as I can tell, the LRA Fund Committee is holding the purse-strings.
I shouldn’t be surprised, really. A plan is required to release federal relief funding, but little or no funding is given to the creation of a detailed and comprehensive plan. The city/state/parish is left with no alternative but to look to private donors.
What really surprises me (and maybe this shouldn’t either) is that at the bottom of its home page, the LRASF site declares: “The LRA Fund Committee has voluntarily decided to act in a manner consistent with the spirit of Louisiana Open Meetings Laws.” Kudos to the LRAFC for choosing to be open. I mean that. What concerns me though, is that a private organization that holds the linchpin to the disbursement of billions in public funds (and we’ve been seeing how much the planning of the plan can matter with the UNOP) could chose not to. To be fair, Blanco’s executive order establishing the LRA requires “a mechanism for public input and modifications based on such input,” but the UNOP’s “mechanisms for public input” to date have shown how little and dry a bone the public can be thrown.
I don’t want to suggest at all that private foundations with influence on public spending are all necessarily nefarious evil-doers intent on selling the public lock, stock and barrel to their cronies. But they’re not necessarily saints either, any more than politicians are. Our democracy doesn’t survive by the vote alone; it’s founded on checks and balances and public accountability because it’s just plain bad policy to expect people, even good people, to deny their personal interests for the sake of public interest. Whether it’s willful corruption or the slippery slope of “I have a buddy whose company can do that,” it’s just too easy to drift away from the job you’re entrusted to do when no one is watching how you do it.
It’s an awful lot of responsibility without much obligation I can see that’s not self-imposed. We can hope that personal integrity and/or PR help keep things relatively open (or at least “consistent with the spirit of openness”), but I’m a bit shocked that it would be legal not to.
Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the attendant flooding and other related destruction, many parties have deemed a unified, city-wide planning process essential to the recovery of New Orleans. The release of billions of dollars in federal recovery funds, as well as some private grants, depend on the formation of a master plan covering everything from city-wide infrastructure issues to neighborhood-specific projects. Eleven months from Katrina’s landfall, a “Unified New Orleans Plan” is just now beginning to coalesce. In a July 5, 2006 press release, Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the New Orleans City Council and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) announced their agreement to adopt a common plan, to be overseen by the Greater New Orleans Foundation‘s (GNOF) New Orleans Community Support Foundation (NOCSF).
Previous to endorsing the NOCSF’s plan, both the Mayor’s Office and City Council had embarked on comprehensive planning efforts of their own. While the achievements of those efforts to date will not be discarded, to what extent they continue to be funded under the LRA and NOCSF remains to be seen.
In October of 2005, Mayor Nagin established the Bring Back New Orleans Commission (BNOB). BNOB engaged the Philadelphia-based firm Wallace, Roberts & Todd, LLC to develop its action plan. The BNOB plan failed to get the FEMA funding it expected, however. The LRA initially assured its support of BNOB, but subsequently endorsed the NOCSF’s plan. Wallace, Roberts & Todd is not on the NOCSF’s list of their officially endorsed Neighborhood and City-Wide Infrastructure planning teams. According to Architectural Record News, sources close to the LRA say that it’s likely that some elements of the Wallace plan will be retained in whatever the Unified New Orleans Plan proposes.
When FEMA support of BNOB fell through, City Council launched its own enterprise, the New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan (NOLANRP). The Council appointed Paul Lambert (Lambert Advisory, of Miami) and Sheila Danzey (SHEDO, of New Orleans) to manage the recovery strategies of 49 neighborhoods that sustained two or more feet of flooding.
The GNOF was established in 1983 as “a community foundation [...] that derives its funds from gifts provided by its citizens” (About the Foundation). On September 8, 2005, the Rockefeller Foundation announced a grant which would eventually total $3.5 million to the GNOF. The GNOF also contributed $1 million of its own and formed the NOCSF to serve in a fiduciary capacity, overseeing the $4.5 million and the Community Support Organization (CSO) which will administer it. The CSO board will be composed of nine members, whose identities have not been announced at the time of this writing. Of the nine members, one each will be selected by the Mayor’s Office, City Council, the GNOF and the City Planning Commission, and the remaining five are to be selected from each of the City Council districts (the open call for nominees for the district seats has been closed, and candidates are being reviewed).
The GNOF retained the New Orleans-based firm Concordia LLC to create a master plan and to oversee the selection of planning teams that will assist the individual neighborhoods, the wider districts and the city-wide infrastructure efforts. Among other things, the Concordia plan calls for each of New Orleans’ 73 neighborhoods to select from a pre-approved list of professional architects, urban planners and other professionals to assist in their efforts and/or endorse projects already in progress, spearheaded by the BNOB, the Lambert-Danzey group, and by the neighborhood groups themselves over the many months that no other resources were available.
On June 5, 2006, the NOCSF issued a Request for Qualifications for parties interested in participating in their recovery process. A panel composed of one representative of the City Planning Commission and four “nationally recognized planning experts sifted through the 65 applicants to establish the official list endorsed for the Unified New Orleans Plan. Concordia coordinated the selection process, but was not involved as a voting member. The final list was recommended to the board on July 21, 2006:
District or Neighborhood Planning:
- H3 Studio, of St. Louis, MO
- Goody Clancy, of Boston, MA
- ACORN Housing‘s New Orleans, LA branch
- Frederick Schwartz Architects of New York, NY
- EDSA of Columbia, MD
Neighborhood Only Planning:
- EDAW‘s Atlanta, GA branch
- E. Eean McNaughton Architects of New Orleans, LA
- Burk-Kleinpeter of New Orleans, LA
- Williams Architects of New Orleans, LA
- HDR of Omaha, NE and HOK of Tampa, FL
- Duany Plater-Zyberk of Miami, FL
- KL&M of New Orleans, LA and CH Planning of Philadelphia, PA
- NOW, a joint venture between Eskew+Dumez+Ripple of New Orleans, LA, Chan Krieger Sieniewicz of Cambridge, MA and William Morrish of Charlottesville, VA
- Davis Brody Bond of New York, NY
- Torres Design Consortium of New Orleans, LA
- Villavaso and Associates and Henry Consulting of New Orleans, LA
On July 24, 2006, a meeting open to the public was announced by the NOCSF on BayouBuzz.com and on the Unified New Orleans Plan website (but not in the Times-Picayune or other local print, internet or broadcast media), scheduled for July 30,2006. The time and location of 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM at The Pavilion of Two Sisters at City Park were posted at a later date. The agenda for the July 30 meeting is to “begin the process for community members to be involved in the selection of the technical assistance teams of professionals to support them in neighborhood, district and city-wide planning.” Although all 73 neighborhoods are to be involved, the city will be divided into 13 planning districts whose boundaries are to be determined at this meeting. In addition, the criteria for working with the planning teams to be selected are to be established. On August 1, 2006 community members will have the opportunity to view presentations by the NOCSF’s teams in preparation for each districts’ vote on their top three preferred teams. Votes will be accepted until 5:00 PM on Monday, August 7. After the votes are tabulated, the CSO will begin defining scopes and fees for neighborhood projects and assign planning teams to the 13 districts based on the districts’ preferences as well as “capacity and cost,” although what relative weight each of these concerns will be given is not stated.
Controversy has been a constant virtually from the moment Katrina made landfall. Even before in some cases, since issues of land development in economically depressed neighborhoods have invoked impassioned debate for years). What to do about this city’s rampant poverty, and whether the proposed solutions help alleviate its ravages or simply remove the poor have become all the more pressing matters in a post-Katrina landscape.
John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) which was formerly included in the BNOB Commission but whose recommendations were largely rejected, has recently savaged the state of the city’s planning efforts in the Times-Picayune. McIlwain and others from ULI leveled numerous criticisms of the city’s progress in general and the mayor in particular for lack of leadership. ULI’s recommendations to the BNOB Commission had called for drastically reducing the city’s footprint in flooded areas, thus-
intentionally or not-eliminating dozens of traditionally low-income neighborhoods. Tom Murphy, also of ULI, expressed frustration that the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has not used eminent domain aggressively enough to seize privately owned blighted properties to resell. In response to the ULI accusations, City Council President Oliver Thomas observed that ULI made “incorrect assumptions about New Orleans from the outset,” including proposing the elimination of neighborhoods that were not even below sea level. As far back as November 2005, Council member Cynthia Willard complained that the ULI report did not take into account the people who live in New Orleans East.
The City Council has come under some criticism for appointing the Lambert-Danzey without a competitive selection process, as required by the City Charter and the Council’s own bylaws. (Lambert won a contract with the Council in 2004 to review public housing redevelopment plans, having previously advised the Council on Tax Increment Financing options for the HOPE VI Wal-Mart/St. Thomas redevelopment. The Council and the Lambert Group consider Lambert’s role in the post-Katrina effort an extension of the 2004 contract.) The Bureau of Government Research (BGR), which has been the most public critic of the Council’s move, has been singled out itself for lack of impartiality: having been founded originally in opposition to Huey Long, the extent to which it exists to expose corruption as opposed to progressive populism has been questioned.
In a city whose social circles were described as a “small town” long before “small town” became much truer demographically, business relationships, including political and recovery business, have a heavily personal element. The people behind the titles and acronyms are often vested with far more meaning than their organizations’ mission statements, and the nature of many of those players’ interests and alliances is still being teased out.