COMMENTARY: NORA’s problems could upend its reputation

Published in City Business

I remember when NORA was a bad word in New Orleans.

For years, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, an agency created by the Legislature in the 1960s to stamp out blight, was considered ineffective and its leaders were sometimes targets of criticism. For example, in 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina, then-NORA director Lisa Mazique was in the news for moving a house to a lot she owned that was too small for the two-story structure.

Since Katrina, the agency’s reputation has greatly improved.

Over the past month, I’ve been writing about post-Katrina neighborhood rebuilding projects involving NORA. The stories appear every Friday on our Web site in a series called “Spotlight on NORA.” In talking to residents for that series, most have had good things to say about NORA.

But NORA is far from being problem-free, and its challenges could undo whatever good will the agency has earned since the storm.

One challenge stems from a state constitutional amendment, approved in 2006, that deals with the taking of private property. NORA has gone to court over the amendment. A 4th Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in favor of NORA when it sought to seize a Clouet Street property deemed to be blighted.

The amendment, according to the court, did not seek to restrict the expropriation of blighted property. But the narrowly tailored ruling did not address other issues about expropriations, making it difficult for NORA to find title insurance companies comfortable with the court’s decision and willing to provide coverage.

It’s a problem that needs to be resolved because while NORA can expropriate properties, it will have a hard time selling them as long as the constitutional questions linger. That’s a major problem in a city that, according to NORA, has 60,000 blighted or abandoned homes.

Securing funding is another huge headache for the federally funded authority. According to NORA officials, the city takes too long to provide reimbursements every year. As a result, NORA contractors, such as appraisers, have had to work on credit until NORA can get city approval for its annual contract, which this year wasn’t signed until August.

Relying on reimbursements also makes it difficult for NORA to expropriate properties using the Quick Take process, which requires NORA to provide cash upfront to pay for appraisals when a lawsuit is filed against a property owner.

The problem is the city won’t provide NORA reimbursements until the city gets its annual allocation of federal community development block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year, HUD didn’t provide the city with the funding until July 31.

Perhaps the way NORA is funded needs to be changed so the agency’s vital work is not slowed down year after year as it waits for reimbursements. I’m not advocating a property tax for Orleans Parish to fund NORA, but that’s one possibility to help the agency’s funding woes.

Regardless of its struggles, NORA has fans.

Take Brad Fortier, president of Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, who had this to say about NORA earlier this month: “I think you cannot write enough good things about what NORA has done as a governmental entity. It has gone against everything I believe about government. It gave me new hope for our city’s future.”

That’s not to say criticism of the agency is extinct.

Last week, Reggie Lawson, coordinator for the Faubourg St. Roch Improvement Association, called NORA shortsighted for issuing a request for development proposals for the 8th Ward and Upper 9th Ward that he said excluded a large portion of the neighborhood.

But even Lawson couldn’t be totally negative about NORA.

“They’ve been very cooperative with us,” he said.