Talking With the Experts: A Conversation with David Marcello

Professor David Marcello

Welcome to the second portion of yesterday’s interview with New Orleans housing expert David Marcello. In the following conversation, Professor Marcello discusses strategies to curtail blight and encourage racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods:

Harsha Sekar: Like New Orleans, Baltimore faces tremendous problems with urban blight.  There’s a commonly held (yet perhaps unfounded) belief that Charm City contains “more row homes than people.”  True or not, it’s undeniable that blight is a huge problem in Baltimore, and any casual observer driving through one of the city’s more under-resourced neighborhoods could pick up on this in a heartbeat.  What strategies to curtail urban blight have you advocated?  What has worked in New Orleans, and what has failed?

David Marcello: I’ve relentlessly recommended for years that the city employ one of the most conventional weapons in the municipal arsenal: code enforcement. Code Enforcement has been a core function of cities since the 1901 Tenement House Act in New York City. We’ve created an exemplary administrative process in Louisiana for health, housing, and environmental code enforcement hearings that can lead in extreme circumstances to a sheriff’s sale, moving blighted property away from a negligent owner and into the hands of a new, more responsible owner. That transition in ownership takes place in a competitive public auction that shifts the property from one private owner to another without the necessity of intervening public ownership.

This last feature of the recommended “code enforcement” strategy stands in stark contrast to the outcome of an expropriation process, which was for many years the favored strategy of our local redevelopment agency, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, or NORA. I never thought NORA’s strategy of using expropriation as a blight remediation tool had much chance of success. In a city with tens of thousands of blighted properties, expropriation is simply too expensive and too time consuming to get the job done. Even worse, at the end of an expropriation proceeding, you’ve put the blighted property into the hands of a governmental entity that’s then confronted with the challenge of doing something with the property. Far better, I believe, is to use code enforcement as an incentive for people to fix up their own property or, failing that, using sheriff’s sales to move ownership from one private party directly to another, taking intermediate governmental ownership out of the equation.

HS: Both New Orleans and Baltimore are intensely segregated cities, and, as you know, segregated housing has led to segregated neighborhoods, schools, and other public institutions, with devastating consequences for underprivileged, often ethnic minority urban residents.  Do you propose or advocate any ideas to alleviate the crippling reality of residential segregation in New Orleans and other urban areas?

DM: New Orleans certainly has its share of segregated housing problems, but it’s worth noting that this was not historically the way things were in New Orleans, where humble shotgun housing existed in close proximity to grand mansions, providing a mix of income and racial diversity with which other cities were unfamiliar. In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of our humble housing “gentrified” into middle and upper income housing, and that’s certainly fostered greater income and racial segregation of the city’s residents. We should look for ways to diminish that effect by subsidizing rental and rehabilitation programs aimed at putting more of the city’s resource-limited residents into those types of existing housing units.

Our older neighborhoods reflect the diversity of housing structures that were built over many decades or even centuries. We need to restore within those older neighborhoods the income and racial diversity that characterized them in an earlier era. New Orleans had many healthy neighborhoods of mixed-income housing long before that concept took flight in the late 20th Century.

HS: It seems like the hottest new trend in urban planning nowadays are so-called “Mixed-Income Communities,” which, from my understanding, usually emerge as the result of public-private partnerships.  Policy-makers believe that intentionally designed mixed-income neighborhoods are the key to preventing gang violence, blight, and drug abuse, some of the most palpable problems that plagued the public housing projects constructed in the fifties and sixties. New Orleans, Baltimore, and most other major cities have developed such communities and are likely in the process of contracting for more.  How have these developments fared in mitigating the aforementioned problems?  What do you think about this potential new paradigm of urban housing?

DM: I think it’s too early to tell how well or poorly the post-Katrina mixed-income housing developments will fare. We’ll probably see mixed results, with some properties maintaining a balance of mixed incomes while some others acquire a disproportionate share of low-income residents. Still others may be challenged to survive financially, and we’re likely to confront the problem of what to do with a failed multiunit apartment complex.

I don’t feel quite the same level of enthusiasm that some people do for the model of Government as producer of a utopian “City on a Hill.” Here in Louisiana, we’ve seen how badly-managed government programs like The Road Home can first raise and then bitterly disappoint expectations. So when I hear references to “intentionally designed” neighborhoods, I tend to think, “Nice idea for new towns or beachside communities; maybe not so great for New Orleans?” At a charrette held two months after Katrina, I said, “I’d rather see people given some latitude to build back properties on their own initiative, even if it means that some of those properties turn out to be ugly, rather than inflict on this unique city some cookie-cutter pastel-colored vision of ‘our town’.” I still feel that way. What makes New Orleans New Orleans is the rich diversity of its neighborhoods. That’s true not only of its housing stock but also of the diverse cultures nurtured within those neighborhoods.

I would prefer to see Incentives built into the zoning ordinance and housing finance programs that empower individuals to make their own decisions about how to build back New Orleans. I trust this process of “accretion” more than I trust one agency’s single-minded vision of “intentionally redesigned” neighborhoods. We’ll keep our city’s cultural and architectural diversity intact by keeping our diverse residents fully engaged in the rebuilding process.

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