NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A 7th Ward church pastor fights to keep his property from being seized by the city as frustrated neighbors say it's time to clean up.
The building is a point of contention for residents in the 2400 block of Onzaga Street.
Yvonne Sigur says, "They should fix it to make our neighborhood look kinda decent."
Neighbor Mary Smith adds, "It makes the city look bad."
The building used to house tenants before Hurricane Katrina but the storm caused significant damage. Ten years after Katrina, it still looks run down.
The house belongs to the Mt. Calvalry Church of God in Christ. It sits behind the church building on North Rocheblave. It was willed to the congregation by a former member more than 20 years ago to help generate money for the church.
"They did say that it was a historical property," Pastor Gregory Cummings explained.
Cummings says after the hurricane, the church worked to restore the building, even taking out a loan to do so. But eventually, the cost became too high.
"We found out to restore the roof, the foundation of the house had to be repaired and the foundation would cost $18,000," Cummings said.
While the church couldn't afford all of the necessary repairs, some work was done.
Neighbor Mary Smith says, "They put a front on it, I thought they were going to fix the whole building."
Nearby resident complained about the state of the blighted property to the city's code enforcement department. The city then placed liens on the lot. Pastor Cummings says the congregation tried to raise as much money as possible, but couldn't keep up with construction costs. In April of this year, the city put the property up for auction.
"We didn't understand why our church property and our fellowship hall were in jeopardy of seizure," Cummings said.
A check on the city's code enforcement website reveals an interesting circumstance. 2418 Onzaga, the location of the house, and 1635 North Rocheblave, the church itself, are listed as one property. Cummings says he pleaded with city officials not to take the church and fellowship hall. He says he received a letter from Assistant City Attorney John Hagan. The letter says, "I want to be very clear about this. We are NOT seizing your church. Mt. Calvalry COGIC is the defendant in our lawsuit because it owns the property...but the notice of seizure is only for the property on the corner."
However, an ad appeared on nola.com April 15th, listing both 1635 North Rocheblave and 2418 Onzaga up for auction "It's very distressful when we come here to hold our church services, we don't know from day to day, we're at the threat of being seized," Cummings said.
A spokesperson for the city says although both addresses for the church and house were listed as being up for auction, before bidding, there would have been a legal description that would have clarified only the house was available for sale. But Pastor Cummings says this wasn't made clear to him or members of the congregation. Panicked about the future of their church, they scraped together $3,000, to stop the sheriff's sale. The money came from operating funds for the church.
Cummings says, "It's a tremendous, tremendous struggle."
Even though the church paid to halt the sale, it's only a temporary fix. "According to the letter, we could be re-fined and the process could start over again," the pastor explained.
That's because the city won't allow the structure to sit unfinished. The Landrieu administration is on a massive overhaul of blighted properties, working block by block to clean up what Katrina left behind.
Now, the congregation feels it's hands are tied, without money to fix up the house deemed historic, and not wanting to lose a piece of property, that could've helped fund the mission of the church.
Pastor Cummings says he wants the church to be a good neighbor, and doesn't want the vacant house to attract a criminal element, but with limited funds, he says there's only so much the congregation can do.
The city meanwhile, says the building is still in violation and needs to be in compliance.